A few weeks ago I got a bit of a surprise in the form of an email confirming my entry into the Run Balmoral 10k. Why was this a surprise? Well I know I sometimes go a bit mad on the race entry websites, but I definitely hadn’t entered this race! It turned out that Steve had been contacted by the team at Macmillan Cancer Support, the charity we are supporting this year, who had a number of places in the race. A couple of runners had pulled out and no replacements had been found. The deadline to submit the names to the race organisers was fast approaching and without named runners the places would go to waste so they were offering them to us. Without hesitation, Steve agreed and so a late April trip to Balmoral was on the cards.
I had heard about this race, mainly through seeing runners at other races wearing T-shirts saying “The Race With The Hill”. I was intrigued, and when the race pack arrived it also made a lot of mention of The Hill. There were lots of words like “scenic” (translation: hilly!) and the race has, in fact, previously been voted by Runners’ World as the most scenic road race in the country. The pack also makes quite clear that runners should not expect a fast time and should simply enjoy the course. After all my long (and hilly) marathon training runs, I was looking forward to racing over a shorter distance and tackling The Hill to test my fitness, so studied the race pack and formulated a plan.
And that plan was simple: keep the pace fairly steady over the first couple of miles to conserve energy for The Hill, run comfortably to the top then race the second half as hard as I could (with the benefit of some downhill sections!). In short: aim for the biggest negative split ever!
The forecast for Saturday was a bit changeable, however I expected dry conditions by the early afternoon when the race started so plumped for shorts, compression calf sleeves and my Team Macmillan tech Tshirt. I also packed my long compression tights in case I changed my mind and a full change of clothes (including socks and shoes!) just in case of wet weather or wet/muddy underfoot conditions on the trail section of the race.
The later start was also a plus as it gave us plenty of time for the drive north. The only real issue with a 2pm start was eating at the right time. I had my usual porridge for breakfast then before setting off we had a coffee and some toasted fruit loaf at a well-known coffee establishment. The drive itself takes around an hour and a half, even though it’s not actually that far, as the road twists and turns through the Highlands and past the ski centre at Glenshee. The scenery is absolutely stunning, but it’s not a brilliant road to be a passenger on (it would be AWESOME to run though!).
On arrival at the Balmoral estate it was clear right away that this was to be a well organised event. Police and marshals were on hand to direct drivers into the various car parks and right into a space to avoid hunting around – a bit like being at Disney World! There was a bit of a walk down to the race start, but this was quite pleasant and many were treating it as a warm up (or cool down for those who had just completed the 5k event).
As always, the first thing we did when we got to the event village was join a toilet queue and were pleased to find that we could use the toilets by the estate cafe, rather than being forced to use portaloos! We then got ourselves organised to run, put our bag into storage and headed for the start area. I had planned to meet Danielle as we have been chatting a lot lately about work stuff, but had only actually met once back in November (when I think I freaked her out by randomly introducing myself whilst wearing reindeer antlers and a flashing nose. As you do!) but thanks to the vagaries of the mobile phone signal north of the central belt, I hadn’t yet received her message. Certain I would be able to find her later, I concentrated instead on finding a reasonable starting position among the crowds.
I hadn’t really thought about how busy this race would be, but as I snaked through the crowds to find a spot between the 50 and 55 minute start markers (with a 10k pb of 53:22, my estimated finishing time for this one was about 55 minutes), I realised that the first couple of miles would likely be quite tight. I also knew that a lot of runners would start to drop off a bit on The Hill so as I shuffled towards the start line I decided there was no point in worrying about it, just go with the flow and run my own race.
The first couple of miles were on flat tarmac path and, as expected, were rather tight and crowded. Lots of people had clearly been a bit ambitious in where they had lined up and it wasn’t always easy to get past. I was conscious that I was running slightly slower than I would like, but I was also convinced that weeks of marathon training over hilly routes was going to ultimately give me an advantage as the race progressed.
Around the 2.25 mile mark the course turned to the left onto woodland trail and there were lots of signs advising walkers to keep left and runners to keep right.
It was The Hill!
Almost immediately, people veered to the left to start walking. Already? I thought. Are they not even going to run a bit? Given that I had run both of the first two miles at around 8:40-8:45 per mile, I could only assume that these people had gone out way too fast if they were going to walk already. Ok, it was a hill and it was going to take us to about the 3 mile marker, but it wasn’t THAT steep! One of my staple training runs had me running steadily uphill for around 3 miles so I was certainly ready for this one. I fell into position with the runners, got into my rhythm and ploughed on.
Sure enough, the further we went, the more people stopped to walk. Most obeyed the direction to move to the left, but I’ll admit I did get rather grumpy with one guy. He ran past me on my right, cut in front of me and immediately stopped so that I inevitably ran into him. All I could do was berate him for not being on the left to walk. He claimed he was trying, but I don’t think that excuses him for stopping directly in front of me so that I had no chance of avoiding him, particularly when he had just overtaken me! However I left it at that, put it out of my mind and kept on going.
As we approached the top of the hill I could hear the piper positioned at the summit, then a sign came into view declaring that we had reached the top. Thanks to my hill training, I ran strongly off the top of the hill and began to speed up as we came down the other side, a longer and more gradual descent than the ascent I had just completed. I noted that I had taken 28:xx to reach the 5k mark so I would need to be faster in the second half to get in around my estimated 55 minutes. Time to go for it!
As I ran speedily downhill I was glad that I had finally learned how to do this properly as in the past I would have been so scared of falling over that I would have been putting the brakes on. Instead, I was leaning forward, extending my stride a little and using my arms as balance. My foot actually did slip slightly at one point but I immediately controlled it and kept my balance. I was starting to pass people and ran right through the water station without slowing as I was carrying my own bottle and didn’t want to break my stride.
There were a couple of further short uphill sections, but the momentum of the downhill sections carried me up these. I felt brilliant – really fast and strong – so much so that when we rejoined the tarmac for the last mile or so I got a bit carried away and was merrily high-fiving small children standing with hands eagerly stretched out. The crowds were calling out encouragement to the runners and I could hear people cheering and saying how well we were doing. I was still passing people (mainly men, who generally didn’t look too pleased!) and although my legs were starting to feel a little jelly-like, there was no way I was going to slow down now.
As I rounded the final corner I saw the Macmillan banner and got a huge cheer from the team there. I waved and smiled before turning my attention to the last 200 metres or so to the finish gantry. I saw Steve off to the right shouting to me and encouraging me to dig in for the last bit (which I was!) and pushed the pace on a bit all the way to the line, where I stopped my Garmin to see how close I was to my 55 minute estimate…
Checking back through my splits, it seemed that I really had gone for it over the second half of the race: 8:05, 7:54, 7:44 and then the last 0.2 at 7:22 per mile! Not only a negative split, but I had gotten progressively faster, which is ideal. My official time came out as 53:45, which is just 23 seconds slower than my current PB which I set at the Glasgow Women’s 10k last year. Since I’m returning to this race again shortly, I now have my eye firmly on chasing down a new PB!
Thrilled to bits at running such a fast time over a race where I was advised not to expect a fast time, I made my way through the finish area to collect my medal, tech T-shirt and bottle of water before heading off to find Steve for some photos.
Checking my phone, I discovered that Danielle had sent a message before the race. So as not to seem rude, I replied letting her know that I was finished and would keep an eye out for her, then made my way towards the finish line to watch runners coming in. I spotted Danielle and gave her a shout then, luckily, was able to track her down for a proper chat. I introduced her to Steve and we met her husband Pat who was keen to find out a bit more about marathon training as he is considering signing up to his first 26.2.
Aside from a blogging and work connection, Danielle and I have also been part of the Around the World Running Blog Relay (ATWRBR2014) over the last couple of months so we made sure to get a photo both for our blogs and Kyla’s ATWRBR2014 blog updates.
Danielle and Pat were in the same car park as us so we walked back together and found plenty to talk about (well, runners always do and English teachers who are runners will never be short of conversation!). We also shared our mutual distrust of the rather “bouncy” footbridge we had to cross which featured a slightly disturbing sign indicating that its maximum load was 25 people – eek!
Having said our goodbyes, we were soon back on the road. Not having eaten since mid-morning, Steve and I decided to stop at Braemar a few miles down the road for something to eat. We found a nice café and I ordered a rather delicious bacon roll and a cup of tea, which were both served on a tartan tablecloth – yup, we were still in the Highlands! The café was full of people on their way back from the race so they were doing a roaring trade in post-race food and chatting to runners.
After that, the journey home was not quite so enjoyable as the way up. The weather had become murky and foggy so we couldn’t see any of the scenery we had found so stunning on the way up. We were tired from both the race and the journey so by the time we got home a bit of a lie down and a snooze was in order before sorting out something else to eat.
Later that evening the times were posted on the race website and I was pretty pleased with my stats:
37th/284 in my category
Putting me pleasingly high in the overall standings. If you’d told me that a couple of years ago, I would never have believed you!
Overall, this was a fantastic event which I would highly recommend taking part in if you get the chance and I’m very grateful to Macmillan for giving us the places. Organisation was superb, there was secure bag storage, everyone was very friendly and there was a great medal and T-shirt. The Hill presents a challenge, but one I was more than ready to take on, and the course itself is brilliant through some beautiful roads and trails around the spectacular estate. The event itself also offers something for everyone over the two days with primary and secondary school races, a 5k, 10k, 15 mile trail race and shorter 3 mile “wee trail race”. There’s also plenty for spectators to do in the event village and, if nothing else, the estate offers a beautiful venue for a picnic. A big thumbs up from me!