The Carnethy 5 race in the Pentland Hills looked like the perfect introduction to fell racing. And it would have been if there hadn’t been a raging blizzard and minus 15 windchill factor!
I’ve run a lot of trail races now and really enjoy being off-road and getting to grips with some gradient. But quite a bit of my training is in fact off-path around Peebles, as there are so many great hills to explore and different routes to take. So the time was fast approaching when I would have to be brave and enter a fell race, and the Carnethy 5 in the Pentlands caught my eye. It’s run by the Carnethy running club and both are named for Carnethy Hill, the fifth of five summits that the six mile course takes you over. The race seemed to have a lot of history, as does fell running as a sport, and 2017 would be its 47th year.
I suppose when entering a race in the hills in February I should have expected some inclement weather, but I am ever an optimist, and had visions of long strides over the tops in the winter sunshine (or something like that). So when I checked the forecast in the week before the race and saw heavy rain and snow predicted all day on the Saturday, with winds gusting up to 40 mph, I was a little perturbed but wondered if it all might blow itself away somehow. The day before was absolutely beautiful, with snow on the fells and glorious sunshine, and inevitably led to some spur-of-the-moment Friday leave-taking and a trip up north to go splitboarding. Not the greatest preparation for the legs for a race the next day but never mind!
Saturday dawned just as disgusting as forecast, with rain and sleet hammering on the windows. Ed looked at me aghast when I said that I thought I would go up to the start anyway, just to see if anyone else had turned up. It turns out that I shouldn’t have underestimated the fellrunning community – when I got to the registration I discovered that 500 people had turned out in this weather to run the race, and I felt ashamed to have thought of staying in bed! The organisers were even having to work quite hard to enforce the ‘leggings and long sleeves as a minimum’ rule, with some runners still keen to wear shorts.
We were bussed to the start which was a soggy field by the A702, where happily a couple of marquees had been erected for us all to hide in whilst everyone gathered. There was even a brave bagpiper in his flapping cape and kilt, cheering us all up with some windswept tunes. Eventually we had to leave the down jackets behind and head out into the driving snow to the start line. I’d never really thought about having to run a race wearing so much kit! As well as my cosy FINDRA merino t-shirt and long-sleeve top and my windproof leggings, I was also bundled up in a hat, neckwarmer, gloves and full hiking waterproof jacket with the hood up – and was just about warm enough. I even had half a thought about how nice it would be to run in goggles to keep the snow from blasting in my eyes!
After the gun fired, there was a breathless sprint across the rough grass and bog to the first gate and a jostling for places on the singletrack to follow. Any thoughts of trying to keep dry feet were quickly lost in the swamp and snow-covered grass. The first climb loomed – steeply up to the top of Scald Law at 579m. Here’s where fell racing differs from the other trail races I have done – the pace of the general pack slowed to a fast-paced walk up the steep packed snow. Hands on knees I stomped up as fast as I could, but the pace was moderated by the single file route up easier ground – any overtaking was a difficult scramble over the heather either side. We came out onto the first shoulder and continued up towards the top – the snow was packed to slidy ice where others had been before and I was glad of my fell shoes to get some kind of grip. As we came out onto the summit you could feel the full force of the wind and it was hard to stay on your feet.
Head down, hands shielding my eyes from the blasting snow, I headed along the ridge in the snow towards South Black Hill. The wind had scoured some areas down to the icy ground; elsewhere the snow had filled in up to a foot deep which made for unpredictable foot placements as to how far you were going to sink in! Rounding the top of South Black Hill I felt very sorry and grateful for the hardy marshals and Tweed Valley Mountain Rescue Team who had given up their time to stand in freezing blizzard conditions trying to keep us on track and safe.
Up next were two short climbs over the Kips, which on a good day are very shapely summits but today could only just been seen looming out of the mist and snow. From the top of West Kip we dropped down steeply to the north en route for The Howe. Descending at speed on unpredictable ground is definitely a part of my race that I need to improve as I was overtaken by some folks with much better foot placements than myself. Part of it is the ability to just not think about falling over and keep going I think! The last section down very steep snow-covered grass to The Howe was almost impossible to do without falling and several people opted for the ‘sledging’ option which was quicker but wetter!
From the brief respite of The Howe the route turned straight up Carnethy Hill and climbed a steep gully to the top. Again, it was walking pace, eyes on the trainers in front and trying not to slip whilst looking for opportunities to overtake. At last we were on the top and again were driven sideways by the force of the wind – trying to circumnavigate the summit cairn I was blasted wide across the ice-covered rock until I managed to get purchase in the heather and stumble back on course. The route had a final trick up its sleeve: the descent from Carnethy Hill back to the valley. This was a super steep slope of heather, which at this stage in the race had been stripped of all foliage and was a load of slippery stalks covered in snow – and therefore not totally viable for Marions to run down with any sense of style. Somehow I slithered my way to the bottom and back into the bog where a final sprint brought me through the finish flags and to the end of the race.
Days like this are perversely enjoyable – battling through the snow and into the roaring wind, in the company of fellow lunatics – as long as you’ve made the right kit choice you can stay warm enough and there’s huge satisfaction in making it to the end (and the glory of that change of clothes and down jacket). I was happy to finish (just to finish, really!) and in the top half of the women’s race, and hugely impressed with the winning times – I’ve got some work to do on my fell running skills!
The excellent organisation that had gone into the race didn’t stop at the gnarly marshals and piper in the field, as a hot meal and cups of tea awaited us back at the school – and the chance to chat to other runners at what was a highly sociable event. At the prize-giving I also got a real sense of this history of the race, with some fellow competitors receiving quaichs for having taken part 21 times! Something to aim for? I’ll definitely be back!
Images courtesy of carnethy.com and Katrina Johnstone (the welovemountains.net photographer strangely stayed in bed!).
And thanks to FINDRA for keeping me warm on race day!