Friday, 27 March 2015

Criffel Hill Race

I suppose I was still flushed with the smell of success the day after the D33 so when a chum suggested that Andy B and I take part in the local Criffel Hill race it seemed like a smashing idea.
Fast forward 7 days and I'm the Village of New Abbey with a gaggle of wraith-like hill runners signing up to tackle the 6 or so miles and 569 metres of ascent and descent.
I realised this wasn't going to be a walk in the park when one of my Lockerbie workmates Eddie, himself a seasoned, competent and quick (but still wraith-like) hill runner said "Oh Criffel Hill race, that's quite a tough one, I've always avoided it".

Having taken the precaution of introducing myself to the sweeper runner just in case, at precisely 1 pm, the air hooter failed to sound and the field of 50 was off.
One of the less muddy bits!
The first half mile is on a single track tarmac road which allows the field to thin out with a further half mile on good single track trail with a gradual runnable rise  before you hit the slopes of Knockendoch Hill proper. You're then faced with a brutal, thigh burning, lung bursting straight line assault of 350 metres vertical climb in 1 mile. To compound this pleasure the ground underfoot is a mixture of mud, tussock grass and more mud interspersed with protruding lumps of granite.
I'm not talking here about puddles of mud, this is premier league mud, up to mid calf deep and capable of swallowing unwary small children.

I knew I was quite well back in the field and although I passed a couple of runners I was in turn passed by two other runners, an older gent who looked like Gollum in shorts and a lady who looked completely unfazed at either slope or mud.
Criffel and Knockendoch  at 569 m and 443 m respectively are joined by a saddle about 1500 m long and irrespective of weather conditions on the ground it's always blowing a hoolie on the tops. I've climbed Criffel on a beautiful warm windless summer day and barely been able to stand upright with the wind on the top. True to form as I neared the summit of Knockendoch the wind picked up, the cloud came down, temperature plummeted and visibility dropped to 15-20 metres. Shouting out my race number to the Mountain Rescue guys huddled at the cairn I rapidly tried to transition my legs from climbing to running but somewhere in the last 20 minutes the running fairies seem to have swapped my finely tuned ultra legs for a pair of Stretch Armstrong rubber ones. Coupled with blinding sweat and cloud in my eyes, I was literally running blind and whilst the mud wasn't as bad on this section there were still deep patches to snare the inattentive runner.

Coming across the saddle and tackling the last climb to Criffel itself the faster returning runners appeared out of the mist, pretty much all charging downhill with the "I've switched of my brain and I'm not worried about falling" attitude that characterises the breed. I didn't feel I was too far behind the main pack but knew that gap would open up with my more cautious life preserving approach to throwing myself down a steep hill.

Andy 22nd place in 72:31 enjoying the mud
With visibility even poorer on Criffel the summit cairn suddenly appeared, check in with the Mountain Rescue guys and it's back on the return leg. In fact I'm chasing vague shapes through the cloud as although there a well defined path , poor visibility could easily send you off course. Quickly back over to Knockendoch shouting  an apology to DRC race organiser Ranjit Thomas who was running near me for the full range of Ainslie sound effects, puffs, grunts, curses and obscenities I was subjecting him to and the descending proper starts.
I'm afraid my self preservation instincts kick in at this point, I've a choice of a headlong reckless descent and damn the consequences or take it easy and avoid face planting a granite rock... I choose the latter and several pairs of 1970s style shorts pass me on the downhill.
On one particularly gloopy section my right leg sinks in to just below my knee, I use my momentum to keep moving forward but like a big muddy Cinderella I leave my Speedcross shoe behind, plugged deep in the mud. With no Prince Charming in sight I backtrack, plonk my butt on a rock and plunge my arm into the mire to retrieve the missing muddy glass slipper. I can't even budge the damn thing it's properly buried. After a minute of slimy tug of war, Mother Nature surrenders my shoe, I pull my laces extra tight and set off downhill again, by now I've lost sight of anyone in front, but equally I can't see anyone behind me. Leaving the mud and the steeper slope behind you're back onto dry runnable trail again, a quick photo and a shout out from Alan McKean and I trying to get my smashed descending legs back into running mode, with distinctly indifferent results.

Still smiling after the race
 On the tarmac I'm convinced I can hear someone behind me, in reality it's the extra noise my mud drenched shoes are making, sprint(ish) finish and I'm over the line in 81:44, 41st out of 51 runners.
49 minutes for the outward leg and 33 for the return, not quite last but not far off it, mud caked, knackered, sore and grinning like a Cheshire Cat. What a mad race, what a mad hobby!
I'm even singled out for a special prize "First guy to completely lose his shoe In the mud", but then everyone was a winner as there was enough beer for everyone who'd stayed for the prize giving to get a bottle.
Hill running is definitely a specialist discipline within the sport of running, without being big headed I'm pretty fit, good on trails and not too shabby (for my age) on tarmac, but on both my hill races this year I've been in the last 20% of the field.
Having said all that I'd definitely do the race again and it won't put me off doing other hill races, neither Andy or I could stop smiling afterwards, great fun but totally mad.



  1. Great write up and great pictures. Sheer madness!

  2. Dear Keith,

    Our school garden project at Gracefield is progressing well and we have the derelict land brought back to life. We have vegetable plots organised and we have dozens of seeds growing in our recycled poly tunnel at the back of the school waiting to be planted out in the coming weeks.

    Would it be possible for you to help us by providing some timber to create raised beds, to make a pergola and/or an arch and to make decorative planters to be placed at the front of the school. I think the best form of timber would be 4 by 2 planks which could be cut to length to allow pupils to create the finished product. Naturally we would ensure maximum publicity in the Standard and the Courier and perhaps could attach labels to let the wider public know who has donated this timber.

    Please don't hesitate to get back in touch with me once you have recovered from your run at the Highland Fling!


    PS I will be a relay support driver and hope to cheer you on at various points on route......