A great atmosphere, fantastic terrain, challenging route and some stunning views. Unfortunately it was tarnished by endless queuing at various points during the race. Kind of like being stuck in a traffic jam on a beautiful country road, it was difficult to fully appreciate the experience.
I booked the race many months ago, but with it being such a popular event, even this was too late to get a spot in the first wave. The only wave at that point which had any space was wave 4.
I was still wanting to race and aim for a good time, especially since it was a big points scoring opportunity for the UK OCR League. However, starting in a later wave, I was fully anticipating getting held up at various points.
My wife, Harriet, was doing the "Full Stalker" with me; and my good friend Robert and his family were also running in the same wave, but doing the "Half Stalker". Harriet (although might not openly admit it) was after a quick time as well. Whereas Robert and his family were doing it just for fun; and for the achievement of completing it.
I got off to a great start, and was actually leading the wave for the first km. The initial section was relatively flat, across the grounds of Traquair House, then across a couple incredibly muddy fields. It was the thick, sticky mud that wants to swallow your trainers. My IRocks made short work of it, and I maintained a solid pace of about 4 mins for the first km.
Inevitably, that pace was not to last, and it wasn't long before we caught up with the tail end of wave 3.
Let the Queuing Commence
The hold up in this initial section actually wasn't too bad. The slower competitors were generally very accommodating in letting the quicker runners past, and the path was wide enough to comfortably get round without slowing down too much.
However, the path quickly narrowed and got steeper, which in turn meant that the slower runners got slower and it was more difficult to get past. This then led into the first of many single file, frustratingly slow sections.
This was a pattern which would repeat through a lot of the race. When things opened up a bit, I would run a lot faster than I normally would, partly trying to make up for lost time and partly because I had rested for several minutes while stuck in the queues.
How quickly someone could complete the race became more about how willing you were to go slightly off piste and risk injury, in order to get round someone, rather than how fast or fit you were.
Aside from the Queues
Trying my best to put the issues with the queues to one side for a moment, it was a great course. The views of the line of head torches snaking it's way across and up the hills in front of you were at times spectacular.
The downhill sections were fast and fun (provided you had space to get past people haha). Choice of footwear played a big part in whether you could successfully navigate these sections. My VJ Sport IRocks were in their element, and I was pretty confident of my grip while flying down them. Many people had road running shoes on, and as a result where sliding all over the place.
I did actually see a couple different people sitting with paramedics, I'm assuming due to having a nasty slip while going downhill. I hope it was nothing too serious!
There were also a few river crossings and one more prolonged wade up stream. I actually quite enjoyed these, apart from the queues to get in... (Sorry, couldn't help myself). The water was actually quite refreshing, and nowhere near as cold as that featured in other events I've completed recently.
The longer "full stalker" version of the race featured the infamous scree hill. This was definitely the toughest part of the race. It involved a seemingly never-ending crawl up a very steep scree slope (loose rocks, stones and gravel). It was hard going, and tough on the lower back.
My advice for anyone tackling this is to commit to scrambling on all fours early on, and then just maintain a nice steady, consistent pace until you reach the top. Trying to stand up at various points, or stopping / starting constantly, just wastes too much energy.
In addition to the scree hill, the longer version featured some further steep descents, incredibly muddy sections, a steep descent using ropes, and of course a few more queues :P
The final stretch of 2-3km opened up a bit, and I was able to pick up some speed with more prolonged running. There was a short section on the road through a small part of Inverleithen; and several families were out on the street cheering everyone on which was pretty cool.
Just before the end there was a giant water slide to go down and, you guessed it, another long queue of people waiting for their turn. Standing waiting in a queue for 5mins was a bit of an anti-climax to the race; and the slide itself wasn't actually that slick, so most people were only getting about halfway down before having to stand up and run.
Then finally across the line in a disappointing 2hrs 7mins. Minus the queues and periods of waiting around, I reckon I easily could've been 30mins quicker, which is a bit annoying. However, I appreciate it's not all about the time, and to many people this doesn't matter at all. For example. Robert and his family weren't racing, but still said they had a great time and really enjoyed it. Whereas Harriet echoed my thoughts, and she had gotten pretty frustrated with the queues at various points.
So the moral of the story is book early and pick the right wave for the type of experience you're after. If you're wanting to race then get in wave 1. If you're just looking to make it round and complete it without worrying about time, then choose a later wave.
(I did hear many slower runners make comments or get slightly annoyed about faster runners endless trying to get past them, so it definitely does go both ways in terms of selecting too early or too late a wave)
I would definitely recommend the Mighty Deerstalker, as the terrain and sight of the hundreds of head torches in the hills against the night sky is worth it alone. However, it would be on the premise that you can book early and get in the right wave!