Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Ben Ledi Hill Race, May 2014

My Introduction to Scottish Hill Running

I started running around the streets of Glasgow a couple of years ago in an effort to get a bit fitter. I like to apply for races every few months to give me something to aim at and make sure that I don't tail off in the training. This has largely been road races and I have done numerous 10K races, the Great North Run on Tyneside, Edinburgh's 13km "Kilomathon", last year's Glasgow Great Scottish Run half marathon and most recently The Great Edinburgh Run around a handsome 10 mile course.

I've always enjoyed a day spent out on a Scottish hillside and thought I wasn't too bad at the kinda hurpling down part of any walk up a Munro. After someone bought me Richard Askwith's excellent book on Fell running ("Feet In The Clouds") I fancied a break from the monotony of going around the same Glasgow streets, with a wee run up a hill or two. I bought Susie Allison's "Scottish Trail Running" book to get some ideas for off-road routes and soon learned that, particularly in wet weather, a pair of more knobbly-soled "trail shoes" was a good investment.

So this had taken me around Mugdock Park, up parts of the West Highland Way, to Bar Hill Roman fort near Croy, along the North Esk River in Edzell and up and down hills in the Trossachs. I thought I was ready now to apply for a couple of hill races and found some on the Scottish Hill Racing website. The run up and down Ben Ledi appealed to me as it was a mountain not too far from me in Glasgow (a Corbett just 120ft shy of being a Munro) which I'd never been up before. The 10km race route looked fine as a distance I knew I could easily manage.

Above the clouds on Conic Hill

One problem is that working full time and with three young kids I can't really drive off to the countryside too often to get much practice on decent sized hills. I managed a couple of trips to jog up and down Conic Hill on Loch Lomondside, on the West Highland Way path. The next best thing was trying to do loops round the hill on Gardner Street near my house a couple of times a week. The problem with this, which I later discovered, is that dragging yourself to the top and then giving your legs a wee rest on the descent is not really the same as the 30-40 minute continuous uphill slog of going up a mountain.

Gardner Street, Partick.
Glasgow hill running
As the race day approached I was more nervous than I had been for a while before a race. I really didn't know what I was letting myself in for. Also I have diabetes and some types of sustained exercise has a bigger effect on my blood sugars than others, so this would be my first experiment in glycaemic management on the hills, without the roadside spectators and their proffered jelly babies. I still remember my hypo at the top of Ben Nevis where I abused my friends for trying to give me a Mars bar because "I'm a f****g diabetic, I can't eat that crap".

I always carry enough glucose tablets to get me through a race. I know that after 1 hour of running I need to take about 40g of glucose tablets or sweets. Last year in the Glasgow half marathon their 30 minute delay at the start blew all my running/ insulin timings out and I needed much more than this, giving my final race time a serious kicking that day. So I had to carry my glucometer and sufficient Mars bars and sweets for all eventualities. Once I knew that I needed a wee rucksack I chucked in a map and cagoule in case the weather changed at the top.

Car park for Ben Ledi race
 When the day arrived the organisation was excellent. There was clear signage telling you where to go, a field had been set aside for competitors cars and the route itself was clearly flagged out, making my sensible map-carrying ultimately unnecessary (better to Be Prepared I'd still say). The weather was also co-operating, guaranteeing excellent views from the top. At the start I also bumped into Prasad Prasad, whose name I recognised as a regular winner of hill races up and down Scotland. He and everyone else warming up looked much more as if they knew what they were doing, with many running club T-shirts on display from various corners of Scotland. Also for someone like me used to more mass participation road races, the field of 40 or so runners was smaller than I was used to. It also meant that there was a serious risk of me coming last.

Start line with Ben Ledi summit in the distance

Starting on the forestry roads I was holding my own, going along the type of roads I was used to. A short uphill run through the forest paths was then followed by a gentle downhill kilometer on the forestry roads again, unfortunately meaning having to regain these uphill meters again.

Then the path turned right onto the open hillside and kept going gradually uphill from here to the summit. On this narrower path it was impossible to pass anyone and we all shuffled along at the same tempo. Soon we were all almost at a fast walk/ clamber. Although initially I was managing to break back into a jog on the flatter bits it was soon obvious that a forced march was more the order of the day. Although I was passing hillwalkers regularly I could see that the other runners were beginning to leave me behind.

Other runners becoming dots on the path ahead of me

Looking back down the path towards Loch Venechar
After a couple of false summits I reached the top. My thighs were aching by now but I was still able to enjoy the glorious views. From here on a clear day like today you can see down to Loch Katrine and over to Ben Lomond, Ben Lawers, Stuc a' Chroin and Ben Vorlich.

View from Ben Ledi summit to Loch Lubnaig
I thought that I was not bad at descending and here would get my chance to reel in those that had got ahead of me but as I came over the top the runners which I had sight of a few seconds earlier appeared to have vanished, leaving only a line of fluorescent flags outlining the route for me to follow. I had checked my blood glucose a few times on the way up to see how this type of running affected my diabetes and it wasn't any different to running on the flat, with 40g of glucose tablets being necessary after an hour and seeing me safely to a finishing blood glucose of 6.5mmol/L. (If you are interested in these things 11.5mmol at the start, falling to 10.2 after 30 minutes, 4.2mmol at the summit - one packet Lucozade glucose tablets - 6.5mmol at the end).

Start the descent. Glorious views and flags showing the way
It was a relief to be stressing different muscles in my legs and I enjoyed the descent. As it came down into Stank Glen there were some boggy patches, but mostly an obvious gravel path. My plan to save a bit in my legs to catch people on the way down didn't quite work as one person came past me halfway down, and another caught me almost on the line. The last kilometer was back on the forestry roads and meant I could pick up the pace here.
Descending into Stank Glen
My best 10km time is at 42 minutes, recently I've been nearer 50 minutes and I managed this 10.5km route up and down Ben Ledi in 90 minutes. The last time that I saw Prasad Prasad was at the start line and predictably enough he won the race, in a time of about 57 minutes. In road races I can usually finish just inside the top third, here I was safely in the bottom third. However I had a great day out, everyone was very encouraging, friendly and supportive and I am already looking for another hill to run up.

Profile and route from

It would be remiss of me not to mention the nearby excellent Mhor 84 Motel at Kingshouse, Balquhidder where I had a lovely lunch after I finished.

I have the Glasgow Men's 10K in a week's time (lovely and flat), so after that I'll plan the next one. I would train differently though. If I cannot get onto more hills in training I'd try to have a weekly session on the stairmaster thing in the gym to get my quads a bit more used to it.

However no tick bites, no sprained ankles, lovely weather, gorgeous scenery.


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