This year was Highland Hill Runners first time sending a team to the Devil’s Burdens. A four leg hill running relay, the first and the last run solo, the middle 2 run in pairs, all on and around the Lomonds of Fife.
Things got off to an inauspicious start. Ryan (leg 4) and me (leg 3) clapped politely as the mass start of leg 1 tore off up the road by the Maspie Burn.
“Did you see Shaun? (leg 1) I missed him.”
“No, he must have been. . .hang on, here he comes.”
Calmly going about his business in one of the portaloos in the start field, Shaun became less calm as he heard a voice shouting 3 2 1 Go! somewhere beyond his plastic walls. He flew up the road, metaphorical toilet roll still stuck in the back of his shorts, elbowing aside any poor vet60s that got in his way.
Until this year, every leg of the Burdens was linear. Cars of anxious hill runners tore around Fife, screeching in and out of villages, terrorising the locals. Now, all legs start and finish in Falkland. It’s disappointing never to have experienced the mobile chaos of previous years, but it has been replaced with a static chaos which can’t be any less potent.
Teams finishing their leg enter the field and run a square around the start pen to the changeover. It takes about 40 seconds. That’s all the warning you get. Pre-run jackets are torn off and cast aside. Cold-handed runners fumble with the zips of their overtrousers before toppling over as they try to peel them off over their shoes. An HBT runner reluctantly sprints away from his hard won place at the head of the toilet queue as his team enters the field, the cruelly ironic stool brown of his vest a blur as he races across the field.
I chuckle smugly to myself, gratefully taking his place at the front of the line. before stepping into the loo and closing the door behind me.
I’m less smug a minute or two later when I emerge to Ryan’s panicked face.
We’re in Ally mate, let’s go!
Fuck. At least I had the foresight to take off my overtrousers.
In an outrageous misallocation of resources, I’m running leg 3 with Rob Sinclair. I spend the first hundred metres muttering apologies and trying to stuff my jacket into my bag.
“Fuck man, shite, sorry, aaaargh!”
“Nae worries man, we’ll just take it steady this first wee bitty aye?”
Rob’s steady is not my steady. No sooner is my jacket safely tucked away than I’m breathing through my ears. Our pace is slower than I’d run for 3 minute intervals, but not by much. Rob keeps chatting away. I get monosyllabic.
“No bad weather after all eh pal?”
We hit the main track to West Lomond and swing right, into a nasty headwind. Rob has many fine qualities, but he’s a shitty windbreak. While he looks ahead to the teams we might be able to catch, it’s all I can do to survive.
And then I get a stitch. Subtle at first. An engine warning light of sorts. You’ve been going too hard sunshine, cool it. Some rough contouring offers a momentary reprieve but before long we’re off the hill and in the woods and trying to run hard along a forestry track and it feels like my guts are about to explode. Rob runs ahead, bobbing along just out of reach like a carrot for a wheezy donkey. Behind, I’m a wincy, stumbly, rasping mess, only fit for the glue factory.
“Here man, hold out the arm on the opposite side and take some deep breaths, it evens out the pressure.”
I’ve no idea if this is true or if Rob made it up because he was bored, but I spend much of the rest of the race jogging along like my arm’s in a splint, my donkey breath somewhere between climax and death.
“Last mile man, love the pain, love the pain.”
I don’t love the pain. Stitch receding, the closing section is my chance to claw back a scrap of flailing, lactate soaked redemption. Fat chance. Rob’s still running with his mouth closed. The end finally comes. Ryan is at least there, ready to go, so that’s something.
We’ll be back in the Kingdom next year, better organised, with more fibre in our diets and Rob on one of the solo legs, ready to conquer the world. That said, on the basis of this year’s showing, maybe it will be best if I just hold the coats.