Friday, 30 January 2015

The Devil's Burdens

Team number 1
Well I suppose it could have been worse, I could have lost one of them out on the side of a mountain somewhere never to be seen again. The blank looks I received from my dream team when I started talking about contour lines and compass bearings were not promising and the potential of losing one of them did seem quite high but fortunately it was a glorious day with fantastic visibility. I was just hoping that the team was going to be able to cope with the pressure of wearing race number 1…

Leg 1 route
Leg 1

Leg 1 - frozen waterfall
John finished leg 1 strongly for team Lynx Pack and then it was the turn of myself and Bert to head off first of all along the track through the woods out of Strathmiglo and then out on to the side of the hill picking up little tracks that ran long the hillside under the cliffs and rocky outcrops and, contouring gradually upwards, we managed to hit a track that bought us out right on the checkpoint on the spring. From there it was the steep pull up the gulley and then up the grassy slope to the cairn at the top of west Lomond.

Leg 2 goes to the top of West Lomond
The north side of the hill was in shade and pretty chilly
Climbing West Lomond
“On Lomond’s slopes the warlocks grim,
And fairy brownies dances,
Wae unca tales o’auld land syne,
Held Younkers oft entranced”

There are many legends and superstitions surrounding these hills which are the highest summits in Fife, visible from many miles around. The Bunnet stone, Carlin Maggie, John Knox pulpit are to name a few of the landmarks and features dotting the landscape, it is a place where history and legend are intertwined. West Lomond also goes by the less well-known name of “Devil’s Burden” supposedly because it was built by the devil himself, but the race takes its name from the boulder and gravel strewn slopes of West Lomond leading down into Glen Vale which are known as “The Devil’s Burden’s” and which, as legend has it, were formed by the devil dropping his burden of stones during an altercation with the witch, Carlin Maggie. I am sure there is also a scientific/geological explanation for it but I think on balance I prefer this one.

We kept to the south of the slope by-passing the burdens and my sneaky route finding paid off as we popped out onto the path ahead of the other teams who had headed more towards the burdens. We descended into the valley, keeping left and found the path which took us over the open hillside. Turning through a gate we then found the path that took us to the top of the Bishop hill and the next checkpoint bypassing the rough land which on most winter days is extremely boggy but today was frozen solid into ankle twisting ruts and large clumps of frost covered grass, stunning to look at but treacherous to run on in places. I kept hearing little squeaks from Bert which confirmed that his ankles were suffering as much as mine were. I had been pondering what shoe option was best for the occasion – my absolute minimalist zero support Walshes or Bert’s huge clompy Hoka clown shoes. The jury is out on this one although the Hokas are funnier to look at.

Route choices coming off West Lomond
Heading towards Bishop Hill
Reaching the last checkpoint without incident it was now time for the big descent into Kinnesswood and it was at this point I started to hope that all was going well with the team logistics and that someone would have made it to Kinnesswood to take over from us so I was very glad to see Mike at the start line. We were one team member down and so after a bit of faffing at the changeover Bert and I decided that we would just carry on and do leg 3 with Mike. This would have been fine had I not felt distinctly wobbly legged once I turned to go back up the hill and had Mike not shot off up the hill like a scalded cat. Concluding that I was suffering from a bit of a sugar low I wolfed down the biscuit that I had taken from the hotel room that morning and stuffed into my backpack as an afterthought. My swift recovery seemed to suggest that this was a good move and I picked up the pace.
Bert descending over the frozen grass. Still, I guess the beard kept him warm...(C Pete Bracegirdle)
Climbing back up the hill (and looking better than i felt!) (C Pete Bracegirdle)
This leg 3 route is a new addition to the race to alleviate car parking problems that were always an issue at Holl Reservoir and I had recced it on Xmas day so I was fairly confident that it was a route that no one could get lost on, the trail was obvious. It is a very pleasant trail run once the initial climb is over and on such a clear day the views of the East and West Lomond were stunning.

Leg 3 with West Lomond in the background (C Kirsty Archibold)
Leg 4 went over East Lomond
We followed the twisting and turning forest tracks hoping to catch sight of Mike up ahead while avoiding patches of ice on the route and eventually descending into Maspie Den towards the finish line fully expecting to see Mike waiting for us, after all we hadn’t overtaken him, but Geoff was standing there ready to set off on leg 4….and Mike was nowhere to be seen. Had he actually got lost? Had the pressure of wearing race number 1 got to him? Where could he be? Fighting the overwhelming panic that was rising in my chest about what Louisa might do to me if I had allowed some mountain related misfortune to happen to Mike it was out with the mobile phone and Mike was soon located. (How did we manage before mobile phones?) Apparently we had overtaken him and just not noticed. Geoff set off up the hill and managed to claw back some of the time that we had lost in our less than slick changeover while the rest of the team meandered back down into Falkland for soup and tea.
Recovery was aided by beer
The team all professed to have enjoyed the day, probably helped somewhat by the glorious weather. These hill races aren’t nearly so entertaining when it’s horizontal rain or sleet and blowing a hooley. I definitely think we could have made up some time firstly by having a fresh runner on leg 3 to run with Mike rather than having me slowing up proceedings as I plodded laboriously up the hillside and secondly by improving the efficiency at changeovers. The leg 3-4 changeover cost us minutes and even the leg 1-2 changeover wasn’t slick either as we faffed around making sure the incoming runner was given the car keys and the outgoing runners had possession of the punch card. Oh well, I guess its better that than finding the car keys in your pocket when you are on the top of West Lomond and you are expecting your team to drive to the changeover to meet you...

Footnotes: The little poem is attributed to Michael Bruce, known as the "gentle poet of Lochleven" who was born in Kinnesswood in 1746 and is buried in the churchyard there
The legend of the devils burdens and other stories and legends from this part of the country can be found in the booklet "Journeys into a literary landscape" published by The Centre for Stewardship and Falkland Estate