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Seven Hills of Edinburgh 2022

On Sunday, 19th June 2022, I did something I had not done in about 13 years, I started a race. That is a proper race with entry fee and pining a number to my chest, rather than a parkrun.

The last time I did the seven hills race was in 2008 and it pretty much broke me. I ended up with cramp in both legs brining me to my knees in the middle of Holyrood Park on my way to the finish at the top of Calton Hill. That evening I met up with other members of the university running club in a pub around the corner from my flat (most had attended another race - only two of us were mad enough to do the seven hills). If they had picked any other pub, I probably would not have gone, but considering how close it was to my flat, I felt I should show up. I ended up wedged into a corner and only having the one drink, mostly so I could avoid walking down the stairs to the toilet.

This time, I was not any better prepared. While I had ran about 20km in a couple of training runs before hand, I hadn’t really trained for the race, but just doing the regular runs with the RTC Warriors two evenings a week for just over 6 months.

The Start

As I sat on the top of Calton Hill, I got really nervous again. I really hadn’t prepared properly for this. I definitely felt like a fraud. My main concern was to get round in a decent time and not become a burden on others.

I watched "the challenge" set off and I wasn't completely convinced that I deserved to be in "the race" which sets off half an hour later than the challenge. Soon enough it was our turn.

As soon as the race started, I felt great. I purposefully took it easy getting down the stairs off Calton Hill, but soon started feeling frustrated as we slowly progressed across North Bridge, stuck behind a bus. While it was frustrating and seemed to take ages , it really didn't last long and we were making our way up the royal mile, past lots of confused tourists, towards the castle. Now the real work starts.

Castle to Corstorphine

While the castle is one of the seven hills, it doesn't really feel like a proper one. Whereas the other checkpoints are at the top of their respective hills, the castle checkpoint is actually about halfway down the stairs between the castle esplanade and Johnston Terrace and there is no trail running involved at all.

As I made my way down Johnston Terrace, I felt like the warmup was over and the real race had begun. I was conscious that I was running at a fairly fast pace (for me) but I felt good and wanted to go with the flow. I may come to regret going off too fast, but I was having fun all the same. As we headed down and through Haymarket the field started to thin out, though there were still plenty of others (no chance of getting lost yet).

After crossing the Water of Leith, there was a choice of routs to get from Corstorphine Road up to Ravelston Dykes Road on the way up to Corstorphine hill. Most folk seemed to take one of the earlier roads, but I had decided to use Murrayfield Road. I wasn't the only one using this road but it certainly got much quieter. Once we had climbed the first part of the hill and re-joined with others on Ravelston Dykes, it was noticeable how much the field had thinned again.

We continued up the track that goes through the golf course and the smooth tarmac gave way to trails. Just as we left the main track and started using narrow twisty footpaths, I realised that a decent gap had formed between me and the runner in front of me.

Before the event I had spent a fair bit of time researching routes around the city. Most of the course is easy to scout using Google maps and street view. Unfortunately street view is not available on all the small paths that go up these hills. It was particularly difficult to plan for any areas under tree cover because I couldn't even see the paths on satellite images. I was not confident in my ability to navigate around Corstorphine Hill on my own.

I put on a bit of a burst of speed to keep up with the runner in front of me and made sure to stick with them or some other runner until we were back on the main roads.

Corstorphine to Craiglockhart

Descending through the Corstorphine Hill woods was "fun" in that "I really hope I don't hurt myself here" sort of way. I had no idea which route I was taking, just following the guy in front. His route choice was probably one of the most optimal in the "going in a straight line" sense, however it did involve jumping off an approximate 1.5m high retaining wall. I may come to regret that jump. I was relieved when we exited the woods and started descending a residential street.

Near the top of the street, a local lady was shouting support, then asked where we were going next. A breathless chorus of "Craiglockhart" came back from those of us that were still able to respond. Her response:

Wow, that is a long way

"Yea" I thought. And that is still only the first half.

I let my legs run freely down the steep residential street, slightly worried that I might be overtaxing my legs. At the same time, slowing myself down could also lead to higher loads on my legs, and also lead to injury. Again I may regret this, but went with the flow and sped down the hill as fast as my legs would take me.

When crossing Corstorphine road, I noticed that I had caught up with the tail end of the Challenge runners. From now on, there would be a constant mix of challenge and race runners going round together. The rest of the way to Craiglockhart was pretty uneventful. Just grinding out extra kilometres on the roads.

Once at the foot of Craiglockhart, round the back of the leisure centre, is one of the main course choices to make. Do you follow the path around and up the stairs (adding an extra half kilometre distance) or go crazy and climb directly up the steep dirt slope in the woods.

Of course I went for the mad option and dove through the gap in the vegetation to start to climb the hill. As is traditional, some kind person had left a rope attached to one of the trees near the top of the steep part to aid with the climb. I took my place on the queue of runners attempting the climb.

And I soon got frustrated.

I seemed to be able to climb better than a lot of my fellow runners and found queuing on the rope was taking an annoying length of time. On top of that, when all the runners pulled at the same time, the rope stretched an alarming amount. The thought of it snapping briefly crossed my mind before I dismissed it as being ridiculous. It is a common part of the event and would be fine. I found out later that a rope had in fact snapped on some of the earlier runners who ended up in a heap at the bottom of the hill. I don't know if there was more than one rope or if someone reattached it before I got there. In any case, I only used the rope for the first part of the climb before giving up and cutting over to climb using a set of trees and roots to the left.

Once reaching the top of the steep dirt slope, there was a short path that joined up with the more conventional route and lead out onto a grassy slope to the top of the hill. During the steep climb I was looking forward to being on runnable terrain again, but now I was on this steep but runnable section, I found I didn't have the energy to run. Instead I ate an energy gel from my vest and focused on walking the remaining way to the top and trying to get my breath back.

Craiglockheart to Braid Hills

Technically we had done three of the seven hills. But one of the ones we had done was the castle (which barely counts) and we still have to do Arthur's seat (which may as well count as two). But distance wise we probably were about halfway around the loop.

On the way down the hill, I started to feel great again. I enjoyed the downhill running and rushing down the forest paths.

At the bottom of the hill, volunteers at the aid station were handing out water and juice. Most runners stopped to grab some but I continued on, feeling smug that I had water in my vest and didn't need to stop. Something else to regret later.

I had intended to follow the roads to get to Braid Hills, but luckily the field was dense enough that it was easy to see people heading down the faster route through Braidburn Valley Park. It was a short distance to the next aid station at the entrance to the Braid Hills trails.

Once again I passed on the opportunity to take on extra water, again relying on the water in my vest and taking the opportunity to pass other runners with ease. The rest of the trails up to the top of Buckstone Snap (the high point of Braid Hills) was again uneventful.

Braids to Blackford

This leg is the shortest, both hills are right next to each other. We started by crossing the Braid Hills golf course, which I was slightly nervous about before hand, but an approved course was marked out and was no bother. I was a descending demon, and flew past lots of others on this stretch, having lots of fun on the way.

We then crossed Braid Hills Drive and made our way down the Lang Linn Path and into the Hermitage of Braid valley.

The course guidance describes the conventional route being down to the right and across the bridge. Superheroes descend the steep dirt slope and make their way through the burn, getting their feet wet before ascending another steep dirt slope.

I had intended to get my feet wet, but when entering the Hermitage, the runner ahead of me took a left. Intrigued, and doubting my memory and routing abilities, I followed this runner down a nice route and over an alternative bridge before climbing a similarly steep dirt slope as the one the superheroes take (but with drier feet). One to try and remember for next time.

There was a short section across a field and then we joined up with all the runners who used the other routes and started the climb up the steps of Blackford Hill. I took the opportunity to have another energy gel and again, focus on making steady progress while trying to recover as much as possible.

At the top of the stairs I was reminded of another seven hills tradition, the sound of the piper at the top of Blackford Hill.

Blackford to Arthur's Seat

As soon as I started the descent from Blackford Hill I noticed something was wrong. Both hips and one knee were in a lot of pain. I also set off in slightly the wrong direction, so instead of running straight down the grassy slope, I was actually running across it, adding extra twisting to the pain. Once I reached the Observatory Road, my legs did not improve. They were objecting to the punishment I had put them through so far in the day. That jump down off the wall at Corstorphine. All those fast descents passing others. Well it was my turn to be passed by lots of other runners. I struggled through the streets that I was most familiar with from my university days.

By this time I was aware that my water bottles in my vest were getting low, so I ought to get something at the next aid station outside Pollock Halls. Unfortunately I came down the wrong side street and missed it. I had only just started to climb Arthur's seat when I took another swig from my bottle to find it was empty. I tried the other and got half a mouthful before it too was empty. Perhaps bypassing the other side stations was not such a good idea.

The climb itself was pretty uneventful. Because we were walking/rock climbing, there was no impact on my legs so they stopped complaining. I pretty much forgot about the problems and just focused on the climb. I took the most direct path up, which involves a fair amount of climbing the rocks. Just don't look down.

At the top I fought my way past the tourists to punch my number at the trig point then was ready for the final leg.

Arthur's Seat to Calton (and the Finish)

My legs had not recovered. Despite the respite during the climb, the pain returned as soon as I started to descend. I was in complete agony and hobbled down the side of the hill which seemed to take forever. Once at the bottom things didn't improve. I sort of ran, sort of shuffled my way through the streets to the path that lead up Calton Hill. This time there was no relief during the climb. The pain continued. I pretty much gave up in running and just hobbled up the hill. On the flatter sections I kept thinking "I should run this part", but the legs kept saying "NO!", and the hobbling continued.

I did just about manage a run up the final stretch, but the pain was immense and it certainly wasn't a fast pace. But I got there.

Significantly slower than 14 years ago, I had managed to get around the course. I had not come last, nor required any emergency aid, so that was nice. After my legs have recovered, I need to get back to consistent training. That is the only way I will get fit enough to be able to run that kind of course in full, without injury. Despite the disappointing finish I still enjoyed the day.

Seven-Hills on Strava

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