Waking up to dire warnings of 100 mph gusts on Cairngorm, the day started in a state of minor apprehension for our sojourn down to the Galloway Forest to run the Merrick.
It is a long drive (2 hrs 45 mins) and Jan (driver), Sadie and I left Penicuik in good time to get to Loch Trool to allow a decent warm up and stretch. The forecast was not brilliant (to say the least) and the drive clearly showed us that there was every opportunity that we would experience high winds, heavy rain and poor visibility. As the Merrick is also a rather technical hill race, this was one race in which I was happy to have full body kit, map and compass. That could not be said for the two gals and I made fun of Sadie the whole trip who steadily got more anxious about not having a map.
On getting to Loch Trool, the heavens duly opened with very heavy rain while we registered which sounded horrendous in the small caravan as we signed the forms. However, the race start was very calm as essentially the first hill of the race nicely sheltered us from the stormy westerly winds somewhere above.
Just before 1 pm, 32 runners gathered for a photograph and pre-race briefing. The marshalls had just abandoned the Merrick summit as the winds were > 80 mph. The race organisers decided that the race would be shortened and the turnaround would be Benyellary instead. This was a great shame as the section between the Benyellary and Merrick summits is normally the most runnable section of the whole race. Therefore, instead of 12.4km (780m), the new route would be 9.5 km (580m).
I cannot really describe the first slope up Eshoncan. It is probably the most technical piece of ground I have ever had the “pleasure” to run up/down. It is a steep slope with thick bracken with a rough route trampled down to expose an intermittent rocky, muddy “path” with water running down it. I am not sure if there is normally a small stream, but with all the rain, it just seemed to be an endless tangle of rocks and small ankle deep pools interspersed with mud – all hidden by a layer of trampled bracken. Going up was bad enough, but I was deeply worried about the descent.
Starting off in relatively mild conditions in the knowledge that somewhere above you were potentially 80 mph gusts makes it rather difficult to judge what to wear. As usual, I leant towards dressing warm which initially I was cursing as I was way too hot as I got to the top of the first rise and crossed the bogs and forest track towards the ascent up to Bennan. However, about half a km before the summit of Bennan and skirting around it to the east, the weather finally hit us with full force. The strong westerly wind made the heavy rain feel like hail. I soon pulled down my sleeves, pulled up my Buff and put on a hat and was incredibly thankful that I had experimented with contact lenses as I would not have had a hope with glasses in those conditions over the rough terrain. The next kilometre or so was just a blur of stumbling (not really running), trying to stay upright and not being blown constantly to the right. Luckily (especially for Sadie), the route was well marked at this point. At the wall rock style above Corse Craig where the route turns right to the NW, the conditions were truly atrocious. I had hoped that the westerly wind might have helped a little following the wall up Benyellary. Unfortunately, it was mostly a side wind from the left and you can imagine how much I had to lean sideways to retain some semblance of balance.
Finally, there was some relief when the route joined the main tourist trail. Although the wind was still whipping from the left, the path was a relative joy to run along. Waving mad thanks to the poor Marshall waiting at the Benyellary summit and thinking that I was glad not have been him, the return trip back down to the stone style was great fun. Despite the wind, I think I really picked up the pace (it has been a relatively slow race until this point) and passed one guy and had my eyes set on someone about 200 meters ahead. The return trip was thankfully much quicker although there were sections around Bennan that had to be taken cautiously due to the wind, hidden boggy holes and slippery rocks. At one point, my map pouch flew out of my jacket to strangle me as the wind tried to blow the map away with the string nicely wrapped around my neck. The two marshalls at the forest road near Eshoncan, just before the final descent, seemed in very good spirits as I passed. Probably just happy that people were returning from the stormy weather above and they did not have to go up and look for us – or perhaps they saw my dance while trying to get my map under control.
As my legs were still quite fresh, I tried to slip into neutral for the final dreaded descent, but it was simply too technical and I went much slower than I wanted to. Very frustrating as someone overtook me who I had kept ahead of since Benyellary. However, at least I made it down without spraining an ankle and the sun even popped its head out as I crossed the finish line.
Of 31 runners (lead time: 1:07:26), we came in at:
13th: Rob Wilson: 1:21:49
23rd: Jan Dawson: 1:38:56 (3rd woman – likely missing out on a prize as we left quite quickly)
26th: Sadie Kemp: 1:47:09
All in all, a great day as usual. Despite being a long drive, I will have to go back as I still have not ran the Merrick and it has been 33 years since my dad dragged a wee 9 year old boy up there. Hopefully next year the weather will be better. Although an extreme weather challenge once in a while is fun, I do prefer to run instead of stumble.
Quote of the day:
“That was worse than Tough Mudder, and we got electrocuted at that!”