The Merrick, at 873 masl, is the highest mountain in the Southern Uplands and after our last attempt at this race in 2013 where poor weather (understatement!) shortened the race (see link below), it was high time to get this classic race under our belts.
The Merrick is also infamous for having the longest line of site in the UK where theoretically, on a clear day, one can see the summit of Snowden 144 miles away. Mike was rather sceptical about this!!
Weather-wise, luckily, this year Jan (The Rain Goddess) was not with us and the forecast was excellent (but see next week’s post on the Breweries!!) and two car loads of Harriers embraced the 2 hr 45 min journey down to Loch Trool. In attendance, Moi, Gregor G, Mark D, Chris D, Sadie K, Michael G, and it was great to see Mike B back after 5 months of injury.
This year, the Merrick hill race was part of the British Championships so instead of the normal 30/40 runners, there was now just shy of 200 participants. Because of this, the organisers changed the route which normally goes out and back along the main tourist track. For this year (and hopefully for the future) they created a round trip, the first half being mostly the usual track and the return trip being rather rugged, gnarly and technical. According to my Garmin the new route is 13.6 kms with about 960m of elevational gain. Officially – 12.4kms (750km) – but I think that is the old route.
At 1pm, the race started and after about a 200m sprint along the single track road the first ascent started up a steep gnarly path up through deep browning bracken. It was very difficult to pass anyone – walking only – and it was classic bums in faces all the way up. My current “nemesis” – I always need someone to battle against – is “wee man” Walter Henderson (Shettleston Harriers) who squirmed past me on the way up. I was way too polite on this ascent – damn that English blood. I’d get him later…..I hoped!
Luckily, this first steep ascent was relatively short and the path soon levelled off and with relief, we started running towards Bennan. Unfortunately, here was the first of the route changes. The old route continued upwards to Bennan while the new route took a right with 1 km of forest road to sprint along. The worst part of the race in my mind. However, it was quick at least and once we crossed Whiteland Burn, we took a left and the ascent began in earnest. Once above the tree-line the gradient reduced to that annoying runnable incline where one feels guilty if you walk. I was battling a couple of women at this point and was determined to keep up with them. Compared to 2013, the ascent up to Benyellary (the 2013 poor weather turnaround) was a real joy and having passed the ladies, I descended off the summit with the Merrick beckoning in the distance. The visibility was excellent and I could see Walter about half a kilometre ahead – surely I could make that distance up.
The weather seemed to get sunnier as the race progressed and it was much warmer than I had expected. I ensured I had a good slug of water on the final ascent up to the Merrick summit as I knew there would be little chance for a drink stop on the return route. Despite excellent views from the top I forgot to look for Snowden as I was running with a group of 4 guys and competitively we plunged off the summit at a rather reckless pace. This was my favourite section of the race and we flew down the initial gentle non-technical descent. After about 1.5 kms, however, the route became much steeper and craggier which surprised the pants out of all of us, and 5 guys suddenly realised they were going way too fast for the terrain that we were plunging down. There were clear grunts and shouts as we all tried to rein in the speed a little to ensure control as the terrain got more and more technical. Luckily no one sprained an ankle and we kept a good pace down into the valley. At this point I noticed that Walter was only about 100m in front – game on!!!
The nature of the race changed substantially at this point. A short sharp ascent took us up to a gnarly open ridge heading SW up to Buchan Hill. There was not much path and there were deep holes, tussocks and lots of rocks to trip the unwary. I think all of us were suffering a little from the fast descent off the Merrick and it definitely took me a while to gain a semblance of rhythm and strength back into my legs. However, I lost no places and slowly gained on Walter and passed him (:-)) just before Buchan Hill. Now I just had to keep ahead of him for the final descent.
Running off Buchan Hill was far from easy. It was very technical, made more difficult as I was battling a whole bunch of runners. I guess for most of us it was sheer luck that we did not twist an ankle but I happily passed a few runners (one running with one shoe as his sole fell off the other) and bar nearly going a cropper on the hidden tripwire of a broken fence managed to get down to the valley bottom at a reasonable pace and no injuries. The final leg of the race is a ~300m run up a steep track which was awful. I had to walk some of it as my legs were juiced out. Frustratingly the guy with 1 shoe passed me just before the finish. I later asked him how he did it and he said his foot was so sore it was better to run quicker as he wanted to get it over and done with. Respect!
As of writing this, the results are not up yet, but I am very happy how the race went. I generally gained places throughout the race which is always a good sign. I’ll let the others make their own comments/observations on the race but overall I think we all thought it was a rather epic day. The weather was fabulous (a tad too warm maybe) and the new route tremendous – surely a new classic route on the hill racing circuit. I hope the organisers keep the new route. It is a long way to go for a race, but as one can enter on the day and it only costs £4, it is well worth the drive down if the weather is good.
196 runners – winning time 01:16:03
73rd: Rob W: 01:47:36
121st: Mike B: 02:02:11
152nd: Michael G: 02:12:29
159th: Gregor G: 02:17:06
163rd: Sadie K: 02:20:50
164th: Chris D: 02:21:35
183rd: Mark D: 02:42:13