Virtual races have been around for a while now, but there has been a veritable explosion of them now that the 2020 race calendar has been pretty much wiped clean by COVID-19. I’ve always been a bit sceptical, but after taking part in the Scottish Athletics virtual 10k race, I began to see the appeal. There are no prizes, for obvious reasons – results are submitted with a large dose of honesty and as much as these can be adjudicated, there will always be those who cheat. There is something quite exciting about being part of these challenges though. While you couldn’t actually run with your club buddies, you were taking part together as a club again. I hadn’t realised just how badly I was missing my club and races until I dipped my toe in.
I hadn’t signed up to the West Highland Way race again this year – once was enough! However, when the virtual race was announced, it seemed the perfect opportunity to get my mileage back up and get out exploring again. My finish time was immaterial. I wanted to match the elevation to the real race as much as possible (nearly 15,000 feet), running a total of 95 miles over 9.5 days, to be completed in three legs (36, 27 and 32 miles respectively). Virtual cut-offs were set for each leg, but after that the route, location and terrain was entirely up to you… as long as you observed government social-distancing and travel guidelines. There were also relay options for teams of three or open relay of as many runners as you want.
I’d been a bit nervous about getting on the trails since lockdown began. Social distancing on the trails in the John Clerk estate (which I can access from my back gate) was pretty stressful due the massive increase in people walking on them. The Pentlands had also seen a huge increase, so I’d been running the backroads between Penicuik and Roslin, past the fly-tipping hot-spots sprung up since the recycling centres shut. Pretty grim, but quiet and I could get good distances out of them. I was longing for the trails again though, and signing up to the virtual WHW race gave me the kick I needed to pull up my big girl pants and get back out there!
My first 10 mile-run took me back up one of my favourite trails – up along the trail below South Black from Silverburn, up past Westside farm and back down again via Eastside. It was a fantastic run and I felt really strong, despite a big drop in weekly mileage since lockdown. The weather wasn’t so good though, and the clag/haar clung to the hills for the next few days and runs. Even so, I got to the virtual Inversnaid CP in 06:16:03 and 3969 ft.
My first leg 2 run took me back up into the Pentland hills, from Turnhouse to the Kips. As I approached Carnethy summit the clouds parted and I saw the sun at last! A beautiful cloud inversion on Carnethy was the best reward.
Leg 2 takes you past virtual Jelly Baby hill on approach to Victoria Bridge, so I headed up past Eastside again and had a symbolic jelly baby on Cap Law instead. The bridge in John Clerk estate made a good substitute for the Victoria Bridge CP on the way back home. Leg 2 complete in 04:52:02 with 4161 ft of climb.
For the last leg I wanted to do something different, so I split the distance into two challenges. The first was a 14-mile run out into the wilds of the lower Pentlands, past the Covenanters Grave and all the way to Darlees Rig, where Simon Lockhart, Laird of Lee and Carnwrath was buried in 1991. It was misty, spooky, lonely, and the night before I made the mistake of reading about big cat sightings in the Pentlands on the Penicuik Residents forum! I spent most of the run convinced I was going to get savaged by an overgrown farm cat or escaped panther. It was a brilliant adventure though, and another new trail ticked off. The terrain was very similar to Rannoch moor too, which is where I was virtually at this stage of the race.
For the last 18 miles, I really fancied starting my run when the real race would have this year – Saturday morning at 1 am! I really didn’t want to do this alone though, but thankfully Gilly, who was also doing the race, agreed to come with me. It was so good to have a running buddy again! We met at Hillend at 12:45 and got our head-torches and kit sorted for the long night ahead. We were going to do the Skyline route, but at an easy pace, not trying to meet the Kips cut-off at 2 hrs 15 mins!
The weather wasn’t great, but we didn’t get the thunderstorms and torrential rain that was forecast. There was a lot of cloud though, and a fair bit of wind. Still not cold enough for jackets though. As we approached Allermuir the herd of Highland cattle were sleeping soundly, unfussed by the head-torches. Coming off Turnhouse though I got the shock of my life when a set of glowing eyes against a set of imposing black silhouettes revealed another herd of sleeping cattle! I may have sworn a bit (sorry, Gilly!).
By the time we reached the Kips the sun was coming up and the head-torches went off. There was no glorious sunrise to be had due to the clouds, but it was amazing seeing the sun rise over the city from up there. It was only as we reached Allermuir again that we saw another walker. As we ran back down to the ski centre we were buzzing, and a runner coming up chirped “Early start, ladies?” Gilly, bright and breezily said “Yeah, we started at 1 am!”. The runner paused, then muttered under his breath “F***ing hell”. #brutal kudos achieved! I reached my 18 miles just as we approached the car park. Leg 3 was complete in 07:52:16, with 6772 ft elevation.
Overall the race took me 19:00:21, with 14.902 feet of climbing. Quite far down the leader board but I don’t care. I had a great time, got some confidence back and had an adventure! Reading all the amazing stories on the WHW race family Facebook page was just brilliant too. So, if you are still sceptical about virtual races, don’t be. Give one a try, If anything they teach you that there is more to racing than finish lines, especially in these strange and unprecedented times. Besides, it gives you a good reason to crack open the bubbly again. Cheers!
Special mention goes to Yan, who smashed the virtual distance on the roads near his home in an impressive 11:02:00, taking 13th place on the leaderboard. Well done!