I’d not entered the illuminator night trail race since 2017, and with the announcement that they’d be changing things next year, thought it may be an idea to give it a whirl with a last try to break the 2 hour barrier (last attempt 2h 05m).
It’s not cheap (£50) so I wanted to be confident of making a worthwhile improvement on my PB, and with little real training having occurred in the month or two before due to injury niggles, I hummed n hawed about entering. I had managed a few long mountain runs recently in the 30k range but they were slow scenic tours. I needed to test pace in similar conditions to the race, so a couple days before entry closed, I was up on Tullos hill at night, banging round a loop I’ve done for a few years – I was faster than a 2017 similar pre-illuminator test, so game on; entry in.
A few days before the race I had a brief shakedown run to try a few kit options:
Lighting. Since last time I’d changed my headtorch to an Olight HS2 which is compact, well balanced, reasonably light and bright, but I felt the terrain ‘relief’ was a bit flat (the shadows cast by rocks and ruts) when descending rapidly, so thought I’d try an idea to use a ‘hand torch’ – as it’s lower down, it should cast more shadow back to your eyes (and this particular one, an Olight S1 mini baton HCRI has good colour rendering too). This worked well, though the torch is tiny and wouldn’t have enough battery to be on permanently but I’d just click it on for rough bits.
Backpack. I thought I’d change to something a bit lighter than my normal montane running pack, a mountain hardwear singletrack vest had just enough room for a small flask and some sweets up front, and the compulsory kit out back.
Otherwise, I was happy with stuff I’d worn the last time. I’d had a look at my previous race on strava, and calculated feasible target times to reach a few recognisable parts of the course if I wanted to break 2 hours. I headed off to Aboyne on a chilly Saturday and got there early which landed a parking space near the race start.
I started off near the head of the race, with about 20 folk in front, making sure to get ahead of the tailback that forms once on to the narrow trail climbing the hill. The first climb through the forest was ok, getting out on to the moor bang on schedule, and I closed on a small group ahead. A bit of a head wind out in the open but nothing too bad.
On the first long descent I gained a couple places with some reckless thundering downhill (hand torch worked well when needed), and found the next cluster ahead in the dark. I sat with them a bit too long, and folk I’d passed had a second wind and caught up – now into the second half, I was still on schedule, but it’s easy when tiring to sit in behind and not push on. I crept ahead of schedule by the 15k and 20k marks, it was looking good, and stayed in a group of 3. Hopefully I’d shake them at the final descent.
This year there were 15k and 8k options, and all of a sudden a glowing stream merged from the right side – uh oh, this complicated things – masses of runners moving at a slower pace. Here on the fire road there was enough room to pass, but we were away to hit ‘the hill’, where we’d go up a steep 140m in 1km.
With folk everywhere it was hard to keep track of the other 25k runners, and in the parts where it hit 20% gradient pretty much everybody was walking, I latched on to somebody who passed walking/running bursts. Down the other side, the steep track was either sloppy mud and grass, or flood-channelled rubble, tricky terrain at any time but dodging the much slower runners and walkers tentatively sliding down was interesting and needed focus, a few shouts were needed to try and direct passage, and I think I was pretty lucky to skittle down here without a bump.
I felt a bit guilty passing the chap I’d followed all the way down who was indeed a 25k front runner, but a warning pre-cramp twinge meant it was then hang-in there time, a change of gait on the road attempted to stretch calfs on-the-move to stave it off, only a few minutes to go and I reckoned must be in with a shout for a top ten and maybe a vet placing. Kept the pace as high as I could, and over the line a bit wobbly, phew.
Stopped the clock at about 1’56 – yay, primary goal achieved! I headed inside to await the prize ceremony, and had a good blether with the chap I’d followed over and down the final hill.
When they announced first veteran, I was surprised to be called up – double yay! I received a gift voucher and a small trophy, and was nice to get a photo alongside the other prize winners, some great times there in particular Robbie Simpson (commonwealth marathon bronze medalist and world-class mountain runner) smashing the 25k record and leaving the field trailing in 1h 34, and Jordan Cruikshank who despite only being 16 took the 15k title. I felt like a bit of an imposter on stage with this kind of talent.
Next day’s results release saw me in 7th overall in 1’56’15, but I’d dropped a place to be 2nd vet, ach well not sure why that was, either they made a mistake shouting out my name, or perhaps somebody hadn’t triggered the timer crossing the line. Oldies champ for a brief moment anyway.
A good video with some drone footage: