One of my favourite races, this year was to be the final one with the organisers ‘retiring’. I imagine it’s a big commitment of time each year so much respect for them to keep it going for 19 years. I gather that over the last few years numbers have dwindled a bit which is a shame, perhaps suffering from the rise of brasher ‘true’ obstacle races, and there being more events than ever for both road and trail.
In the run up to this I’d had a good result at Balmoral, and a week’s holiday in Cumbria with some quite strenuous trail and mountain runs as a bit of training, but things never go smoothly: I’d went over my ankle badly towards the end of the holiday, then caught an awful cold that had me coughing terribly right up to the race. Nonetheless, last time I’d managed seventh overall and 1st vet, and I hoped for similar this time.
There’d been a lot of crap weather in the run up, but the day arrived warm and sunny. Since last year, the normal early morning bus to Ellon had been slashed, an airport and park and ride bus combo would get me there in time.. theoretically. Getting off the 1st leg at the airport, I was told by the bus driver that I could get the next bus at the same stop. The time came and went.. and another 20 minutes.. no sign. Further investigation showed I’d been given bum info by the driver; I’d needed to wait at another stop a few hundred metres away.. FFS! With no other buses until too late, I jumped in a a taxi and half an hour later and 40 quid lighter, made it to Ellon. Grrr.
I went for a stroll along the river to the sports centre, spying the crossing at the same place as last time, then listened to the volunteers briefing. One chap was talking about an ‘ankle breaker’ section in this year’s course.. that didn’t sound promising.
Donned the same kit as last year (inov8 roclites with gaiters) except I replaced a snag-prone-in-the-woods cap with a buff. I lined up at the front of the race, counting 8 ahead. Off we went, at a sharp pace of 3’40m/km.
A pack of 6 quickly went clear, leaving me and another chap on our own, then a gap behind us. I thought I’d maybe catch a few once it got tougher entering the woods. So far so good, over the bridge faster than last year, not coughing much.
We entered the first woodland section, skipping treefalls, swishing the damp grass, glad of a bit of shade. Up through a field the first obstacle: four sets of bales to cross, a bit tougher being square rather than the round ones which I’d developed a good technique for. Heart now pumping, this dampened the initial spring in the step a bit.
Back through the woods downhill to the mudsplashes, steep muddy and slippery, rolled under the tree gap carefully, don’t want to tweak the ankle! I’ve kept pace with ‘8’ and along the grassy trails near the river, I can see ‘7’ a bit further ahead.
Zigzagged through the dark tunnels of a dense plantation, then uphill towards half way, an obstacle I’m familiar with appears (crawl net), I know to run through upright with arms down (it stretches and slides off your back), this provides an opportunity to overtake as the chaps in front crawl and flail with their arms getting snagged.
Now on the return leg and on to a estate road for a bit, I could see ‘6’ 100m ahead, and as we enter the rough trails of the woods again, I’d formed a useful 50m lead over the chaps behind. I wasn’t as gung-ho on some of the rougher and rockier bits here as would’ve been last year, and make only a slight impression on the gap in front. Past the house and over some tough double stacked bales, rather than heading back to the bridge directly, the route takes an unexpected turn right into some really lumpy, rutted and overgrown brush, looks like some old clear-felled forest that’s grown over. This is ‘ankle breaker’ that the steward was referring to! Emerging unscathed, it’s now straight track to the bridge and beyond.
‘6’ has looked back a few times, clocked me, and once inside Ellon bounds, has begun to pull away a bit, despite me trying to up the pace. With a dook in the Ythan imminent, I throttle back a bit not wanting to be exhausted thrashing through the water. The recent rains have made for a full river, and I took it carefully, the force of the water when chest high almost sweeping me off my feet. Almost across, I lost my footing and scrape off some rocks, flounder out with a few cuts, and make way past the small crowd watching the crux of the challenge near the town centre. I’d made a hash of the crossing and those behind have closed to maybe 30m.
The cold of the water and drenched clothes have sapped me of strength, and it took a minute to warm up and crank up to speed, any thoughts of catching next place extinguished by the 200m gap, now it was a case of holding on to 7th for the last 2k of riverside tarmac path. I looked back a few times and was glad I’d got a useful gap; I clumsily assaulted the last bale and took it easy through the foam filled bouncy castle, wee sprint over the line for 7th, same as last year.
Time of 59’10 a wee bit faster than last year’s 59’25, though I reckon the ‘ankle breaker’ section made it a bit tougher. No trophy this time though: 4th in the vet category, although my mate Greig gets a 2nd in the super vet. Well done to the winner who put in a great time of 51’44 (last year was around 55′). I stick around for the prize giving then it’s goodbye to the Ythan Challenge.
I’ve really enjoyed my 3 attempts at it, there’s not another race like it that has such a variety of woodland terrain from lush overgrown broadleaf woods to the densest plantation, pine-needled forest floors, steep muddy zigzaggy cross country, proper overgrown bush, and of course some riverside path and not forgetting the dunk in the river.
Before I leave Ellon, I have a quick wander past ‘Ellon Castle’ though there doesn’t seem to be much to see; a ruin fenced off and gardens out of bounds, ho-hum. A tub of ice cream down by the river while I wait for a bus (at the right stop this time) rounds off the day nicely.