Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Race Report - The Mighty Deerstalker 2012

Hauling my torso out from under the tightly-pinned cargo net, I slumped face-first into the mud as both my thighs cramped up at the same time. I was maybe 30 yards from the finish line, with just two six-foot walls separating me from a medal and a mars bar. It was dark, and frosty, and I was soaking wet. Several other unfortunates were stacking up behind me as I was causing something of a bottleneck. Luckily I was wearing a stupid hat, waistcoat and tweed tie, which lent a jaunty and jovial air to my glorious suffering, and things probably weren’t as bad as they seemed. With a small whimper I dragged my right leg out from under me and planted my good ankle firmly in the ground, ready for the last, pathetic stumble to the finish line...

Rewind quite a lot of hours and I’m in a nice warm car, barrelling along a deserted rural road on a stunning, sunny day in the Scottish Borders. When the wilderness opened up to reveal the small village of Innerleithen, it was obvious that preparations for The Mighty Deerstalker (part of the Notorious Night Run series organised by Rat Race), were already well underway. Before long I found myself safely in the company of Team Venture Trust, whose expert wilderness skills had created a tipi base camp equipped with hot water, cold showers, a trestle table covered in chocolate and even a few cheeky pre-race beers.

For the uninitiated, some context might be needed. First read this, then read that, and also generally know that this event is an off-road, fell running, river crossing, scree-climbing, obstacle hurdling festival of mud and tweed-clad nonsense at Traquair House. There are two events; The Deerstalker, billed as 5k and a bit (clocked at 7-8k), and The Mighty Deerstalker, described as 10k and the rest (later reported as closer to 17k!). The Deerstalker would kick off at 2pm, with the Mighty version waiting until 5.45pm, or later if the organisers thought it wasn’t dark enough for the requisite volume of utter, magnificent nonsense.

Being a proud, self-assured, boastful idiot I always struggle to choose the easier option when it comes to registering for these kind of things, so I had dutifully signed myself up for the Mighty Deerstalker, leaving plenty of time in the afternoon for me to hang around, support VT’s 5k runners, misguidedly drink a beer and generally enjoy the tweedy light-hearted atmosphere that engulfs this race.  Not wanting to feel left out, I decided to don my waistcoat, trilby and tweed tie early on in proceedings, finished off with a fine moustache and VT facepaint. I was ready for some country pursuits.

The 5k started in a mass of colour and surge of tweed-clad bodies. The VT group, composed of some staff, some supporters and a very eager trustee, did themselves proud in a variety of ways, ranging from immense costume dedication to some really quite impressive runs, on a very, very challenging course. As we shall see. The glorious sunshine lasted long into the afternoon, and before too long the first few runners trickled back into the main site, the winner completing his ‘5k’ just under 50 minutes. We cheered and whooped and gasped as ‘stalkers hauled themselves over the final two obstacles (those six foot walls) and made ragged dashes for the finish line. Their broad grins and muddy boots confirmed more-or-less what I knew this race to be like, and I was pumped for my own crack at the course.

The temperature plummeted as we neared zero hour for the Mighty amongst us, and though the cloudless sky held the darkness back, it was clear we were in for a cold, dark night. I gave up on my shorts-only plan and threw on my compression leggings and gloves, strapped the mandatory headtorch onto my trilby and readied myself for the off. I was already shod in my Innov8 Mudclaws, and congratulated myself on the quality of my kit and general preparedness. If only I had actually done some training as well.

And so to the race itself. My nervous energy behind the start line was at least shared – I started with almost the whole Venture Trust 10k team; Brett, Andy, Marco, Mo, Karen and Owen (where was Nina? Good question). Even our cheerful murmurings that we would stick together weren’t reassuring, as I was pretty confident that as soon as the gun went we would be completely, irreconcilably spread out. And so it was – immediately after the gun we completely lost each other as we lurched uphill towards a modest hay-bale jump, before turning back on ourselves and heading out into the wilderness.

First we clambered through the shoe-stealing mudbath (my shoelaces were triple-knotted and stayed safe), then round a corner and up into the forest. The trails varied from steep to relatively flat to extremely bloody steep, all of them rough and muddy. I have no way of explaining how steep it was, except to say that when I got to what I thought was the top, it got much, much steeper. We cut through what looked like virgin forest, up a slope so raked towards the sky that we had to haul ourselves up more or less by hand. Then we plummeted straight back down, along a mountain bike trail that had to be negotiated either at a snail’s pace or at 400 miles an hour. I chose 400 miles an hour and started a bad relationship with my left ankle which is still in a negative spiral...

After that bit of extreme up and down came some more up, just for a change. Nearing the top of this section we plunged into a dense, dark forest, where balance beams and cargo nets sprung from nowhere and hindered my already slow uphill slog. At this point some poor unfortunate passed me in the opposite direction, mournfully looking for his headtorch. He would be needing it quite soon.

Finally reaching the top of this hill it was obvious what was coming next, and my tender ankle was already suffering on the downhill running sections. When I say running downhill, what I mean is pretty much just falling down a cliff with your feet moving near the ground. Plunging through various sections, more randomness started to assault the senses – there’s the woodland disco at an outrageous volume and with disco lights shining in the trees, yet more cargo nets, stray logs to leap over, random fences to avoid and much more besides. Darkness was gathering just as a vast firework was set off, signifying that the lead runner had crested the final hill of the race. I was quite a long way away from anyone celebrating my run with fireworks at this point, and was trying quite hard to deny the existence of further hills if at all possible. In fact I was trying to achieve some sort of higher plane in which my ankle and stomach didn’t exist either, as I was struggling with horrible pains in both. With the wild undulations in terrain and gradient, there was no hope of getting into a rhythm and ‘settling in’ – which is how I have always survived long runs – and instead I was focussing on calculating every single step to avoid calamity. My ankle was already careering towards disaster, and my stomach wasn’t far behind.

There may not have been many spectators out for this race, but we didn’t need them. The frivolous, silly, what-a-jape-this-is atmosphere meant that runners were always keeping each others’ spirits up, offering words of encouragement or concern to flagging ‘stalkers, helping each other over and around obstacles, and generally having little concern for ‘racing’. Quite right too, as things were getting even more absurd and darkness was falling fast.

Reaching the bottom of the valley, we hit the flat section along the river and were afforded a few moments’ respite from the insane gradients. A young woman barrelled past me and rather unsportingly shouted ‘come on boys, you’re being beaten by a girl!’. A hero behind me said ‘get the kettle on when you get there, love’ and the cosmic balance of sexist arrogance was restored. We followed the river for a short while, before hopping into the water for a short crossing to the opposite bank, our first real experience of the volume of cold and wet that would feature in our evening. Next a humourously-placed fuel stop (don’t drink the river water) and then straight back into the river, this time for several hundred yards’ trudge upstream rather than a quick paddle. This was probably my favourite bit – the freezing water soothed the throbbing in my ankle and a modest but enthusiastic turnout of supporters waved to us from bridges and back gardens. All too soon, it was time for another hill...

And here the Notorious Night Run really turned into the Notorious Night Queue. I had been warned about this, as the trails in some parts offer little room for overtaking, but after the next small (all things relative) hill we were onto the scree slope, and doomed to watch the backside of the person in front of us. I have tried to think of ways to describe the most extreme gradient of the scree, and this is the best I can do: stand up straight and stretch your arm straight out in front of you.  At the tip of your fingers is the trail ahead. It’s made of nothing but loose, shifting rocks. There are 600 people in front of you and a thousand behind you. You’ve been running for over an hour and half already. To your right is a drop of a few hundred feet onto more rocks and in front of you are several hundred more feet left to climb.

You paid good money for this. And are having a brilliant time.

I finally crested the hill, slightly disappointed to discover there was no firework to welcome the runner in 600-and-something-th place. Then I was back to more descending, my ankle weak and painful, my stomach threatening chemical warfare as I caught my first glimpse of a teammate for over an hour. Karen cheerfully greeted me as she sailed past me and off into the night. I apologised that I couldn’t keep up with her, realising that this wasn’t really bothering her at all as she skipped lightly down the mountain. I practised my gracious loser face.

The descent got so extreme at one point that near-vertical ropes had been strung down the hillside, making for more of an abseil than a run. This was getting ridiculous. I struggle to remember the order of events from here, but I think it was more or less flat (this can’t be right), before a zig-zagging series of hops in and out of the river. The final utter absurdity was a chest-high wade through a river tunnel that was later universally referred to as ‘the sewage tunnel’ due to its stench, as well as a few other dips in and out of muddy nonsense... 

Finally we regained the main site, where a last uphill barely registered on my mental altimeter compared to what had already happened, but then resignedly had to haul myself through a large plastic pipe, before crawling under a certain tightly-pinned cargo net. And there I am. Poised, ready to have a crack at the last two obstacles – a pair of six-foot plywood walls. After one miserable failed attempt at hauling myself over the first one, I enlisted a confused stalker to give me a leg-up over the bloody thing, then made a beeline for the marshal whose sorry job it was to launch people over the second wall. Moments later I was across the finish line, dimly aware of some familiar voices screaming my name as I stumbled over.

There was small satisfaction to learn that the course was clocked as being more like 17k, but my 2:28:07 still felt like it had lasted weeks. My left ankle was useless (still is), my stomach was achingly empty, I was freezing, wet and disorientated, and generally in need of being somewhere (if not entirely someone) else. There was little or no euphoria in finishing, only blessed relief...

My respect and gracious-loser face go to Brett, Andy and Karen, who respectively beat me by 10, 9 and 2 minutes, but in equal measure goes out to everyone who ran this race for Venture Trust. The 5k runners, including Kathryn (Deerstalker-in-Chief), Queen Sherien, extraordinarily-fast Mairi, Jenni, Jenna, and those legends from RGU:RAG, Steph, Sarah, Wiebke and Izzy, who achieved perhaps even greater acclaim for their costuming skills than their fell-running. Credit furthermore to the rest of the 10k-ers: Marco Biagi MSP (probably one of the few MSPs prepared to have his face forcibly painted before throwing himself around mud and mountains of a Saturday night), to the awesome Mo B Quick, tenacious Nina and barefoot Owen. It was immense, and has raised over £2,000 for Venture Trust already. It's still not too late to donate - click here!

Happy stalking


2012 to date: miles run - 86.74, miles biked: 23.4, metres swum: 750


  1. Next year, shoes. I want to be able to blast down those hills without worrying about stones.

    Immense night all round!

  2. I like this post a lot, great ideas and information shared. Congratulations to all the participants for a great job well done and looking forward always for more updates.

  3. Now that is so spooky - also ran for Venture Trust. Left ankle also went and been hobbling for the last week. But next year it'll be 15 mins quicker!!!

  4. Thanks for your comments guys, much appreciated. Owen, shoes are on their way out. Stick with the bare feet! Mudrunner, thank you, really glad you enjoyed it. JY - must be some cosmic alignment of VT/Deerstalker/left ankle pain. Either that or it was a mad course and ankle injuries are probably ten a penny...

    VT has places for Survival of the Fittest in Edinburgh in October - who's in!?