Monday, 22 October 2012

Race Report - Survival of the Fittest (Edinburgh) 2012

After all that nonsense back in March at The Mighty Deerstalker, I approached the Men's Health Survival of the Fittest – run by the same company of hardcore athletes and escaped mental patients - with a much greater level of suspicion, a heftier training regime and several bucketloads more fear.  I wasn’t getting caught out by half an hour of surprise scree-climbing again, nor was I planning to leap into any rivers unprepared. This time I was going to do things properly.

To my utter astonishment, it appears to have paid off.

Venture Trust’s showing at Survival was pretty weak compared to the team we fielded at the Deerstalker. Whilst more than 20 VT types were up for the mud-eating hill-climbing mountain-scrambling nonsense down in Innerleithen, a mere half-dozen volunteered to test whether or not they were among ‘the fittest’ in Edinburgh. Perhaps the lack of sewage tunnels and mudbaths put people off? Weird. But we mustered nonetheless and donned traditional green VT warpaint, basing ourselves practically on top of the finish line in Princes Street gardens, basking in the glorious October weather – bright, crisp, clear and perfect for running – and distracting ourselves by the company of good friends and an excitable Labrador puppy.

Rubbing the VT puppy for luck.
Due to the narrow, twisty-turny course and the constraints of the obstacles we would be encountering, the race sets off its 3,000 competitors in ten waves of 300 people, arbitrarily assigned so as to minimise the potential for bottlenecking (something I had been darkly warned about by Survival veterans). We had randomly chosen wave 7, starting at 11.30 am, and thus had the pleasure of watching six other waves warm up and receive a pre-race briefing before walking to the start line on The Royal Mile. A little before we crowded round for our own briefing, the race winner appeared from the western end of Princes Street Gardens. Laden with muscles but covered in bruises and scrapes, as well as being completely soaked with water, this Herculean figure nimbly leapt up and over the 8-foot high, 3-foot deep wall that separated him from the finish line and his prizes. Second place was nowhere to be seen for some minutes to come, but when he did arrive he was snarling and lurching like a man possessed. The steam rising off his body was more testament to how hard he had worked than how cold it was. We looked at each other nervously. What on earth had we let ourselves in for?

Actually, I knew most of what we had let ourselves in for, and had trained appropriately. A full (and exact) 10km of running, interspersed with nonsense including monkey bars, cargo nets, almost endless staircases and at least a small quantity of mud and water. My training had been adjusted appropriately, regularly taking in some of the nastier staircases used on the course, and incorporating the adventure/assault course recently installed in Inverleith park. So when our time came for the longer-than-you-remember walk from the event’s finish line in the gardens up to its start line in front of St Giles’ Cathedral (which had services in progress, muting the starter’s pistol to a quiet clap), I was energised, excited, ready to tackle what was coming up.

I knew that speed was of the essence in the early kilometres, and happily jostled for position as I hurdled hay bales and barrelled down steep closes. Dodging traffic was to become a theme too, since none of the roads were closed, but before long I had already overcome the first km marker and was preparing mentally for Jacob’s Ladder. But those sneaky organisers had other ideas, and had set up the first obstacle section in a vacant lot immediately before the stairs. We carried heavy cones, heaved ourselves over pyramids of scaffolding, swung on monkey bars and otherwise navigated a pair of heavily-obstructed finger loops, before eventually being released to tackle the stairs.

They’re awful, no doubt about it. I’ve practised running them at least half a dozen times, and they really don’t get much easier. I wheezed my way to the top, clutching my exploding chest with one rugby-gloved hand and propelling myself onwards with the other. Round to the summit of Calton Hill my least favourite type of people awaited us: Army PT instructors. Here we moved some sandbags around (I was pleased to help but unsure whether there was a flood warning at the top of the hill – most confusing), launched on rope swings, scrambled over more cargo nets (can anyone explain what this is preparation for? How much modern warfare involves cargo nets? Are wars being fought on container ships?) and generally spoiled a stunning view of the city, sea, Fife and the Borders with the kind of nonsense you can only get from Rat Race events. I was having a ball.

Assault course finished, I flew back down Calton Hill, looking forward to the next challenge. I had caught the back of the previous wave by now, and was picking my way through slower runners, notably a group of approximately a hundred million women dressed in hessian sacks labelled ‘Hot Potatoes’ who were trying hard to stick together. Behind the Parliament and into Holyrood park, the course posed no more obstacles for another couple of km, as the real challenge involved picking one’s way up and through a muddy, hilly section that would have suited trail shoes much better than my knackered road Asics. But the reward was worth it – a huge waterslide, set up to launch you sideways into the next part of the race along the Innocent cyclepath.

What surprised me here was the amount of uninterrupted path to run on – for at least two kilometres this could just as well have been any other road race, although imaginatively designed to take in footpaths, a very long disused railway tunnel and some interesting parts of town. I picked off a few more groups and individuals in this section, hampered only slightly by some slightly rubbish obstacles that clearly were low on the priority list, being placed at the furthest outreaches of the course around 6-7k. I would regret these observations.

Because the next few sections were very, very tough. We moved along the Cowgate for just a few hundred metres before slowly slogging up another previously-unnoticed ancient close, popping out back on the Royal Mile.  An articulated lorry with its sides open stood blocking our progress, and the challenge here was to haul ourselves off the road and into the lorry and back down over the other side. Three times. For me this was – by far – the toughest obstacle on the course, and it left me drained and aching. The merciful downhill back to the Cowgate came as some relief as I tend to recharge on the run, and I hit the Grassmarket flying, weaving in and out between groups of tourists. At the far end of the Grassmarket I barrelled into a maze constructed of the kind of silver-grey mesh fencing you see at building sites, a disorientating experience as the near- and middle-distance fences all blended into one. I had two enormous guys running right on my shoulder, looking for a spot to overtake in the impossibly tight maze, and was astonished to find that when I eventually escaped the fence-tastic labyrinth they were nowhere to be seen. They must have given up on overtaking and gambled on taking a different - much longer - route through the maze, because their mad-dash sprints only overtook me another 500 metres later. Just luck, I suppose, as they were definitely closer to the much-overused label ‘the fittest’ than me.

It was almost over. Back in Princes Street Gardens there was more very important clambering to do, before a quick hop in a huge, inflatable pool full of filthy water that bore signs of already having been trampled through by 600 muddy runners. A last few hundred metres and then my own crack at the final wall, by now too congested and covered in writhing bodies for anyone to attempt a solo leap. Just as at the Deerstalker, runners now selflessly launched one another up and over, and after paying my dues I took my turn, happily running the few yards to the finish line.

Job done.
Having estimated around two hours to complete the course, thinking that congestion and constant obstacles would be its MO, I was startled to find that I'd finished in just 64 minutes. The Crew Chief, who had planned to come and see me finish an hour later, was still at home eating her lunch. I had overtaken hundreds of people from waves ahead of mine, and secured a final position of 586th out of nearly 3,000. High fives to the rest of the VT crew - Kathryn, Sherien and Ruth (plus a couple who I didn't even set eyes on!). I am a little bruised, very sore and covered in scrapes, but utterly delighted and very eager to do it again, knowing now that I can plan for much more running and much less cardio than anticipated. This one – and by association its sister events in London, Cardiff and Nottingham – come highly recommended despite the hefty price tag. (Which, incidentally, is lower if you’re a real cool frood and do it for Venture Trust).

Coming soon on – some thoughts that may be of genuine non-narcissistic value, some exciting VLM news and more of the usual tosh. Exciting times.

Happy running


2012 to date: miles run - 369.9, miles biked - 73.2, metres swum - 3950, races - 4

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