The second hill race I ever did was the Carnethy 5. I was 28 and had given up smoking a couple of years before. I had tried going back to rugby, but big boys kept hitting me. I loved it… The hill running not the big boys stuff.
I’ve done it quite a few times since. It has now become the heartbeat of my years. If I can get around Carnethy then things ain’t too bad. Sadly, this year spirit was willing and almost all the flesh was too except for a left Achilles tendon that was just being a wee git.
Carnethy was started years ago by Burns Scott. The idea had been to celebrate a battle in yon time, a battle between the English and the Scots. The race used to go from Penicuik to the top of Carnethy and back. A cracking course. Capturing the traditional idea of a Scottish Hill race being from the town or village to the top of the nearest hill. Basically “Race you to the top and back”.
One year there was thick mist and the runners crossing the A702 were really in danger. So, the decision was made to make it round the current course. It is a lovely course. The race also benefits from being at a time of year when there used to be fewer races. Still true but less so.
Burns did a cracking job of organising it. I think an entire room of his home was filing and paper work. At one-point Burns decided that there were plenty of dedicated hill runners from a slew of local clubs, so Carnethy Hill Running Club was formed at a meeting in what was then the Carnethy Pub in Penicuik. Reader I joined! …I subsequently left.
The start of the race really does feel like an infantry charge as several hundred people cross a bog at a fair clip. I’ve run it in sunshine and blizzards and still keep coming back for more. It has a really nice rhythm of climbs, traverses and descents. It crosses the eastern ridge of the Pentlands twice. The ridge is volcanic rocks forming the upside of a geological fault that overlooks “coal measures” below from which the towns of Midlothian dug the coal.
The race itself is just a wee bit too big to bash at unreservedly and demands respect. There is a fantastic decent as you drop down off the hill known as West Kip. This decent is close to perfect for hill runners to catch any road runners near them. Just the ideal slope and surface. Good grips and good knees and you can fly down it. You drop right down to the head of the reservoir and a Heathcliff type setting of a lonely house at The Howe. The last climb can feel considerably longer than it ought, especially if snow is around. The descent off Carnethy is yet another bit-more-than-it-looks element of the race. You must avoid the scree so tired legs have to yomp downhill in heathery pathlessness.
The finish, back across the bog, is also a classic. If you get into a “tussle” there is nowhere to hide; with a largish crowd – for a hill race that’s maybe as many as ten – cheering you really do have slitter and slatter across the bog, to fight hard for the glory of 395th place rather than the total loser, ignominy that is 396th. The finish has tea tents and other stuff that completes the feeling of some sort of rudimentary military affair.
You’ll see lots of people at Carnethy. Folk you don’t see otherwise. Various shops turn up and you get a serious plateful of hot food in the tradition of school dinners. You can join the Scottish Hill Runners and get this year’s calendar. It is an event indeed.
Soon after the formation of the club the race was taken over by the club and after a couple of years away from it I now see Burns there every year smiling not worrying.
The race is a testament to regular and effective organisation. By dint of that regular and effective organisation the race has become oversubscribed and hugely popular.
However, one man’s regular and effective organisation is another man’s drab inevitability. There are elements of the race that are a pain. It is pre-entry, on-line only, you are processed like a Staten Island immigrant and you have to get the bus up and down (okay some young, fit and keen folk can jog the 3 or so miles from school to the start/finish.) The prize giving has lost nearly all personality. There is little in this world that is less serious in effect but more disappointing in outcome than the prize giving of the Carnethy Five. It is delivered in a hall with an echo so bad it drowns out the little atmosphere, it’s feels kinda like no-one really cares so it can feel quite anticlimactic.
I keep threatening to organise a ceilidh after it. Any encouragement – and offers of help – in the comments below and I might do it next year with the Am Bodach family’s favourite band.
But still Carnethy 5 is an unmissable race. And I’m really grateful to Olly the organiser for ensuring I get an entry despite my views of the club and my inability to fill in forms right. I missed it this year through injury and I fear it’ll really be old age if I miss a couple of years, so his tolerance is much appreciated.
Coming soon! The love issue!