Today I feel like I’ve been beaten up by men with sticks. Tweed-clad men, with fire-hardened walking sticks. Dozens of tweed-clad men dancing about in the Scottish Borders doing a weird, howling dance and thrashing me with their fire-hardened walking sticks.
Yesterday I ran The Mighty Deerstalker.
The Mighty Deerstalker is a thing that happens to you if you have led a less than wholesome life, a relentless, gruelling experiment in forward motion that should never have been put into practice. It’s supposed to be one of the toughest off-road obstacle type races in the UK. Having never attempted any of the other ones I can’t really speak to that. I can say that it’s been put together by gibbering, sadistic lunatics. I’ve never met them, obviously, but I’ve now tasted the fruit of their madness. The Deerstalker is the thirteenth labour of Hercules, the one which nobody talks about because of how the demigod took one look at it, burst into tears, and ran off to wrestle a dragon instead. Probably.
Even considering running the Deerstalker is a work of mammoth idiocy – too much idiocy for one man to bear alone. Fortunately The Beard had agreed to run it with me, thus sharing the weight of said idiocy. Between us, we are exactly idiot enough.
Here we are at the start of the race. The Beard likes to mark major moments of foolhardiness with a cheerful selfie, as though that will make a difference, and I am ever happy to humour him. Look at us, at the start line in front of Traquair House, happy and carefree. Look. Look at how young we are in the photograph.
We have aged considerably since then.
Also worth noting are the people in the background who are running away from the start line, literally sprinting in the opposite direction as fast as their legs can carry them. They are wise people.
To be fair, from where we’re standing we can only actually see a single hay bale obstacle, barely three feet high. It looks to be no trouble at all, and indeed it was not. After that there was a bit of jogging down a road, not challenging at all, and then…
Then it began. Fields first, full of deep, wet mud. Calf deep if you put your foot in the wrong place. The Beard and I attempted a partially successful strategy of leaping from isolated thicket of wiry grass to isolated thicket of wiry grass, only occasionally crashing through into the stinking bog beneath. By the end, less than a mile from the start line, I was heaving for breath and feeling like jelly from the waist down.
And then they made us climb a mountain. An actual mountain. Two miles of brutally steep ascent up mountain bike trails. There was a little running, and an awful lot of back-breaking trudging, looking for little shelves of mud that might function as a stable step without disintegrating under my weight and throwing me onto my face. A few times I found myself crawling on hands and feet like some sort of geriatric Spiderman, just dragging myself upwards.
It levelled off after a mile, but only enough for the organisers to have thrown down some balance beams and cargo nets to ensure that I understood how tiny and worthless I really am. Then the second climb. All the time it was getting darker as night fell.
I think this was the point where common sense died. At the top of that first mountain exhaustion smothered what little sense of self-preservation I had left. So much of what came after would be inconceivable in the light of day while sound of mind. From that point on I did everything, regardless of whether I thought I could, because I was just too tired to talk myself out of it.
Coming back down the mountain, for example. It’s mud, steeper than the ridiculous ascent. No trail shoe on the planet could have stopped me slipping. I ended up using that as best I could. As we were in the woods, half the time I was able to drop/slide from tree to tree, catching myself on branches just long enough to aim for the next. The rest of the time I either ran and prayed, or where it was really bad sat back on one foot and sort of sledged down past other terrified and confused runners who were wrapped around bits of foliage.
Sounds awful, but that descent was fun.
Halfway down, this happened.
Disco lights, music, a smoke machine. There, then gone, and you’re falling through pitch black woods again. Utterly, splendidly surreal.
More running at the bottom. Around stuff, under stuff, I don’t know. Head torches were a necessity at that point, which meant losing track of where on the winding course I was. Back to Innerleithen, the halfway point, and the river.
I’d been in the river a couple of times already, wading under bridges or crossing from one side to the other. In Innerleithen they put us in the river and made us wade upstream for a couple of hundred metres. Icy, waist deep in places, fast flowing – another one of those experiences that I would never agree to unless I was already too tired to argue. The footing was incredibly treacherous – large, slippy, shifting rocks, and it was just luck I didn’t fall in. Others did.
Out of the river, and up… and up… and up. It’s the second mountain that breaks you. It was grassy for a while, but then the scree.
Oh god, the scree.
I don’t think I’ve ever done anything as physically demanding as the scree. It wasn’t quite a vertical descent, but it was incredibly steep – hands and feet again. This time while I was trying to climb to the top, the top was trying to descend to the bottom. Nothing I grabbed or put a foot on wanted to stay where it was, and everybody above me was in the same boat, sending loose rocks sliding and tumbling down from on high. Here’s what part of it looks like during the day.
This is about two thirds of the way up I think, where the organisers gave us the spurious choice of a brutal climb to the left or a brutal climb to the right. You might think that you can see the top there. You are wrong. There are several false horizons on the climb, just to make things extra-super-special fun. There’s no getting away from it – this bit was torture. My back was killing me, and it felt like I was climbing for hours. I lost any sense of time. I couldn’t see anything in my head torch other than my own hands and the mountain. All dignity and compassion was swallowed up by this psychotic monster of a slope. I crawled past people lying still, staring at the stars. They might have been dead. If I could have been certain then I would gladly have crawled over their corpses just to enjoy some stable footing.
But twice, I turned round. I had to. My spine was a line of fire, and I had to lie back to ease it (for all that ‘lying back’ was more like standing). When I turned, near the top of that mountain looking back over the course, I saw the lights. We had a beautifully clear night anyway, with a stunning starscape up above. Below though, there were the headlamps, a massive trail of them looping back for miles, up and around the dark mountain opposite, a bouncing bright ribbon across the black landscape. It was utterly breathtaking and unreal, and an instant balm to hold back any sense of despair.
I made the top of the mountain. The descent was a fast, lunatic plunge. No trees this time, just muddy trails churned up by those that had already gone down. I should have fallen several times, and didn’t. At one point a slope so steep and wet that we had to rappel down on ropes. More running. Eventually houses, and people, and, sweet mercy, the first sight of the finish line. As though the race hadn’t been surreal enough, the organisers had thoughtfully erected an enormous water slide to take us down to the finish line. I started to spin on the way down, and just let myself go. My hat and torch came off – I saw the light slide past me while I was upside down and snagged it, but no idea what happened to the hat. It was a good hat, that hat, and has seen me through a year of running in all weather, but this was a worthy doom for a faithful companion.
And then it was done, and I was cold and soaked and exhausted. I finished the just-shy of ten mile course in two hours forty minutes, the 653rd finisher out of 1740 finishers if I’m reading the results right.
And I realised that, broken and busted as I was, I’d just had the most extraordinary amount of fun. The Mighty Deerstalker is so utterly insane that I couldn’t help but love it, no matter how much any given stretch was hurting me. I don’t wade up rivers every day, or throw myself down vertical wooded descents in the dark, or scrabble up mountains. Suddenly doing so is a thing of giddiness.
The Rat Race team also hold an incredibly slick event – from the parking to the volunteers to the registration, everything was smooth and easy. That makes a massive difference to things like this. The villagers of Innerleithen were outstanding too, as a couple of thousand demented runners descended on them. They came out in force to offer jelly babies and high fives (though there was a bit of a sadistic fervour to the way they lined up to watch us all plunge into the freezing river – I think they enjoyed that altogether too much). My fellow idiot The Beard was also manna from heaven. Save where we got separated on tight stretches, we more or less ran the whole thing together until the very last few hundred metres (I had to stop and tie a shoelace, so The Beard finished four places / a minute ahead of me), and I would have been longer if he hadn’t been around to pace me. The Beard is indefatigable. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear! And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead!
No, hang on. That’s The Terminator. The Beard is like a cheerful Terminator, who probably doesn’t want to kill you, and is handy to have around when you’re flagging during an endurance event.
Not as catchy, but more accurate.
Majestic idiocy, all of it. And there’s a very good chance I’ll be back again next year. Whatever your running goals, the Deerstalker feels like a great way to kick the year off. Difficult things ahead feel slightly less impossible once you’ve run this ridiculous route…
In my case, as you’ll be getting bored hearing me tell you, the difficult thing ahead is a sixty-nine mile run from one end of Hadrian’s Wall to the other, from Carlisle to Newcastle, right across the neck of the UK, this coming June. I’ll be trying to do it in twenty-four hours, with no Beard to assist. My daughter thought it would be awesome if I tried to turn those miles into clean water for people who don’t have it, and so I said I’d give it a try. I’m nearly halfway to my fundraising goal thanks to you lot, but I could use some help taking it further. If you’ve got a fiver you can live without, you can sponsor me below.
A quick note about the photos here – as the official race photographs aren’t available yet, I’ve nicked some snapshots posted by the race organisers to the event’s FB page this morning, and The Beard’s selfie. I hope that’s okay with everybody involved – if not, let me know!