Seven Hills of Edinburgh race report

Ladies captain, Denise Waugh, takes us on a guided tour of Edinburgh city centre and it’s surrounding hills.

After reading John Tollitt’s ‘Seven Hills of Edinburgh’ Race Report last year, I had logged this as a run that I would like to attempt one day. The fun concept of running 15 miles with no fixed route, around one of my favourite cities, had a certain appeal – the prospect of climbing seven hills, within the race, less so! I therefore had mixed feelings when I signed up for this race back in January – those of trepidation and excitement – but as the months wore on, and the planned training did not materialise, anxiety became the overriding emotion. Injury and illness had brought my cross country season to an early end and with the North Tyneside 10k and Blaydon Race being the only ‘long’ runs that I had attempted since September, I had made the decision (or at least I thought I had) to withdraw from the Seven Hills Race. I have Jude Smith to ‘blame’ (or to thank, perhaps) for changing my mind. Although she had also done very little training, she was determined to give the race a go and I decided that I might as well start the race with her and drop out if necessary. This way, I would be guaranteed a Sunday run whilst also being within a city where I could hail a taxi if the going got too tough!

Sunday morning found me at the top of Calton Hill, Edinburgh, looking out for other Tyne Bridge Harriers and also looking out at the hills, in the distance, which I would be climbing if I managed to run that far. The sun was blazing, even though it was only 9.30am and to say that I was feeling ill with nerves is an understatement. I had never before attempted such a long distance (half marathons being my limit); hills are not my forte; I struggle with running when the weather is hot; I was worried that I might not be able to find my way around the city. With these thoughts in mind, I prepared myself for the 9.45am start (the Challenge, for slower runners, starts half an hour earlier than the Race, for faster runners) and lined up, with Jude Smith and 266 others, on Calton Hill. David Daniels, John Tollitt and John Hurse were all participating in the later race so Jude and I were the only representatives wearing the black and white vests in the Challenge.

The Challenge started with a run up a slope – in knee high grass – followed with a charge down some steps leading onto Princes Street. Straight away, we were dodging cars on Edinburgh’s busiest street and avoiding buses and bikes on North Bridge Street. Up towards Castle Rock, it was a case of weaving our way through tourists, to clock in at the first checkpoint, before heading off again, towards Princes Street, via the back of the castle. Once again, I found myself darting across a main road and narrowly avoiding collisions with pedestrians as I ran towards Queensferry Street, Belford Road and then Ravelston Dykes. This was a long, hot, two mile stretch, with very little shade, ending in an ascending track, which led to Corstophine Hill. Some people (luckily, not me) went off in the wrong direction here whilst the rest of us clambered up a steep section of grass, ran through the trees, down some steps and across an open field to the first water station. From here, there was another climb up through the trees to check in at Clermiston Tower and then a welcome long, downhill section – to the main Edinburgh/Glasgow A8 road. Yes, this had to be crossed as well!

Reaching the third hill, Craiglockhart, involved running alongside busy roads, across roundabouts, over railway and canal bridges, through housing estates and out the back of a leisure centre. It was during this stretch that, at 10k, the lead runner from the Race (who had started half an hour after me) bombed past, way ahead of the other Race runners, and I began to doubt my ability to finish the race whereas, up until now, I had been running slowly but quite comfortably. This worry increased as I found myself facing a steep, almost vertical bank of dry soil – the side of a dene – and I became stuck halfway up. As fast Race lads came charging past me, I was clinging on to tree roots and branches as I tried not to block their ascent. By some miracle, I actually managed to clamber safely to the top, only to find that there was another grassy hill to climb before I could reach the third checkpoint and water station. It was at this point that I began to feel positive and strong again and I happily descended the hill, through the trees and shade, to take the roads towards Braid Hill. Shouts of encouragement from David Daniels, John Tollitt and then Phil Green (Heaton Harriers) as they charged past, gave me a further boost and I followed the route, taken by the faster runners, up a steep shortcut from the main road. Mistake! The faster runners were too fast and had disappeared by the time that I had reached the next street and I was left to take a guess (a lucky one, thankfully) as to where to run next. Instead of following roads, I ran across a park, hoping that there would be a gate or a gap in the fence at the end of it, and ran up a few steep residential streets before reaching the water station near to Braid Hill. Words of encouragement, from John Hurse, helped me to make the final ascent of Braid Hill, through the gorse bushes, to the checkpoint at the top.

A pleasant run, straight across a golf course, started my journey towards Blackford Hill and a big ‘thank you’ goes out to Kevin Hargreaves (Elswick Harriers) for his support at this point of the run! A short, steep, fast descent through some gorse bushes (made even faster by the fact that I slid most of the way down on my backside) led me out onto a road – straight in front of an oncoming taxi – and I ran down towards the base of Blackford Hill – only to find myself lost. With the help of a local runner (not even participating in the race), I managed to reach the checkpoint at Blackford Hill, after a long climb up some steps and a steep ascent through some gorse bushes and nettles, and started the descent and route towards Arthur’s Seat. A welcome hosepipe shower, from someone’s garden on Observatory Road, helped me on my way and as I ran the standard shortcut through some allotments, the gardeners there cheered me on. Running along the streets towards Arthur’s Seats then proved quite challenging as some of the roads were on an incline and my legs were very tired by this stage. Running through Pollock Halls helped me to cut a corner but I emerged from there into a sea of pink – 5500 women running the Race for Life – and I had to weave my way, in and out of these runners, in order to access Arthur’s Seat (aka ‘Edinburgh’s Mountain’). Although I had coped with the hills becoming progressively steeper, throughout the race, I found this hill to be an absolute killer. Queues of runners, walkers and tourists were winding their way up hundreds of uneven steps, interspersed with scary rock climbing in places, followed by a steep clamber up to the final summit and checkpoint. As I started the precarious descent (I am useless trying to run down steep and uneven terrain), I could see runners heading off in all different directions, all trying to find the shortest, fastest way back to Calton Hill. I knew then that I would definitely finish the race – even if it meant crawling all of the way back – and I struggled on for the final mile or two, running slowly past Holyrood Palace, up Regent Road and the final road towards the finish. At this point, it was good to be cheered on by runners who had already finished and were returning to their cars (Kevin Hargreaves from Elswick Harriers being one of them) and as I climbed the final steps, and ran up the last sloping field, I found renewed energy when Vicki Deritis started shouting and cheering. Crossing the line, in 3.17.17, and being greeted by the other Tyne Bridge Harriers, was an amazing feeling. I could not believe that I had completed the run and in true Tyne Bridge Harrier style, support was there from the rest of the team, for all of our runners finishing. We were all there to applaud Jude smith, our final representative, over the line.

I thoroughly enjoyed this run and would like to encourage other Tyne Bridge Harriers to participate next year. The atmosphere is fun and supportive; the race organisation is excellent; the volunteers are cheerful and encouraging; the course is interesting and very scenic in places. Yes, the route is challenging but it is not a run which can only be tackled by fast runners. The very fact that there is a ‘Challenge’ and a ‘Race’ means that the run is accessible to more than elite athletes. The relaxed atmosphere of the Challenge actually lends itself to a casual, comfortable approach to tackling the route. All uphill sections are followed by descents and flat sections which give opportunities for recovery. Runners can walk sections, without feeling guilty, and participants support each other as the run progresses. Considering the very cheap entry fee, the provision on race day is excellent – regular water stations with drinks, raisins and sponges (to cool down hot runners); individual and team prizes; spot prizes; apple pie, quiche and Jaffa Cake bars at the end of the run; an excellent website, which can be accessed beforehand, giving details about the race.

Come on Tyne Bridge Harriers! If I can run this (and I will be running it again next year), then many of you can too – and NOT just the fast runners amongst us. Let’s get a bus booked for Edinburgh next year!

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  1. Thanks for a fabulous report Denise. It was like running the race all over again (without getting scratched to hell) and re-affirms my own thoughts on a fantastic event.
    Well done on a cracking run too. I hear the Lakeland 50 (miles) race is coming up soon. Next on your to-do list?

    • John JH on 18th June 2013 at 22:29
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    Great running and report Denise, I’m now a bit clearer where I was throughout the day. Great to experience some of the restrictions of a typical road race being removed, trying to decide which runner looks the sneakiest person to follow to get the shortest route and the reward of some amazing views at the check points.

    Very well organised, supported and thoroughly enjoyable. will be back next year all being well.

    • Badger on 18th June 2013 at 23:54
    • Reply

    It certainly is a unique event with a great atmosphere, you looked like you were enjoying yourself, Denise, when we saw you half way round and at the finish. Oh and you forgot to mention the 7 hills drinks mat that every finisher gets along with the special whisky bottle if you do the double (Edinburgh Marathon and 7 Hills). Who’s going to be the first TBH to do The Double?

  2. Great report Denise, sounds like a great day out. I think I would definitely be interested in doing this one next year.

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