The organiser’s website said it would be tough. Neil Purdie and I knew it would be a challenge as we had both participated last year and were daft enough to come back for more. I can confirm again that this is indeed one tough run. The Illuminator invites you to ‘go wild through the night on Scotland’s toughest half marathon plus. Run 15 dark miles over rugged hill trails with just the glow of your head torch to lead the way‘.
There is a list of compulsory race equipment required. Good quality head torch with spare batteries (or a spare head torch), full arm, leg and body cover, wind and waterproof jacket, hat, gloves, trail shoes with good grip, food, phone, spare warm layer, waterproof rucksack. Random checks are made at registration and on the start line to ensure compliance. Neil had his bag checked twice, he has that kind of face!
As it turned out, shorts and one layer on top were all that was required, the rest of the kit was stashed in our bags as the conditions were more than anyone could have hoped for. No wind, clear skies and almost warm. This was even better than last year. I couldn’t help feeling that many runners were way over dressed, opting to wear all of the gear rather than carry it on their back.
At 18:03 in the half light, 1,129 runners and walkers set off south out of Aboyne, across the River Dee and into the woods and hills of Glen Tanar. The early pace near the front of the race surprised me, the first mile was over in 7:27, Neil has shot off like a scalded cat and was lost in the sea of bodies jostling for space and position. I might have spotted him ahead half way up the first hill, but it was hard to be sure in the now nearly dark conditions. So much for my plan to hang on to Neil for as long as possible.
Four and a half miles and over 1,000 feet vertical are covered before any real respite. Some of it is very steep, underfoot is fine and varies from rough stone to rutted soft Land Rover track. It was hard to find a good clear line with all the other runners passing and re-passing as we took it in turns to spurt and fade in an effort to gain some advantage.
Now completely dark, the ten minutes of downhill took some nerve and 100% concentration. Lots of boulders, loose stones, vegetation, dips, and road wide drainage channels. Every single step had to be placed with care. There was little time to spot your line due to the proximity of others. One wrong move, especially with the frequent metal lined 5 inch wide and 5 inch deep drainage channels, would spell disaster.
A wee burn crossing, a fairly easy 5 minute climb, then down hill for a couple of miles to the light zone on relatively good rutted track. There was no escaping the drainage channels though – total concentration still required.
The light zone is an area just beyond half way where the trees are lit up multi-coloured and you can get food, water and hot or cold juice. Neil flew through here, didn’t notice the trees much and declined the refreshments. I stopped briefly for some water, was offered a banana but initially refused. The nice gentleman then revised his offer to a ready peeled banana. How could I refuse? I spent the next two miles manfully trying to eat the bloody thing. It was massive and I didn’t want it or need it.
Beyond the light zone the trail improves considerably, no more drainage channels and the quality is more akin to the forest roads in Roseisle or Culbin. It is four miles gently descending with the odd short rise to keep the effort up. This was a good place to get the head down and pick off runners in between banana chomping sessions.
The final climb up Craigendinnie is fast becoming legendary and the subject of almost all post race chat. At one mile long and 500 ft vertical, it is ridiculously steep in places and very hard on used legs. Mile 13 took me 14:38. Neil stormed up it in 13.27. It was at the top of this hill last year that my legs gave up and took revenge with severe cramps. I was delighted to get to the same point cramp free and four minutes ahead of last year’s time.
Just two miles down to the finish, job done, I was on schedule for my target time of 2:15, or so I thought. The high part of the down hill is grassy, muddy and wet. Mentally and physically fatigued, I switched off for a moment, stumbled, then cramped up in both calf muscles trying and failing to stay upright. I could have picked a much worse place to fall. The mud was deep, soft and plentiful. Two knights in muddy trail shoes, kindly extracted me from my mud bath, got me onto my feet and checked I was OK. No damage done apart from pride and skinned knees.
With the wind out my sails, the last mile and half to the finish was more of a recovery job, similar to, but not nearly as bad as the end of last year’s race. I was losing all the places I had gained after the light zone. Neil was waiting patiently on the line, surely wondering yet again what was keeping me.
Neil ran a very strong race finishing in 2:08:39, 52nd place and 20th Vet. I finished in 2:18:21, 99th place and 37th Vet. We had both knocked several minutes off of our times from last year, declared ourselves satisfied, and shuffled inside to claim our finishers mugs full of hot tea/coffee and some aptly named yum yums. Delicious.
The Illuminator is a very well organised and marshalled race. It would be hard to get lost, and easy to get hurt. Some of the money raised goes to the Braemar Mountain Rescue Team who were out in force on the run route. Thank you to medical team for cleaning up my knees. They looked far worse than they were. Halloween knees for sure. Removing the dressings from hairy legs was far worse than any fall.
The winner clocked 1:40 for the 15 miles. I can’t comprehend that time given the terrain and the dark. I had no plans to run this race next year, but that target of 2:15 is in my head, bouncing around. Surely the weather will take revenge next year though.
Report by: Nigel Williams