Mud, tents, colourful vests, a field and a hubbub of noise with shouts and cheers erupting all over. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was a music festival.
Put hundreds of hill and trail runners in a field together, and you have an atmosphere as high octane as T in the Park; with cowbells, a new format, and a thumping speaker courtesy of the newly-formed Fellkour Squad, the Devil’s Burden Relays were back in town.
There was a new kind of madness at this year’s event. In the past, the good locals of Fife had to duck and swerve to avoid the ’59 plate Vauxhall Corsas and Berlingos zooming around the impromptu ring road at the base of the Lomond Hills, dropping off their vest-clad occupants at various intervals along the route.
With a new decade came a new format: All relay legs would start and finish in the historical town of Falkland, with a central base for teams to setup tents and watch their runners zip in and out on their various adventures across the Lomonds.
For my sins, I had taken up the mantle of Men’s Captain for the Ochil Hill Runners, following in the large footsteps of John Stevenson. A foolishly uttered, “What does the captain do?” at the Ochil’s AGM in December had seen me take on the unenviable task of organising the teams for the Burdens.
With just 36 hours to go, it appeared some sinister plot was afoot: one tweaked knee, a freak rolled ankle in the garden and a pulled back muscle at work just 24 hours before the race, putting three excellent runners out, sounds like the start of a Midsomer Murders episode to me.
Like a game of Jenga, runners came out and others placed on top – my only hope was the whole thing didn’t come tumbling down.
Getting to Falkland at 9.30am on race day and seeing them all there was quite surreal, like Aragorn in The Two Towers seeing Gandalf and the Riders of Rohan on the horizon: My god. You really came!
They were all there, ready to run for club and county. I could not have done it without former captain John. His knowledge of the club and its members’ strengths was like having Alex Ferguson on my shoulder.
He laughed on the phone the night before as I panicked to get teams rearranged: “You can see why it’s called the Devil’s Burdens, can’t you?”
We clapped out the leg one runners, who marched out the field like the first wave of infantry. I had decided putting myself and fellow Ochil/fellow Ross on a leg together, because that seemed to make sense for the main reason that we had the same name. Ross is a strong runner, so I knew I would have to be on form to keep up with him.
Ross and I jogged around the field, anxiously waiting for Lewis to return from leg one. I half contemplated quickly dropping the kids off at the pool, but decided against it as Ally Beavan shut the loo door behind him and a queue stood agitated in line.
A flash of purple and Lewis was in the field. We were ahead of the Ochils MV40 team! At last! Heart thumping in my ears I cried, “He’s here!” to Ross and stood at the changeover point.
Lewis had ran brilliantly, hurtling around the ankle-twisting field in 7th place.
Then we were off. “Come on, Ross!”, “Go on, Ross!”. Cowbells clattered in our ears as the brain switched into race mode. At least people didn’t have to worry about shouting two names as we tore out the field.
After all the excitement of the start, it feels strange to suddenly be on a solo mission up the road. The Ochils MV40 leg one runner, Graeme, passed us heading toward the field. We were being chased.
We fell into a rhythm, my legs ticking over nicely as we climbed steadily to CP1. The Fellkour Squad passed us in their new traffic cone-coloured vests, steadily building a gap as we climbed up the first grassy bank.
The route snaked itself through a stumpy plantation, the lower branches forming a shadowy tunnel. Ross hovered by my shoulder, coolly punching our card at CP2 as we left the gloom.
Ahead, a wrath awaited us: Sheets of rain were being dragged across the barren plateau on a deasy wind, the entirety of West Lomond capped with an upturned bowl of pea soup. For the next 3km we followed the wide track that thrusts its way across the plain, taking advantage of the lulls in the wind offered by the lumpy landscape.
Leaning sideways into the gale, we followed the two fluorescent orange vests as they bobbed like fireflies ahead of us. The steep ascent up West Lomond jolted us into remembering this was, in part, a hill race. Thankful to leave the ATV track behind, Ross took the chance to set the pace, marching straight up the slope as I chomped on oxygen.
I had taken great pleasure in my clever move to set the compass bearing in the field for the only bit of navigation we might need on our leg.
As we reached the top of West Lomond, I pulled out my compass and performed what I thought was another cunning tactic. I pointed to an unremarkable tussock in the general direction of ‘not-the-way-we-just-came-up’ and we dived down the hill just as another two teams came up behind us.
Soon, though, I shouted to Ross, “BEAR LEFT!”. We did, contouring below the cloud base in the direction my compass was actually pointing. I managed to convince myself that my navigational fumble was actually a cunning move to throw the other teams off the scent, smiling as I saw a few continuing their hunt on our previous trajectory.
What a strategist.
Through a combination of running and bum-sliding, we reached CP4 and began contouring back in an easterly direction. We had gained some ground on the Fellkour Squad, and we tried to close the gap before they reached the dreaded fire road.
The final 4km of the leg followed an excruciatingly runnable track. Normally, this would finish me off, but somewhere during winter I have found flat speed! My legs felt excellent as we made the (extended) home sprint, running like the MV40s were right behind us.
Emerging from the forest into the finishing straight, I made towards the gap into the field, nearly rugby-tackling the marshall in my commitment to get to the handover as fast as I could.
After battling through the tussocked field, we hit the changeover, sending our next runners on their way.
Ross had stuck in for the final 4km, his legs refusing to turn in their usually well-oiled fashion after a month off with a back injury. If they had, I think I’d have had a rather different experience. We had done it, though. We had done our part.
As more runners came in, I went back to the Ochil Hill Runners’ tent, layering up to cheer the rest of our teams in. Shouting and running back and forth to take pictures of them coming in – it’s hard to say whether I enjoyed the racing or the spectating more!
When the winning team, Carnethy, came in, the assembled runners and watchers jumped up and down, boosting them around their final lap of the field like a wave to a surfer.
It might not be T in the Park, but tea and soup in a hall of rainforest-level humidity after such a phenomenal day takes some beating.
Huge congrats to all the Ochil Hill Runners teams over the day. The Open Seniors finished 9th overall, beating the MV40s by two spots! The MV40s finished 3rd in category. Our other two teams, Mixed Seniors and FV40s, both finished 2nd in category.
Full results here.