Racing Edinburgh’s 7 Hills

The sun was shining on Edinburgh’s iconic 7 Hills on the 3rd Sunday in June as hundreds of runners converged on Calton Hill. Conditions were just about perfect – warmish, dry, sunny and still.

Particularly lovely aspects of the race are the lack of rules and the relaxed, low key (though very efficient) organisation. So you wander up, collect your number, stow your kit in the bin bag with your number on it and have a relaxed chat with friends and fellow competitors before meandering over to the start area, lining up and charging off.

In order, the hills are Castle, Corstorphine, Craiglockhart, Braid, Blackford, Arthurs Seat and Carlton. Potentially scary and liberating at the same time for road runners, you’re free to choose your own route between them. Which makes a few pre-race recces to sight the shortcuts and figure out your options an extremely good idea! The most efficient routes come in at a bit over 14 miles, so having covered some decent distances in your training is also sensible preparation.

Although taking exactly the same course, there is the “Challenge” – aimed at those whose half marathon time is outside roughly 1 hour 40 minutes. This sets off half an hour before the “Race” and actually has a lot more competitors taking part in it. To the slight bewilderment of a large group of Chinese tourists, they were off… I took this as a cue to take a final pit stop and do some gentle warming up just to get my legs moving.

Very glad to’ve done so, as after rushing past the folly, you’re straight down the slope and small steep steps at top speed to pop out on Regent Road. Fortunately, starting at 10:15 on a Sunday morning, traffic is fairly light. Just as well, as there are rather a lot of roads to cross and getting run over definitely wasn’t in my pre-race plan.

Scattering somewhat bemused tourists along the Royal Mile, we had all bagged Castle Hill before we knew it. Sadly (yeah, right, I was devastated – not), the paths through Princes Street Gardens are currently out of bounds, so down the steps to Johnston Terrace we went. Already you could tell the proper hill runners and fearless nutters by the speed at which they navigated the horrid small steps two or three at a time. Perhaps a warning of things to come.

This is a race at which you see a multitude of different types of footwear – from barefoot 5 toed minimalist shoes, to normal trainers, to lightweight fell shoes, through to chunky trail shoes. With a huge amount of tarmac to be covered, trainers with good grip had to be my choice. Hence my pleasure at the good conditions, as they would’ve been less fun on wet slippy mud, rocks and trails.

Back to the race. Folks thinned out as we zoomed our way off to Corstorphine Hill, so it was time just to concentrate on getting one foot in front of another as quickly as possible. Saw a few folks getting a bit confused and going round in circles coming off the hill. I mean, I know there are lots of trees and similar looking little paths, but can only assume that the sun had already gone to their heads.

For a road runner, the fast descent down to Corstorphine Road was fantastic. Choice of lightly gravelled path or road to zoom down at full pelt, before starting the long slog in the warm sunshine across to Craiglockhart. Straight up the bank behind the sports centre was a slightly mucky scramble, to pop out onto the grass with a fabulous view of Hillend and the south of the city. Quick dunk of a soggy sponge at the water station and it was back down again. This time via a very pretty tree lined path, complete with zooming and corner screeching noises from me (also an effective method of getting people to move over to let you past). I think it’s my favourite part of the whole route.

The journey onwards to Braid hill started to see people taking a much bigger varieties of route, none of which appeared (I was very pleased to note) to be quicker than the one I’d prepared. By this point the “Race” crew were very much intermingled with the “Challenge” guys, so there was plenty of company and a bit of banter going on.

From the top of Braid hill you can see the last two hills and (sort of) the finish. So feeling good and still quite fresh, I joined the throng across the golf course and across towards the Hermitage. As it was dry I opted to go more or less straight down the steep bank (less sliding on my backside than my previous effort) and straight through the burn instead of risking slipping on the stepping stones. With just a tiny bit of barbed wire to negotiate, it was on to the ascent of Blackford hill.

There are steps which are difficult to avoid and they’re horrible! Very deep and very eroded, they make your legs work extremely hard to haul yourself up in any sort of rhythm. The faster “Challenge”rs and early “Race”rs had done a nice job of bashing the nettles out the way, so it was a relatively unimpeded trudge up to the top. A few more familiar faces here cheering, taking photos etc… but only time for a quick wave and smile before thundering down past the Observatory – onwards and downwards and all that!

Some lovely householder had rigged up a hose to spray the hot runners on Observatory Road, so I was feeling a touch less sticky crossing the allotments and starting to contemplate the final big climb. By this point there were quite a few folks really suffering with cramp (combination of weather and hammering of legs on descents), so I was feeling a little (ok, only a tiny bit) guilty that I was still fine as I skipped along the tarmac to approach Holyrood Park.

Some folks take the maze through Pollock Halls with the shimmy through the turnstile or clamber over the wall to get into the park. Not fancying getting lost or stuck, I took the easy route (which I don’t actually think is much longer at all) past the Commonwealth Pool. To be greeted by the sight of hundreds of pink clad “Race for Life”ers wending their weary way around the perimeter road. Nipping through, thoughts now turned to the route up Arthurs Seat.

Not having recced this this time, I took my cues from previous memory and the visual layout of other runners making their way up. As it was dry, I opted for a very direct and steep route. Cutting off the steps to go straight up the rocks. Didn’t occur to me to worry about it at the time, but a few folks afterwards commented on finding the ascent scary. Having given a helping hand to a fellow runner struggling with the scramble, I can perhaps see why, but clambering and scrambling is grist to my mill, so I actually enjoyed it.

Not being a proper hill runner and having done very little practise recently, descending is quite another matter… As I gingerly picked my way down, quite a few people came flying past a top speed. Being fairly confident I was comfortably in the lead, I didn’t see the need to wreck my legs (or nerve) for the weeks ahead, so played it safe and concentrated on picking up the pace once I got onto something less technical.

Avoiding the Race for Life finish, it was straight across the field, past the Palace and up the steps to Regent Road. Checking my watch, I saw I was on track for a sub 2 hour finish without killing myself. So allowing a new smile to appear, I was quite relaxed as I took the final ascent up the back of Carlton hill to the welcome finish line. 1:58:59, 1st female and all in one piece – that was all my targets successfully ticked.

Watching others come in whilst munching the welcome food laid on (yes, really – brilliant value for a race costing <£10!), I was pleased to remove my shoes, clean myself up and swap stories with friends old and new. EAC runners had a good day with the team of Adam Rouse (1:47:58 for 7th), Gabriele Bucciarello (1:54:52 for 16th) and John Morris (2:04:02 for 40th) coming in third team – great running guys!

My only disappointment was that there aren’t that many women running in the “Race” – perhaps the hill runners have bigger fish to fry at this time of year, but I would’ve relished being made to work a little harder for my victory. C’mon ladies, sign yourself up next year!

In summary – iconic, scenic, hard, fast, long, challenging and above all, brilliant fun. I recommend it to any reasonably fit distance runner wanting something a little different to do whilst enjoying a sociable day out.

4 thoughts on ““Racing Edinburgh’s 7 Hills”

  • Jenny

    It was just some calming encouragement and a hand up from below to help his foot into a proper niche. I think other folks were more fazed by the scrambling than I was…

  • Jenny

    Oops, that wasn’t what I was intending Richard. My legs over the past couple of days will attest to the fact that I was most definitely working! But I could probably have pushed myself a bit harder 😉

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