Photo shows Debbie at the start of the race

Debbie’s Forfar 5k for Guide Dogs – by Debbie Thain

The Forfar Guide Dogs 5K is another local event that I had no idea even existed until recently. This year it seems I have found many new local races by following more running groups on Facebook, and with so many long and large big city races, I’ve been finding it fun to try out new ones closer to home.

And I don’t think there’s any races much closer to home than the Forfar Guide Dogs 5K. It may start at the Guide Dog centre but its just a stone’s throw away from Forfar Loch, a popular local landmark and dog-walking area. I am very familiar with the area, as it’s also the location for Forfar Academy’s sponsored walk which I took part in an undisclosable number of years ago, and more recently, it’s been one of my main training areas for long distance running. A lap of the loch measures a decent 4.5(ish) kilometres, and I have run that loop clockwise and anti-clockwise more times than I can count. One gruelling training run had me run around the damn thing EIGHT times and I think it took about six months before I could bear to go back.

So I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Forfar Loch, because while it is a fast course that’s marvellous for training with its mix of compacted trail and small sections of tarmac road, I know every little twist, turn, incline, decline and muddy patch prone to flooding. I know it like the back of my hand, and if you’ve ever looked at the back of your hand for more than a few minutes at a time you’ll come to realise that, eventually, it gets pretty boring.

But the Guide Dogs 5k had one very exciting prospect that made the thought of re-running the loch bearable: Doggies!

Photo shows Debbie's dog Howie modelling his new harness
Howie modelling his new harness

And there were certainly were doggies in abundance! GPS helped me find the Guide Dog centre, but alas it couldn’t find me a parking space, so I circled the entire building and saw many a cute canine hanging out in their kennels. There was no time to stop and say hello though since I still had to register, so I found a parking space on one of the side roads outside the centre and wandered in.

Inside the hall area, I was greeted by many runners, and again, more dogs! But a queue had formed for registration so I quickly joined before it could get too large. In the queue, I spotted a stall had been put up for dog running harnesses and the gears in my head started turning. I have a very lively springer spaniel at home who loves running, but progress was limited due to a lack of harness and my own lack of dog training skills.

One swift registration later, number pinned on, and I was happily perusing the stall as I tried to work out which harnesses were for people and which ones were for the dogs. Alison, a cani-cross runner proved wonderful in helping me out, but unfortunately there was no way to buy a dog harness without fitting it to the dog. Doh! Understandably, I hadn’t packed my dog with the rest of my race kit that morning.

Because it was such a small and local race, I had gone without any members of my usual support crew, but ended up dragging one along anyway with instructions to bring Howie (our spaniel) to the finish. Craig was the unhappy receiver of the call, but being too asleep to argue, grudgingly obliged to meet me after the race. Feeling very satisfied with my future shopping plans, I nipped to the loos and headed outside to mingle with the other runners.

Photo shows a volunteer in a Guide Dog mascot costume
Giant Guide Dog officiating the start of the race

I found Pauline and some other familiar faces from the Brechin Road Runners at the start. Pauline planned to go for the podium, while others were pondering times I could only dream about. I was legit there to pet all the good dogs and had no time in mind, so I meandered my way to the back of the crowd where I’d be less likely to get crushed by the faster runners.

It was at this point I realised the weather had actually warmed up a bit. Storm Callum had me wearing layers most of the weekend, so I’d layered up for the race as well. Of course, my bib number had been pinned to my outermost long-sleeved layer. I eyed my watch and saw there was still thirteen minutes to go until the 9:30 start and figured I’d have time to shed a layer and reattach my bib.

I was wrong.

I was one and a half safety pins done when I heard the announcement, “So, this is very unusual but I think we can get started early.”

I then proceeded to miss the entire safety briefing because I was frantically fumbling with my bib number. Pins were dropped to the ground, fingers were pricked, but I managed to throw my long-sleeved top around my waist just in time for the Fido run to take off and the 5K group to bunch up.

I wasn’t sure what a Fido run was when I signed up. But the dog theme and the giant dog mascot costume really should have given it away. A half-dozen cani-crossers and their wide variety of pooches took off in a blur of fur and harnesses. Alison was now harnessed to a giant brown dog that looked like it could be ridden into battle and off they went.

Photo shows Debbie at the start of the race
Debbie at the start of the race

The runners without dog-power waited until the cani-crossers had some time to spread out, and then with a simple 3-2-1 we were off with a cheer and the bleeping of sports watches. It was a small field, perhaps only eighty or so total, but we were quickly struggling for room as we were sandwiched between a fence and some parked cars (including mines! I had a sudden fear that I might misplace a wingmirror) as we squeezed onto a narrow grassy trail until we connected to the Forfar path network.

Thankfully the crowding didn’t last long and we were soon free to spread out and fall into our own paces. We turned right on the path as soon as we hit the south side of the loch and I decided this was a good thing. I usually run the loch anti-clockwise, the same as we were for the race, but I was starting from a different point so I would be able to get the mentally tough bit out of the way first, since this time I would be starting where I am usually tiring and desperate to finish.

Thankfully it wasn’t mentally tough that day at all. The local dog-walkers were adding to my dog-themed day with their own hounds and I stopped to ‘awwww’ at a random puppy. It was tiny with big eyes and I wanted to cuddle it but there was a race going on.

Surprisingly I found myself overtaking a few folk, including one young teen that made me suddenly remember that there was a family run going on as well. I hadn’t realised they had the same starting times and with the small and varied field I was reminded very much of park run.

Going a bit faster than I would usually on my training runs, the rugby and football pitches didn’t take long to appear and then quickly fall away behind me. A gentleman in one of the swishy new guide dog technical t-shirts was a little bit ahead, and I was so very slowly getting closer and was considering going for the overtake. It took a bit of effort though, so I dialled it down a bit. With bigger races looming in the distance, I couldn’t forget that this was all about getting a bit of fresh air and hanging out with the dogs.

Photo shows Debbie's dog Howie wearing his new harness
Howie wearing his new harness

It wasn’t long until we were by the play park and the old leisure centre on the far side of the loch when lo and behold, I found something new! Very new! The autumnal scenery suddenly became very interesting again as I realised the loch had recently had an upgrade. Where there was once just grass there was now an entirely new tarmacked path! It made a lot of sense, as before non-locals might have found the path difficult to pick up again with it being almost hidden amongst the trees. Plus, no more wet shoes from soggy grass for me!

I looked around me to see if any of the other runners were aware of this new and awesome development. They were not. Not even the marshal cheering us on. Perhaps they’d been around the loch more recently than I have, or perhaps they had simply not desensitised themselves to the scenery to the extent that a tiny new bit of path is super exciting.

The surprise gave me a bit of a boost as I headed into the trees, up the small incline. Thankfully the field had spread out enough by this time so we weren’t crowded on the narrow trail areas. Then it was back onto tarmac and I realised at this point that the gent wearing the guide dog t-shirt wasn’t taking the racing line. He was taking the long way around every corner, so I managed to narrow down the distance even further while still maintaining the same pace. I felt very clever and planned an eventual overtake just before the end.

Past the boathouse and the monument dedicated to Forfar’s ‘witches’ and very carefully over the speedbumps along the road (I have a personal vendetta against speedbumps but that’s a story for another day), I eventually came to the long straight section of path that the fishermen seem to congregate at. At this point I got a bit excited. Somehow, I’d managed to catch up with a cani-crosser! With the cani-crossers’ small headstart and extra dog-power, I hadn’t expected to see any of them again until the finish.

I gleefully overtook, feeling very proud of myself until I realised dog-power wasn’t a factor given the doggy’s very not-taut leash, and also the fact the dog might not even manage to reach my knee if it was standing on its hind legs. I have no idea what breed it was, but I suspect I have a large handbag that it might have managed to fit in reasonably comfortably. Even so, an overtake is an overtake, and the small handbag dog and its owner were now well behind.

Photo shows Debbie holding up her finisher's medal
Debbie showing her finisher’s medal

And then I was taken down a peg when a father and son team sprinted by. The son was maybe seven-ish, and was covering ground at an amazing rate even with a very non-practised running technique. I decided youthful exuberance should be reclassified as a super power just as I came to the crossroads. I hadn’t been listening to the briefing, but thankfully a marshal kept me right. To the left is a small bridge and well-kept path next to the adult monkey bar gym equipment, and to the right, a rocky and muddy trail prone to flooding.

We were sent to the right. I almost slipped at one point, with the leaves hiding a slippery pile of mud, but I regained my balance and made a game of epically leaping over the puddles. Somehow I came away with dry feet, and it was a left across the metal bridge where we came to our next crossroads.

To the right is the tarmac road that leads you the most direct route to the path network and thus to the Guide Dog centre. To the left is root-ridden forest trails and puddles. We were sent to the left.

It was at this point I glanced at my watch and saw I’d been going for 28 minutes. I really wished I had listened to the race briefing, because without any kilometre markers I wasn’t really sure where I was in the race and when I’d be put back on the path for the finish. I figured it couldn’t be too much further though, and I finally went in for the overtake I’d been planning for the better part of twenty minutes.

I know of several small paths through the wooded area that connects the left and right forks, and expected a marshal to be at any one of those to point me back to the finish. There wasn’t. I started to wonder if a marshal had left their post for a moment or something, and I would be running around the loch at final-kilometre pace forever, when I emerged from the wooded area and finally saw some marshals. I was pointed to the right, and I realised we’d had to go back on ourselves slightly to make up the distance.

Up onto the path network again and suddenly I heard some heavy breathing behind me. Then beside me. Ahead of me. My carefully planned overtake proved to be for nothing when the gent in the guide dog’s t-shirt majorly upped the pace and left me in the dust. Where he’d been hiding that speed I have no idea, but by the time I was directed around the back of the Guide Dog centre and across the finish line, I had totally lost sight of him.

Medal and goody bag in hand, I happily skipped over the line to find the Brechin Road Runners and see how they got on. Pauline came in fourth and was disappointed to have missed her podium, while Ann-Marie had nabbed third in the ladies’ category. I finished somewhere in the region of 34 minutes. Not a PB over a 5K, but perhaps a course PB as my Strava segments are showing some nice silver and yellow bling. I wasn’t really caring, I’d already achieved what I’d set out to do that day. I got to see and pet lots of doggies!

Photo shows Scarf, Medal and bib number
Scarf, Medal and bib number

The finish area was great, with some amazing hot curried soup and rolls for sale. There were dogs and runners aplenty, with useful running things included at the stalls and in the goody bags. Craig appeared with our spaniel, Howie, and we accidentally brought our dog inside to get his harness fitted until we were told it was supposed to be guide dogs only inside (oops, sorry guys!).

Alison had to break away from my cani-cross Q&A session to join the prize-giving when she and her hound came away with a first prize in the cani-cross event, and the Brechin Road Runners came away with some prizes too. Well done, everyone! And especially to Charlotte who organised the whole thing! You can totally tell the event was organised by a runner, from the route to the goody bags and the food afterwards, it all went so smoothly that it’s hard to believe that the event has only ever taken place once before. And in the countless races I’ve taken part in, it’s the only one that has ever managed to start early!

I went to Guide Dogs 5K wanting to go for a run and pet some pooches. Not only did I do that, but I also came away with some Epsom salts, a full belly, several bags of crisps and other goodies, a harness for myself and for Howie, and a new appreciation for my local running route. I will definitely be back again next time, and if all goes well, I might even be running in a different category with my own furry friend. I can’t wait to give it a retry with some additional puppy-power!


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