I woke up at 06:43am on Saturday 19th October, and immediately realised my alarm hadn’t gone off as I should have been woken up earlier. Six days previously I had completed the Chicago Marathon. It was raining cats and dogs in Aberdeen on the Friday night, and my body clock still hadn’t fully adjusted to being back home. Did I really want to get up at 6:43am for a Footers tourist parkrun visit to Hazlehead? Absolutely!
There were meant to be 5 or 6 Footers heading through, but in the end the weather put people off and so it was just Arthur and myself who made the trip to Hazlehead park. We had some pretty interesting discussions in the car on the way there and back, which made the 100ish mile round trip go by reasonably quickly.
We made good time and got there just before 09:00am – plenty of time to use the facilities and check out the Start area before the First Timers briefing. There were only a few other runners when we first arrived, and they were friendly. One of the ladies clocked our Footers tops and asked how many of us had come through in the end. She was surprised we hadn’t managed to get a few more folk, even with the current weather. The rain had actually gone off around 8:00am, and Arthur had remarked that we might get away with it. Unfortunately there were a few massive puddles on the route, one of which was within easy sight of the start, so our feet would be getting soaked if nothing else. Arthur asked where we could leave our jackets. There is an area at the Finish where items can be deposited (about 100 metres from the Start area) but there is a big shipping container type of storage facility next to the Finish which parkrun uses for storage, and we decided to leave our things there. Not until after the First Timers briefing though as it was rather chilly!
The first timers briefing was delivered by a cheerful gentleman who had some useful statistics about the elevation gain (150 feet), turning point, and the possibility of horses on the route (thankfully we never encountered any as regular riders have learned to avoid parkrun time!). He advised us just to run right through that puddle at the start as the grass would be worse. The RD made the usual announcements, pointed out a few folk who were doing milestone runs – one of whom was decked out in a banner and helium balloon but I never got a photo of her – and announced where the visitors were from (from Shetland to London). Then we were off.
I’d asked a guy at the start where to stand based on expected finish times. On hearing my parkrun PB he said I should be near the front, but I explained I was going to take it fairly easy on post-marathon legs, and I ended up starting next to Arthur. As soon as we started though, I said goodbye to him, not wanting to get held up too much on the narrow climb at the beginning of the route.
Hazlehead parkrun is an out and back run, mostly on trail. The start is quite narrow, and that massive puddle was holding people up as we gingerly ran through it trying not to splash other runners too much. A few folk tried to bypass it but, after getting stuck in claggy grass at Glen Clova last year, I decided the best approach was to tiptoe my way through it. We turned right after about 200 metres but the path remained muddy and continued to climb.
The first half mile is a noticeable climb, and I took that pretty easy. A few people overtook me, but not many. I had no idea of my pace as this is a woodland section and the GPS was going awry. I didn’t believe the pace when it said 10:15 per mile: it felt at least 10% quicker. There is a bit of a break in the climbing, but it continues to be a gradual ascent for the first mile or so before levelling out.
We went past Hazlehead Academy grounds on the right-hand side, and turned left. The route seems to level out and you get to a point where you are no longer surrounded by trees, and the path broadens. I think it’s hard-packed gravel, but it was as good as tarmac in places. I’d worn trail shoes and was happy with that choice, but in dry underfoot conditions you could easily run this in road shoes.
My watch had buzzed around 1km in to tell me my performance condition was +4, which is Good. I’d recovered from the initial climb, and was slowly picking people off. I’d decided after a couple of hundred metres that I didn’t want to stay at the pace we were going, but I wasn’t going to be aggressive about getting past people. I might be able to pull it back under 26 minutes at least. The first mile buzzed in at 9:19 though, so unless the GPS was really out (it was, by about 250 metres over the route) it would take a fair increase in pace.
I spoke to a few folk on the way past. Heading past the Academy grounds I asked the lady I was overtaking if that was the end of the climbs. She said yes, in terms of steep ones, and that it was an out and back. I was like “Oh, I’ll have to go through all those puddles again on the way down” but she told me it wouldn’t be as bad as the route branches off before the massive one we’d gone through at the start, and the finish bit should be drier.
I headed up the path, overtaking several runners, and found myself running alongside a young lady about 1.15 miles in (according to my watch) when I spotted the front runner heading towards me. If my watch was correct, this man had run about 0.7 miles further than me in under 11 minutes and was heading for a blistering time! (I looked up the results later and he had indeed got an impressive time of 16:32.) He looked really powerful: his cadence didn’t seem much higher than mine, but his stride length was, and he bounded passed us as we said “Well done”. I asked the lady how that was even possible, and she said something about it being great to see the fast guys, and reassured me that I was getting there.
Sure enough, I was catching up on a line of guys now, approaching the natural turning point which Ewen had assured us was slightly past the halfway point. I’d said “Well done” to the first half dozen or so guys who were heading back past us on this longish stretch, and to the first few ladies too. I thought I had counted 5 ladies ahead of me who had got around the turning point before me. The first few looked really fast and focused. No hope of catching them. I also got a wave and words of encouragement from one of the guys we’d been talking to before the First Timers briefing.
My watch only read 1.49 miles going around the turning circle, and I thanked the marshal. It was a little muddy here and a fairly tight loop, so I slowed down a little for the 6 or 10 seconds it took to get around it. Clearly the GPS was off, and the course was going to measure short. But by how much? Also, my pace was now saying about 7:30 per mile. Could I stick at what is my usual Half marathon pace for the remainder of the route?
Now we were heading back. I love downhills. But there was a fairly steady stream of runners heading up towards the circle and we needed to stick to the left. I caught up with a row of guys and slowly edged passed them one or two at a time as there were breaks in the traffic coming the other way. The guys in front seemed to know some of the folk heading up towards the turn, and were giving words of encouragement to those they knew. It was here I spotted Kate Robertson from Stonehaven (who I have to thank for my decision to go to Chicago). I’d seen on Facebook that Stonehaven parkrun had been cancelled due to flooding, and had spotted Annie in the line-up at the start, but during the Pre-Race briefing so it was too late to wander over and say hi. I hadn’t spotted Kate then as she’s fairly petite and must have been hidden behind some taller runners. She looked like she was running well, and I gave her a cheery “Hi” and a bit of a wave.
The runners heading up to the turning point were thinning out, and I gave Annie a big wave as we passed each other. I also said Hi to Ewen. I hadn’t seen the tail walker, but there was plenty of time to keep picking people off now and the path was also widening again. Barry is a fantastic climber but is a little cautious on downhills. I’m the opposite – though to be fair my freewheeling downhill speed is probably still slower than his cautious downhill tempo – everything’s relative. However, I was definitely picking off several guys, and only a couple of people went past me on this straight stretch before we re-entered the woods. I was pretty sure I could keep this pace up, as we would be getting the benefit of a steeper (but not too steep) decline soon. The second mile had buzzed in at 7:33, and I was sure the third mile could be quicker. Maybe that would get me in sub 25?
Back into the forested area and I altered my stride at a couple of points to avoid stepping in a few puddles and muddier bits of the path, but it wasn’t too bad. I caught up with the (presumably) father – son duo I’d been reeling in, and said well done to the kid on the way past. The next guy in front was in an apricot parkrun tee and had a fantastic afro. I overtook him on a slight bend and said “Morning.” According to my watch there should be another 400 metres at least to go. I could tell I hadn’t dropped him though, based on the time delay between the marshal there acknowledging me, then the guy behind. I half expected him to go past me again, but not knowing where the Finish was, I couldn’t guess when that would happen.
There were another couple of slight bends and, sure enough, the guy sprinted past. And so did the kid and his Dad/ adult accompanier. The kid seemed more comfortable with the pace than the adult. I said “Well done” to all of them. Then there was another slight jig in the path, and all of a sudden the Finish was unexpectedly just 20 metres or so away! “Oh, that’s why they’re sprinting.” I thought. I better try and pick it up. I felt fresh enough for a sprint, but it takes me longer than I had left to fully get up to speed. Due to the GPS being way out, I was quicker than I’d hoped for though, squeaking under 24 minutes with a 23:58. For an unknown route, in less than perfect underfoot conditions, and only 6 days after a marathon, I was pretty pleased with that. My finish token said 35, and it turned out I was the 4th woman across the line.
The scanners were at the end of the finish funnel, and the lady congratulated me. Quintin had congratulated me on the way along the finish funnel: I’d forgotten to check if he’d be there that day, so it was a pleasant surprise to see him. We had a quick chat, and he mentioned he was heading off to do a 10k trail race at noon! I’d probably have skipped parkrun but best of luck to him. Kate quickly appeared, and Quintin took a photo of us before heading off to his race. We had a chat about Chicago, and Kate mentioned she is doing 12 marathons in 12 months to raise money – I think for the Friends of the Neo-natal Unit. She’s going to be writing a blog about it, which you can find here.
I was starting to cool down, but was worried I’d miss Arthur’s finish if I tried to get over to the storage container and back. Sure enough, Arthur appeared in view, having run a faster-than-expected 33:48. I took a few photos, but mobile phone cameras make it hard to focus on moving subjects so they weren’t really keepers. Thankfully there was someone with a proper camera on the course so hopefully there are better photos out there from the event.
With a long drive ahead of us, and with me not having any cash on me (I’d left my handbag in my own car in Arbroath) going for coffee wasn’t a viable option, so we headed off back to Arbroath.
Hazlehead is a lovely parkrun in a beautiful setting. It’s an out-and-back, mixed terrain but mostly trail course around a woodland park. The climb at the start stops you going out too fast, and the overall elevation gain is only 50 metres so it’s not too tough. And what goes up must come down. I could imagine the Start might get a little congested on busy weeks- there were only 162 runners this week compared to the record attendance of 416, which I could imagine would feel a little crowded just for the first hundred or so metres on that narrow uphill beginning. The average attendance is around 200 though and it would be absolutely fine at those levels. It’s a very friendly parkrun and there was nobody aggressively trying to get past at any points on the route. And I really liked all the encouragement and camaraderie from runners when you were passing them heading the opposite direction. If you like gentle trail runs with a bit of undulation, fancy something that’s convenient for a city but feels like a rural parkrun in the forest sections, and love a downhill finish, then this is definitely one to check out.