#30: Alness

Alness? Where on earth is that then? I checked round with my work colleagues and got mainly blank expressions except from the one who grew up in Inverness. Given that my team mates come from Germany, Ireland and Bonnyrigg though, and I grew up in the West Midlands, this puzzlement probably wasn’t representative. My wife is from Fife, and I’ve always been amazed by the unofficial game of ‘name that far flung obscure village’ that Scottish people tend to play when they meet each other for the first time.

-Aye, I ken Auchenballiehoop, it’s braw. Wee fishing place, good chippy.

-Aye, that’s ma da’s chippy…

A quick google search, followed by a look at train times, and I realised that Alness is a long, long way away. Not only would it be the new most northerly UK parkrun, it would also be the furthest north I have ever travelled on the UK mainland. The train journey would be around the same time needed to travel from Edinburgh to London on the way out, and was likely even longer on the way back. The options were also pretty limited, were I to miss the 11.36 train back, I would then need to wait for the 16.11 train. I left it another day to think about it.

I don’t know about you, but the words ‘party’ and ‘Christmas’ seem to have come up a few times for me in recent weeks. This reminded one of my club mates at Portobello that at the last Christmas party he’d asked me what I planned on doing in 2017. I’d replied something about doing the Scottish parkruns, but at the time I don’t think the idea was all that serious. By the turn of the year the idea had pretty much crystallised and I was set on course. I’m personally the sort of person that once I’ve decided on something, it’s almost more difficult for me to not do it. Naturally I bought a train ticket the next day, and booked a B&B.

A few months ago, my employers started providing us with breakfast. Nothing fancy or anything, just some fairly inexpensive loaves, a toaster and some cereals. The idea being that this mild outlay would promote a happier, more motivated workforce. An army marches on it’s stomach and all that. The deal is that this is laid out first thing for the early workers, then put away at 10am. Frequently, the office manager will be busy though, and the 10am cut off is extended slightly. On Tuesday, at 10.10am, I found the bread still in place, and made myself some toast. I have to say, I’m not normally a thrill seeker, but this was pretty exciting. On Wednesday, at around 10.45am, I saw that the bread bins had been moved from the counter and onto the benches nearby to be put away, but then the office manager had been called away. I couldn’t help myself. In I went, two slices into the toaster and back to my desk unable to hide my glee. I’ve since realised that I may have a problem. Who knows where this could lead.

I managed to get out of work slightly early on Friday to catch the 17.42 train heading north. This would get into Alness around 10pm, which was much better than the next train which wouldn’t get in until midnight. I grabbed myself a train picnic at Waverley, found the train and got myself settled in for the long haul. Top marks to the lady who around Kirkcaldy got on the phone to order a takeaway. I started to wonder why I wasn’t on the way home with a carry out destined to be eaten on the sofa whilst wearing pyjamas.

Into Inverness a minute or two behind, and I’m not the only one who is catching the train heading still further north. The connection should be our train getting in at 21.01, and the train out going at 21.06. The platforms are the furthest apart it’s possible to be at Inverness, and though some of us are dashing across to make it, the train crew are clearly not moving till we’re all onboard. It’s now completely dark, chucking it down and I’m off heading still further north. Earlier in the week, my friend and fellow intrepid Scotland parkrun explorer from #23: Ayr messaged me to say he was coming to Alness as well. He’d been thinking to do it later, so this was great news. I messaged him to laugh about how silly we both were.

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Success! Now a quick trip along the high street to the B&B and I can settle in for the night. My partner in crime had arrived a little earlier than me, having set off around 4pm and driven the whole 5 hours in one go. If I suggest anything like this again at the coming Christmas party, can someone please talk some sense into me?

Arriving at the B&B, I was confronted by a note stuck to the inside of the door which said something like: ‘please do not ring the buzzer, go to the house behind’. This become much more clear the next day in the light when I could see said house, but in the dark with a combination of a long day, much travelling and my own lack of wit I was entirely baffled. For those of you who remember the Crystal Maze TV program, it was much like that but without a team of people behind a door shouting ‘get the crystal’! Thankfully the B&B owner had seen me, and my baffled expression, and came to rescue me. Installed in my lodgings, a quick call to wifey then it was time to get some sleep.

The morning arrived, and a quick peep through the curtains confirmed what I could hear, a downpour.

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It’s pretty difficult to illustrate how heavy it’s raining in a photo

Down to breakfast, a tweet to the @parkrunweatherfairy and we cross everything that the rain would stop soon. Thankfully, the weather fairy’s wand was in fine form, and the sky started to brighten and the rain slackened off. Full disclosure, it then got really heavy again for a bit before stopping as we were about to leave the B&B. Whilst mucking around on Twitter, I had a message telling me to look out for two intrepid Yorkshire folk who were also in Alness for the run. At this point I had no idea they were the couple sat opposite me at breakfast. As we left the B&B, said couple were also now in running gear, and I asked if they were who I’d been told to look out for… they were! so off we went to find the start line.

I’ve gotten into the habit of doing a warm up before a parkrun, I usually aim to cover a mile fairly slowly. This morning in Alness, I take the opportunity to have a quick nosey at some of the course. I’m quickly aware that this is going to be pretty special.

At the start line, and as well as the usual announcements, we have a local councillor who says a few words. She talks about how easy it was to raise the funding for the event, and heaps praise on the main organiser of the event. She mentions the difficulty in getting through red tape, and how much effort it was for the event to get to this point. It’s something I guess I rarely think about; I just turn up to a public space and go for a run. I don’t think about the effort that goes into securing a working relationship with a landowner, and allowing hundreds of people to hold an event there each and every single week. Along with every volunteer that makes parkrun work, there is also a team that were there from day 1 who have worked damn hard to provide us with these incredible courses.

Go! We’ve started on grass in a small park, and the first section is to head straight along the grass and toward a wood. We get to the woods, and the terrain underfoot changes. We’ve now got mud, tree roots and puddles to splosh through. The main path is to the right of me, but I’ve taken a slightly wayward course to keep clear space around me, and though this way is slightly drier under foot, it also comes with more undulations and the occasional tree in the face. The path turns slightly left and we’re onto a more solid track now right alongside the river. It’s beautiful. The sky is ominous still, but the water is calm and serene as we carry on up the path. This short section ends fairly abruptly as we turn sharp left and up a small ramp before turning right to continue along the path. We thank the marshal at this point, as on the right the river flows over a small drop in level.

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To our left the scenery now opens out into fields. The path gets narrow, gravelly and still a multitude of puddles from this morning’s deluge. The path closes in on us with thorn bushes at head height, the gap not much more than a person’s width which we skilfully shimmy our way through. This path continues to fidget its way along as we see the main road ahead of us, and I can see a few rigs in the Firth ahead.

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We get to the main road and dart down to the left, then right along a narrow path under the bridge. Up the other side and a left turn, over a short squidgy grass section and then onto an old concrete path. I’ve seen these concrete slabs before on old airbases, and this one is almost consumed by mother nature save for a good sized path which we’re now charging down. The path has seen better days, which makes for a surface my Pilates instructor would be well chuffed I’m running on. To the side of the path I can see a big hulking grey building, as well as smaller shacks which I guess could have been look out or sentry posts. The bushes either side of the path are replete with pink flowers, and now I’m running along side other runners we’re splashing each other as we go through more puddles. Mile #1 done in 6.45

We’re greeted by another marshal and diverted to the right which now points us straight at the sea. I can smell the sea a few seconds later, and in the distance now I can see the oil rigs and other quite industrial looking things out there. I’m looking in all directions trying to take it in as the path narrows and we hit the pier. I’d read on the course description about the pier, and had wondered what this would be like, obviously I was pretty excited about it, I can’t think of many courses which feature one and I’ve certainly never done it before. The pier wasn’t the wooden sort I know, but rather a trail of reclaimed land heading out to sea. The path is now more gravelly and we can see the fast guys now heading back toward us. We reach the end of the jetty, turn around a cone and head for home. I now have the rest of the field to cheer on (which secretly cheers me on) as we head back inland. I see a lot of tops for jog Alness, and other local clubs, and a look at the results afterwards shows that there were a huge number running their first ever parkrun. Though as ever with an inaugural run there are a few tourists, I’m really encouraged to see a big and thriving local community here. More cheers and before I know it I’m back at the sharp bend left and back along the corridor of flowers. Mile #2 down, 6.55

It’s around this point I started to suffer a bit. I was still overwhelmed by the scenery, but I’d also been verging on the red for a while and my body was starting to complain. Back under the bridge and onto the narrow path, chicane my head through the thorn bushes and we’re by the river again. The river path is brilliant, and though internally I’m going “ARRGGGHHH” the calmness of the water is helping to balance things out. This comes to an end and we’re into the trees and onto the muddy section.  I this time take the lower path, and though I miss most of the really soft stuff, I still have the odd slippy moment. Thankfully this is done pretty quickly, the trees fall away and we’re back into the park. I see the finish line and charge for home. I dread to think what the photo they took of me on the line looks like.

Scores! 12th place, 21.12

Next week, the finale of this tour – PORTOBELLO!

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