- Sat 5 Oct 2019
OK, strap yourself in. I’m turning the Nostalgia dial up to 11.
Back in the day, when I was a lad, we’d often go to visit my grandparents in Peebles. My brother and I would spend weekends playing in Hay Lodge Park, jumpers for goalposts, and exploring the woods along the River Tweed. My grandparents lived in Hay Lodge Cottage, opposite the park gates, where my aunt still lives. As I grew up in Edinburgh I’d still visit Hay Lodge Park, with my student chums, and late at night, we’d sometimes manage to get into Neidpath Tunnel and walk through casting our torches ahead like something out of Scooby Doo. The real challenge was to walk through, alone, without a torch. Larks.
The whole stretch of line here is an engineering marvel, from the tunnel to the viaduct with its amazing skew-arch construction, which was necessary as the bridge crosses the Tweed at an angle. There are stories that suggest that the Royal Train hid in the 600 yard tunnel during WW2 as the King and Queen visited war damage in Clydeside. Great story. Not even sure if I’m bothered about whether it’s true.
Fast forward 40 years and things have changed a little. Hay Lodge Park now has a parkrun, and the tunnel is open to the public. It’s normally unlit, but for one day, the tunnel is lit for the Tweed Tunnel Run.
I first heard about the run when I saw that Colin Blackburn had ran it previously. It looked a hoot. Three courses to choose from; 20km, 10km, and 4km. I signed up and put it in the diary.
The weather wasn’t looking great for the run, which was a bit of a shame. There’s a lot of autumn colour and contrasts and a ray or two of sunshine would’ve made for stunning conditions with the Tweed running high after all the rain. The Start was an intriguing affair. Like many races there was the problem of bottlenecks early on, especially with narrow wet rocky rough paths within the first kilometre. The organisers tackled this in an interesting way; every runner was set off individually, with the fast guys off first. It reminded me of these scenes you see of people taking a parachute jump; the starter would tap a competitor, say GO, then the next one would move forward, and a few seconds later (4 I think), the process was repeated. They allow half an hour to get all the 20km runners away, then it’s time for the 10km runners.
I’d seeded myself near the back of the pack and it was about 10 minutes before I finally got going. Even so, it became apparent to me pretty quickly that this was not going to be a quick race. I was full of a big tea from the previous evening, and I was beginning to suspect my field research into the relative merits of Clipper IPA vs Broughton Pale Ale had perhaps, on the whole, been a little too extensive. I settled down into a comfortable pace that seemed to be slightly slower than everyone else’s, meaning that I was steadily overtaken on the narrow paths.
On my feet I was wearing a pair of reliable and comfortable but worn Saucony Nomad trail shoes that had served me well. But the recent rain meant the paths were muddy and slippy. The route is mostly trail with occasional track and short sections of road, but even so, if it’s as wet as this next year I’ll wear a shoe with a more aggressive sole.
The route itself was wonderful. I thought I knew the area pretty well but the race took us upriver and across bridges and along paths I never knew existed. I loved the contrasts. I love woodland paths but this was all mixed in with tracks and riverside and open hillside, with twists and turns so you were never quite sure what was coming next.
Having done a few ultras I thought a 20km trail run would be pretty easy and I was surprised when we got to the 10km marker and got that ‘only half-way’ feeling. But I wasn’t pushing hard and I was happy to run easy and enjoy the views. One advantage of non-standard distance races on mixed terrain is there’s no benchmark. So I felt no pressure to go faster, as frankly, what was the point?
We were led onto open hillside and an exposed climb round Cademuir to the highest point of the course where the views of Peebles and the valleys made me stop and stare for a bit. Then there was some fun descending down slippy paths where again I felt the lack of traction in my shoes. It wasn’t downhill all the way though with a few kick-ups here and there, before the feed point and the turn into South Park Wood and the approach to the tunnel.
This bit of the race was a series of flashbacks, probably mostly imagined, as the last time I’d played in these woods was a long time ago, usually involving convoluted plot adaptations of Swiss Family Robinson. Still, every now and then I’d see a familiar path or feature and it was curious to see how much had changed, and how much hadn’t.
The routes converged and split a few times, and on the final descent to the tunnel there was a bit of congestion. There were no obvious problems as far as I could see though, and I guess if I was a bit faster, I’d be in front of the pinch points. I quite like these mixed-pace runs that you often see with LDWA events where the runners catch the walkers and there’s a lovely big melting pot of runners and walkers all out doing their own thing on their own terms.
The approach to the tunnel was quite a thing. Quite theatrical as it got closer, and then 674 yards until daylight again. I liked it. I wasn’t sure I would as I thought it might be a bit cheesy, but I think they got it just right. There were walkers and runners in the tunnel but I jogged through and enjoyed the surrealism, knowing that I’d be back for seconds later.
One of the great things about this event is that after the races are over there’s a 3.5km walk that you can sign up for that takes in a loop over the viaduct then back through the tunnel. This means the day can be a family affair as the runner has time to get back, finish, then go out on the walk again.
I set out with Roberta on the walk, retracing bits of the run route, and this time with plenty of time to enjoy the tunnel again.
I’ve already signed up for 2020. If you fancy a taster of what to expect, and to see some more, um, professional quality video of 2019, have a look at the Tweedlove video below. And I’m not just saying that because I make a brief appearance (1:34 since you ask).
Max elevation: 415 m
Min elevation: 164 m
Average speed: 6.56 min/km
Total time: 02:30:42