Nicola: The last of the Mighty Deerstalkers


As many in Saltwell may know, I’ll give most types of running a go, so when the opportunity to enter a race called The Mighty Deerstalker arose, my answer was “Yeah, should be a laugh”.

Then I Googled it. “Leg-destroying”, “scree scramble”, “the UK’s toughest off-road run”, were some of the phrases bandied about. Oh dear. What’s more, there would be multiple water crossings on the course. In Scotland. In December. In the dark. Now I do enjoy a good trail run and don’t mind a bit of mud, but immersing myself in freezing cold water is not my idea of fun (Wim Hof I am most definitely not).

The queue for registration: definitely the worst part of the race.

As the temperature forecast for the weekend dropped, my apprehension grew. Imagine my relief when an email came through two days before the race informing participants that all water crossings could be avoided if wished. Also, they advised that there would be a nice heated tent which you didn’t have to leave until ten minutes before the start. I began to feel a bit more excited about the whole thing.

The day of the race arrived, and despite the sub-zero temperature we were all raring to go. Suitably fuelled by a bacon and egg sandwich plus a Christmas dinner flavoured sausage roll (if you’re ever in the area, the Saturday market in Peebles is excellent), I arrived at the registration area to be greeted with a gigantic queue stretching a rather long way outside the nice heated tent.

40 minutes later, I finally reached the entrance to the tent where the race volunteers were valiantly attempting to register a lot of very cold runners with registrant lists printed in what must have been the smallest font possible. With chattering teeth and numb hands I fumbled to put my wristband on and attach my timing tag to my laces, then sprinted to the bag drop and on to the start line, making my start wave with about ten seconds to spare. It wasn’t until five minutes into the run that I realised I’d forgotten to switch my head torch on.

The first mile was nice and easy: relatively flat terrain, and as promised, a detour around the first water crossing for weaklings like me. As we approached the first serious hill I had finally warmed up and was feeling good. My pace soon slowed to a walk though as the incline got the better of me. As I half-ran, half-walked up through the snow-covered trees, I passed a few other runners who were all in good spirits, with the overall vibe distinctly festive. Headtorch runs are always a bit more atmospheric than daytime runs, but with the snow on the ground in the quiet forested hills, it felt magical.

The best part about hills is of course the downhill part. I know not all will feel the same, but I love nothing more than stretching my legs and properly going for it down a good hill, although I did have to restrain myself somewhat after nearly going flying a couple of times. Passing through a rather interesting section in the forest where there were briefly some flashing disco lights and a pumping bassline, I wondered if I’d began to hallucinate only three miles in.

Once back down there were another couple of water crossings to negotiate (or avoid). Then along one of the few road sections on the course through the local village, where I got a bit of decent running in but anticipating what I knew would be the toughest section of the course – the scree scramble. A near-vertical 150m climb up a scree slope, which for the majority of people resembled a crawl more than a run. While undeniably tough, this part was also weirdly exhilarating.

The view from the top – admittedly not the best photo given I had just crawled up a mountain of scree.

After what seemed like an age, the summit finally appeared. I paused to catch my breath, turned to look back, and was rewarded with an incredible view of the village lights way below, and a line of headtorches snaking up the mountain. A man behind me had also stopped to enjoy the sight. “You’ve got to stop and take it all in haven’t you, otherwise what’s the point?” he said. I nodded in agreement and took a couple of pictures before setting off again.

Now there was another steep downhill section to enjoy, with an extra bit of fun at the end. The marshal greeted me and pointed to a rope – I was meant to use it to lower myself down another near-vertical slope. I have never abseiled before and until now had no desire to do so, but this bit was such fun I may have to give it a go sometime.

With the hills all conquered, I picked up the pace knowing that there wasn’t far to go. One last river crossing appeared and as previously, I asked the marshal where I needed to go to avoid the water. “You can’t, got to go through this one” he cheerily advised. “What? NOOOOO!” I inwardly wailed, but reluctantly bracing myself, stepped in to the icy stream (an expletive may have been uttered I must confess). Fortunately, the water was only calf deep and a couple of metres wide, unlike some of the others. Once at the other side I squelched out of the river and picked up the pace further to try and warm my feet up. At last, the sound of voices and Christmas music became apparent – the finish was in sight. I turned the final corner and staggered over the line – I’d done it.

Dazed and confused with hot chocolate number two.

A medal was placed over my head, and I gratefully picked up a cup of hot chocolate to warm up. I wandered out of the finish area in a daze, and while trying to switch off my headtorch, managed to throw the hot chocolate all over myself. More expletives ensued. A kindly marshal offered to help me with my headtorch and told me to get another drink. “Sorry, I think I’m a bit delirious,” I told him sheepishly. “Yeah, we see this a lot,” he reassured me.

After a replacement hot chocolate, and a change into dry clothing, I began to feel relatively normal again, so I made my way to the nice heated tent to wait for my friends. Once we had all finished, we drove back to our Airbnb, sharing stories about the run (they were braver souls than me and went through all of the water crossings). Later, a hot shower (I may have wept with joy a tiny bit), a bowl of slow cooker chilli and a glass of red wine have never felt so good.

The verdict? Certainly the most bizarre race I have ever done, but utterly brilliant. Would I do it again? Unfortunately, as this was the last ever Mighty Deerstalker, it’s not an option, but if it were it would be a definite yes (although I’d still give the water a miss)!

Nicola Dyson