Dropping in to Edinburgh

Last weekend I travelled down to Edinburgh to take part in “The Drop“. If you haven’t come across it before, the concept is simple but makes for an interesting event. Competitors are blindfolded, bussed out to an unknown location a set distance from the finish location and race to make their way back – but no maps, GPS, or any other navigational aids are allowed. They have regular events all round the country and I’d run in one before, the 30 mile 2019 “Christmas Special” event in Huddersfield (which I won – although there were only 5 competitors)!

For the Edinburgh event, the finish location was at Pedal House – a cycle/row fitness club near the Edinburgh International Conference Centre in the West End. 10 and 15 mile distances were on offer, and I had opted for the 15 miler. I was pretty confident in my navigation within Edinburgh, although I’m a bit hazy on the details of the area around the West End itself so I spent a bit of time the week before studying maps of Edinburgh and the surrounding area. Plotting a 15 mile radius around the finish gave possible start locations as far afield as Kirkcaldy or Dunfermline (evil as it would require a detour over the Forth Road Bridge!), West Lothian (Linlithgow, Bathgate etc.), either NW or E of the Pentlands, A7 or A68 corridors to the South, or East Lothian (Humbie, Haddington or Aberlady). My experience from 2019 was that there are two basic challenges to solve. Firstly, once you are dropped, working out (roughly) where you are and therefore which direction to set off in. Secondly, keeping a roughly optimal course towards the finish location. Plus of course running as fast as you can while doing so!

On the day of the race I took the excellent Ember bus service which runs direct from Bridge of Earn to Edinburgh, getting off at Haymarket. This was only a short walk to the finish, and was a handy way to familiarise myself with the immediate surroundings (and grab a cup of tea and second breakfast). Registration at Pedal House was quick and easy, and there was space to get ready and also leave a drop bag with a change of clothes for afterwards. We were all given a small sealable bag for phone and watch to go in (don’t forget to start your watch before sealing it). Just before 10am, all 25 or so of the competitors (for both distances) were taken to the waiting coach and after a short briefing, blindfolded and off we went!

Of course we couldn’t see anything, but it was a bright day and you could tell which side of the coach the sun was shining on. As a result I was fairly convinced that we were headed East or Southeast, so was fully expecting to be dropped somewhere in East Lothian. After dropping off the 10 mile runners, eventually the coach stopped again and we could remove the blindfolds. Stepping off the coach, we were right at a bus stop labelled “Bo’ness”, so the first challenge was solved right away! Re-orienting myself with the sun to the south I headed off East down the street, trying to remember the best way back to Edinburgh. Compared to 2019 when we were dropped at an unmarked T-junction in the countryside, and had to guess the initial direction this was much less stressful! A short distance later there was a sign for the waterfront path which seemed like a good bet.

After having sat on the bus for an hour, fully hydrated, I had to make a pit stop at the first available bushes and watched as everyone else ran past! Setting off again, I reached the waterfront and picked up signs for National Cycle Network route 76. I remembered that this went all the way to Edinburgh via North Queensferry, and sure enough came across a sign indicating 20 miles to Edinburgh. Before long I’d passed a big group and pair of runners, but I was pretty convinced there were still at least three people ahead, but there was no sign of them – either they were already far ahead, or had taken a different route. After a few miles I came to the village of Blackness, where I made my only real navigational error. The cycle path turned inland, but the footpath was signed straight on. I followed the footpath, but in the end it just went right round the headland past Blackness Castle, and rejoined the cycle path which had cut about a quarter of a mile off!

The next five miles were straightforward to navigate as the path wound through woodlands, passed through the grounds of Hopetoun House, and then followed a minor road until entering South Queensferry. Passing under the Queensferry Crossing and the Forth Road Bridge, I knew from my map reconnaissance that NCN76 went straight on, but a shorter route was to turn right as I passed under the Forth Rail Bridge. Turns out several other runners did follow NCN76, adding a couple of extra miles around the headland and past Dalmeny House. Probably very scenic but not the fastest route!

After the short climb out of South Queensferry, it wasn’t long before reaching the A90. Not the most scenic route but direct and with a good cycle path all the way alongside it. Navigation was simple here as I could follow the dual carriageway as it entered the city and turned into Queensferry Road. There was a surprising amount of climb here (previously I had only taken this route by car and in my head it was fairly flat) but before long I had passed the Barnton, Quality Street and Blackhall junctions and knew I only had a couple of miles remaining. Turning right before Stewart Melville’s college, there were a few short climbs up to the art galleries and up from the Water of Leith into the West End proper. A dash past the cathedral, over the tram lines and finally up to the EICC and the finish!

Arriving back at Pedal House, I was able to open my bag, stop my watch and found out that I had finished second overall, with a time of 2 hours and 13 minutes and 17 miles covered. The winner had finished just under 2 hours, following essentially the same route (minus the Blackness detour) – an excellent effort, and far enough ahead that I didn’t feel I might have caught him if only I had gone a little faster! One of the side effects of having no GPS watch or phone is that you have to judge your pace by feel. Besides the first few mile when I went off like a bat out of hell (catching up the field after a wee stop), I was pretty consistently in the mid 7 mins/mi, so I’m happy with that 😄 I got a nice wooden finisher’s memento for my troubles and had time to get changed, see the third placed runner come in, before grabbing a quick lunch, pint and the bus home!

It looks like organisers are running another Drop in Glasgow later this year, and also launching a new event called the Renegade where you have to get as far away from the start within a time limit. I may just have to give it a go… will you?

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