Today I had the chance to run a race that’s been on my to-do list for several years. I think I first heard about the Seven Hills back in 2016 or earlier when I was working in Edinburgh. Taking in the seven major high points of central Edinburgh – Calton, Castle, Corstorphine, Craiglockhart, Buckstone Snab/Braid, Blackford, Arthur’s Seat and back to Calton – with over 2,000ft of climbing and around 14 or 15 miles in length (depending on route choice), something about it has always captured my imagination. I ran the route a couple of times in 2017 and 2018, although not from the usual start/finish location in a time of around 2 hours and 40 minutes, so I hoped that with a race effort I might be able to get round in about 2:15. Read on to see how I fared! I’ve tried to cover the route in quite a bit of detail, hopefully it might help if you want to try it out for yourself.
The race organisers encouraged participants to travel to the event by public transport – unfortunately Scotrail staff were on strike, but as it was a Sunday we made use of the plentiful free parking on Regent Road (mainly filled up by runners!) and picked up my race number with plenty of time to explore Calton Hill, see some of the new additions to the Edinburgh skyline such as the ‘Golden Turd‘ and clamber up onto the National Monument to see the start of the Seven Hills Challenge 30 minutes before the start of the main race. It was great to have the whole family along to support, and with ten minutes to go I headed down to the start line ready for the off.
With last year’s edition being a ‘virtual race’ during lockdown, this year one of the few COVID-adaptions was that the start went off in two waves. Although with up to 100 in each wave and only 30 seconds apart I’m not sure it had much effect! After passing the National Monument, the route funnels all the runners down the narrow lane and steps onto Waterloo Place. Heading down to the East End, half of the runners were to continue along Princes Street and up the Mound while the rest of us followed the traditional route up North Bridge and along the Royal Mile. Turning left onto North Bridge, many of us were caught out by the closed pavement on the left side, and with a barrier running along the right hand side ended up running straight up the middle of North Bridge between two lanes of traffic. Not normally something you’d live to tell the tale of, but it was a reasonably quiet Sunday morning and we survived unscathed 😬
Reaching Edinburgh Castle, the usual checkpoint on the Esplanade was omitted in order to avoid a scrum of runners punching their bibs. With the path through Princes Street Gardens closed, it was down the steep Castle Wynd steps and round the back of the Castle on Johnston Terrace. As I turned right down Castle Terrace headed to the West End, I was surprised to see a number of runners heading straight on. This was the first of several major route choices. Having been forced to go round the South side of the castle, it seems that Morrison Street / West Coates Road / Corstophine Road / Murrayfield Road became an option! In the end it looks like it was almost exactly the same length as the traditional route out of the West End, along Belford Road past the art galleries and along Ravelston Dykes – where the runners who had disappeared earlier popped back out of the side streets. At this point I had been running at decent pace (maybe too fast?) and before long we had reached the climb up to Corstophine Hill. The marshal was counting places here and apparently I was in 92nd – so obviously not the only person with a fast start!
A wide lane leads uphill through the golf course, before cutting up to the right on a steep narrow path, opening out onto wider paths round the back of Edinburgh Zoo through the ‘meadow’ with the first water station and up to the checkpoint in front of the Corstorphine Hill Tower. A quick punch of my race number and then back down the hill again. There are various routes through the woods to Kaimes Road, and I managed to find a pretty direct one and popped out right at the top of the road.
After a half-mile steep descent to cross Corstorphine Road, the next two miles are a long, hard, gradual climb through Carrick Knowe, Saughton and Chesser. Crossing the canal, a quick dash past the Craiglockhart Tennis Centre leads you right to the base of Craiglockhart Hill. By now I’d started to catch and pass quite a few of the ‘Challenge’ Runners, and the scramble up the 100 foot muddy bank was a bit of a bottleneck. Sorry to the folks I pretty much clambered over as I pulled myself up, holding on to roots, branches and anything else I could get hold of. A little push up the grass to the top of the hill, and the third summit was ticked off. Stopping briefly at the water station for a quick drink and tip over head (it was hot!), I continued along Greenbank Drive, up the steps to Braid Road and onto the hill path to the Braid Hills. Having kept a good pace up to now, and with 9 miles covered, my legs were starting to feel it and there was a little bit of walking on the steepest path segments.
From the top of the Buckstone Snab in the Braid Hills, I picked up the pace again for the dash across the golf course, down the Lang Linn path to the Braid Burn. There are options either left or right to cross the burn by bridge, but I took the direct option down the banking, wet feet through the burn, and a straight back up the other side to reach the foot of Blackford Hill. The big steps up to radio tower were not what I’d call fun but at least they get you up quickly and the direct path to the summit through the undergrowth had been bashed clear by the runners up ahead. Summit number five ticked off, I followed the most common route staight past the observatory and down the steep Observatory Road where one helpful householder had kindly rigged up a hosepipe on their fence, forming a makeshift mist shower for the runners. Turning left and crossing the road, it’s a Seven Hills tradition that the normally locked gate into West Mains Allotments is open, providing a shortcut of a good few 100 metres!
From here, the route gradually climbs up into Newington, past the final water station at Pollock Halls of Residence and into Holyrood Park for the biggest ascent of the day – 500 feet up Arthur’s Seat. After a sapping slog up the grassy bank to the foot of the hill, the first half of the climb is on relentless narrow stone steps (squeezing past the tourists coming down). It’s possible to continue all the way up on the path, but I opted to squeeze through a gap in the gorse to take the direct ascent up the “Gutted Haddie”, a rocky gully which leads steeply up and directly to the summit. It’s hard work (my heart rate reached over 180!) but at least it uses arms as well as legs for a change. The summit was crammed with tourists as by this time it was a lovely hot early afternoon, so I clambered up to the trig point for the final punch of the day, and then picked my way down over the rocks back towards runnable paths.
The descent towards Holyrood is mostly loose gravel paths with rock steps and was hard on the legs but at least it was the last downhill. Even so, I was struggling to keep up a good pace. The quarter mile across the park was just a slog and as I crossed Abbeyhill and headed up to Regent Road I was well and truly bonking! Whether it was a combination of the heat, low on energy (I’d taken two gels only), lack of good hill training, or I’d just slightly overcooked the pace early on I’m not sure but the last half-mile was just hard! One final push up past the old Royal High School and then round the corner and up half a dozen steps onto the grass of Calton Hill – number seven – and a stumble across the grass to the finish line to record a time of 2 hours, 22 minutes and 45 seconds, and 83rd place!
It was great to see all the family again and be cheered over the line, but after grabbing my commemorative coaster for the next few minutes all I wanted to do was sit down, drink water and cool down! The organisers had put on quite a spread with plates of quiche and apple pie – but this did absolutely not appeal at that point. After an hour or so, I was ready for food and we stopped for a mid-afternoon McDonald’s on the way home 😎
The race was everything I had expected and more – I really enjoyed the course! Although I didn’t quite make my 2:15 target, that was always going to be a stretch and I knocked 20+ minutes off my PB in hot conditions so I’m happy with the end result. I’d totally recommend it to anyone – but you’ll need to be quick off the mark to get a place as the race sold out in under 24 hours this year.
It’s fun to look at Strava’s “Flyby” feature and compare the routes taken by other runners (I mentioned some of them already). I reckon my route could be improved by about a quarter of a mile – mainly by cutting through the Braidburn Valley Park, and by getting a better route off Arthur’s Seat – so I may just have to come back and see if I can improve on my time next year!