The Rat Race Ultra Tour of Edinburgh is a 55km bimble around Edinburgh takes in some famous and not so famous sights, a variety of terrain and a truly memorable finish.
Dawn breaks and in the crisp autumn air of Scotland’s Capital a quite remarkable new event gets underway. Enveloped within the beating heart of this most famous of cities, the runners of the inaugural Ultra Tour of Edinburgh set off with a Braveheart charge down the most famous street in Scotland – the Royal Mile. Their course then weaves 55km through streets, alleyways, onto hills, up crags, past monuments, museums, seats of Royalty, Government and up and down 3000 feet of ascent and descent. – Rat Race
As I tend to book races far in advance I tend to forget the main reason for doing so but being a unique ultra race in that it takes place in and around a city, I was attracted by the idea of being able to explore such an historic city without using one of the open-top buses.
My preparation for the UTE was rather ad-hoc. In July I had attempted the Race to the Stones (managed 49 miles before pulling out) race and completed the Beer Ultra (50K). In August I had run up and down Machen Mountain many times to clock up 31 miles of distance so I had maintained my experience of some distance running.
In addition to this I had run XC races for the club and had been maintaining a regular schedule of running back and forth to work. Illness prevented me from running the Cardiff Half Marathon on October 1st but once I had recovered I had managed to get 40+ and 50+ mile weeks in leading up to the race.
My aim for the race was to take a good mix of food with me and after a bad experience at Race to the Stones ensure that I refuelled properly at Pit Stops. Food in my pack included Gu Blocks, Clif Energy Gel, Gu Waffles, Jelly Tots and Fish n Chips crisps.
I also had salt tablets which I was determined to use regularly and in the bottles was Monster Hydro which I had only discovered the day before. The drink was pretty tasty and had 135mg of caffeine, vitamins and sugar (albeit reduced). Was pretty tasty and found it easier to drink than SiS tablets.
My Time in Edinburgh
Riding on the back of my birthday, I wanted to make the race a long weekend so arrived in the city on Thursday. I climbed Arthur’s Seat and visited the National Museum of Scotland, explored Edinburgh Castle on the Friday and checked out the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on the Saturday. In between each of those involved a lot of walking which meant by the Saturday I was feeling it in my legs.
I’m not one for just sitting down somewhere and relaxing, I have to be busy doing something so try as I may, I just couldn’t stop myself from exploring the City.
Right up until Saturday night before I was worried that I had been walking too much. A visit to Portobello parkrun on the Saturday didn’t help boost my confidence with my legs feeling heavy and tired and my left knee playing up.
Registration was held at Murrayfield on the night before the race between 1830 and 2230 and involved watching a short safety video and the usual form filling. It was a bit of a pain having to travel out of the city on public transport on the night before the race when I could have really have done with getting some extra relaxation. That said, it was a quick and painless process.
Not being a fan of travelling on race day if I can help it, I purposefully booked an Airbnb just yards from the start. This meant that I could eliminate the worry of travelling and not be concerned about the lack of toilets at the start line.
On the morning of the race I could take my time in the apartment and watch people walking to the start line safe in the knowledge that I could relax, take my time and still arrive with plenty of time to spare and prepare.
The race began shortly after 0730 with a mass Braveheart-style charge down the Royal Mile. This was the only section of the race that was closed to traffic so offered a unique chance to run the entire length of the road.
After passing in between the Scottish Parliament and the Palace of Holyroodhouse you encounter the first climb of the race – up and around Salisbury Crags. From here you had a panoramic view of the city. At the time I didn’t realise that in the distance were the Pentland Hills which we would be climbing around 10/11 miles into the route.
The Innocent Railway
Descending down from Salisbury Crags, you double back on yourself and enter the Innocent Railway tunnel. At this point my legs were feeling completely fine and there were no issues with my knee so perhaps it was all just a case of ultramaranoia.
The Innocent line, was a horse-drawn railway line connecting St Leonard’s and Dalkeith. Completed in 1831, it was Edinburgh’s debut railway, and its tunnel is one of the oldest in the United Kingdom. – The Scotsman
The railway ceased operation in 1968 and in 1994, the 520 metre long tunnel was re-opened as National Cycle Route 1 which runs from Dover to the Shetland Isles.
Beyond the tunnel the route follows the old railway line (aka John Muir Way) and then spurs off toward Craigmillar Castle – one of the best examples of a medieval castle in Scotland and famously used by Mary Queen of Scots as a safe haven in 1566.
This section of the course is largely off-road running along slightly muddy fields and tracks. It was then back onto tarmac and through the residential streets of Nether Liberton.
Blackford Hill onto Swanston
Back off-road again it’s another climb to Blackford Hill passing the Royal Observatory. At the summit of Blackford Hill are a number of steps leading down to the Hermitage of Braid that get those quads working.
Crossing over into Braidburn Valley the route follows urban streets until it crosses the City of Edinburgh Bypass and reaches Pit Stop 1 at Swanston at the 9-mile mark.
Pit Stop 1: Swanston
The Pit Stop was well stocked and I grabbed some Jaffa cakes, banana and cheese and onion crisps and refilled one of my bottles. It was great to see the option between water and an isotonic drink which tasted pretty good. It saved me from having to make up my own. The Pit Stop also had a number of toilets which is always a welcome sight when you are susceptible to the runner’s trots!
This section was going to be the toughest of the whole route and I don’t think I was alone in being surprised by the climbs involved. Even though it had been advertised that there was going to be over 3,000ft of ascent, I had wrongly presumed that it was going to be spread more throughout the route. It was a welcome break from the tarmac and urban streets we had run through.
Like many others, I walked the majority of the ascent to the top of the first of three hills. I knew we had about 8 or so kilometres through the Pentlands but I was unsure of the terrain nor the number of hills we may be encountering so wanted to experience the terrain before deciding where I could pick up the pace.
As well all climbed higher the conditions were worsening with the wind picking up and rain in the air. In the distance where we would be heading you could see the sun was shining but here I was deciding whether or not to don the jacket. I decided at the earliest opportunity to stop and put on my jacket and then I could continue without being concerned about the wind and rain.
At times the terrain was muddy, boggy, technical and with the potential for putting a foot wrong I loved it. I managed to grab hold of a barbed wire fence and during one of the climbs (really should have run through the bog rather than trying to avoid it!) but other than that stayed on two feet.
This section of the race was perhaps my most enjoyable. I was loving being out in the hills with the challenges of the ascents and the opportunity to fly down the descents.
Descending out of the Pentlands
With every up comes a down and the downward stretch out of the Pentlands was fast and fun. With the view in the distance showing where we would be heading I was looking forward to a change of scenery and running along the coast.
Leaving the Pentlands, the route joined a path that loosely followed the Water of Leith and took you through another railway tunnel – the Colington Tunnel. The brick-lined tunnel is shorter than the Innocent Railway Tunnel that was near the start of the race.
Further on the you encounter the Union Canal and the Slateford Aqueduct with it’s narrow towpaths. Each side of the almost 200-year-old aqueduct allows for two-way traffic, including bikes, which means squeezing past each other. At the end of the aqueduct you drop down beneath it for a view of the eight 50ft arches.
Pit Stop 2
Located at around 18 miles, Pit Stop 2 was located in the Saughton Sports Complex and involved running 150m around a sports track! There were plenty of people to cheer you on as you made your way around the track which is always a great boost.
Same as the first Pit Stop I grabbed the same food, stocked up on isotonic drinks and headed back out. I was careful not to sit down despite the hard fold out chairs looking remarkably comfortable.
Leaving the Pit Stop I made an effort to walk and eat and drink rather than stashing everything in my bag, running and ultimately not consuming it.
This section of the route passes alongside Edinburgh Zoo then ascends via road and path to Corstorphine Hill. The path actually follows the perimeter of Edinburgh Zoo and had I known I would tried to peek through the trees to see if I could see any animals.
With a sizeable hill to climb it was an opportunity to strike up conversations with fellow runners about the route so far and other races.
It’s interesting when looking back at photographs from the race and how you seem to unknowingly run near similar people throughout the race. A woman I chatted with on this section I had encountered at 10K, here at 35K and I crossed the finish line just after her. I guess you quickly end up running with people of similar abilities.
Passed the zoo you encounter the wonderfully named ‘Rest and Be Thankful Viewpoint’. Unfortunately I only found out about the viewpoint, and its name, after the race so I’m curious to know if I missed out on a good photo opportunity.
After the golf course was a long road covered in fallen leaves. There was a photographer located along here that would have taken some cracking shots of the runners but I’ve no idea if they’ve been posted anywhere.
At this point of the course (21 miles) I was feeling really good managed to keep a good pace for the next few miles. Would I be able to maintain it? To help keep me going I opened a Clif Shot Energy Gel which was the first time I had tried one. It’s definitely a ‘marmite’ gel. The flavour is great but it has such a thick consistency it’s something that you have to chew rather than quickly swallow.
Heading Towards Newhaven & Leith
Switching to the Blackhall Path – an old railway line – the route heads towards the coast and Newhaven. The sun was shining and it was a gorgeous day and with little wind it was perfect weather for running along the coast. I did find myself running along for the majority of the path and again when I had reached the coast.
Reaching 26 miles I was starting to tire a bit but kept pushing on knowing that the next Pit Stop was at 28 miles and I could stop and refuel. That said, just being a couple of miles away can still feel much further.
The route wound its way around the seafront from Granton, onto Newhaven and its lighthouse and Ocean Terminal and the Royal Yacht Britannia. Throughout my trip I had wondered why buses to Ocean Terminal were so frequent and the large mall and Royal Yacht confirmed why.
Pit Stop 3
A small crowd outside a pub near Pit Stop 3 were welcoming runners in with a cheer (much needed at this point) and as this was the last stop before Murrayfield, security had set up a bag check area to make sure runners didn’t have any prohibited items. Thankfully they took your word for what was or wasn’t in your pack so you were quickly allowed to pass through.
I continued with the same formula as the past two stops and went for the Jaffa cakes, a banana, salted peanuts and isotonic drink.
Heading Back into the City
Leaving the Pit Stop the legs were definitely feeling it so running was quickly becoming run/walking. I latched onto another runner for most of the remaining stretch. Talking and encouragement always helps get you through to the end.
The route would be following the Water of Leith as far as Murrayfield and takes in riverside pathways, streets – both quiet and busy – and historic areas such as Dean Village.
Dean Village has an extensive history and until the 19th century remained a separate village. Despite being just 5 minutes walk from the bustle of Princes Street, it still feels very much like a completely separate place.
The Final Push
At the last road crossing Murrayfield was in sight. This was no time for walking anymore, you can’t walk the last few hundred yards. I was still with the runner I had been with for the last few miles and we both began to shuffle our way towards the stadium and with the sound of the announcer on the tannoy we picked up the pace.
Entering the stadium the announcer was reading out names of the runners along with times. You couldn’t help but smile as you ran alongside the pitch to the finish line. With a photographer poised to take your finishing photo I put on a smile and enjoyed the moment of completing another ultra.
I’m not aware of many ultras that take in large portions of a city but the UTE offered a cracking variety of terrain and scenery with old railway tunnels, urban street, tracks and fields, canals and rivers, seafront and hills.
From the charging start on the Royal Mile to the unique entrance into Murrayfield, the race was extremely well organised the entire way. The numerous road crossings were all manned and the myriad signs throughout meant that you were always kept on the right path.
In both urban and rural areas, there was support from both spectators and the general public which is always welcome especially in the closing stages of the race.