Last summer I wrote about taking a fantastic trip to the Highlands of Scotland and running through the Cairngorm mountain range self supported via the classic Lairig Ghru and returning via the Lairig an Laoigh routes. Well this year I was back again, this time to take part in the official race for the route that I had recced previously. We had a great few days of family camping up at Glenmore Forest near Aviemore, then made our way down to a cottage for a week at Braemar, which was perfect as this linear race started there on the Sunday morning.
If you have ever been to Scotland before you will know that clear blue skies, flag cracking heat and, well, just no rain, are not the norm for this particular part of the world! So it was an unusual experience to be running in 28 degree heat through this stunning landscape, and not quite what I was expecting when I signed up a few months before. Unlike when I have done races in scorching conditions in other foreign countries, I was expecting to fair better in the heat in comparison to my fellow “pasty Scot” runners. “They are not used to this heat”, I thought. As it turned out I had forgotten that I am a “pasty Englishman” who struggles just as much as anyone else in anything over 8 degrees!
The registration and start had the familiar incredibly relaxed feel that you get with most British fell races, it is a completely different vibe to a road race (or a triathlon as I recently experienced). A real mix of runners of all ages, shapes and sizes toed the start line, as did the BBC Two Adventure Show, who were en-route filming for their next series (usually just shown in Scotland but available on I-player too at the end of 2018).
The first four miles are on the road, and I started off at a comfortable pace but was in the leading group of 5 runners. It felt unusual to be that high up and I soon realised that my 6.40 minute mile “comfortable” pace was not quite so comfortable after a few miles, with the heat affecting me pretty early and so I dropped down a little. I ran the first 8 miles with an 18 year old lad who said it was his first marathon, but had clearly been running in the hills for a long time. I tried to advise him not to do too many long races too early (to concentrate on keeping your speed, trying not to burn out too young etc) and fully expected him to hit the wall after about 13 miles. As it turned out he absolutely smashed it and finished 4th overall, so what do I know!
After gaining a boost seeing Becky and Jesse on the way to Derry Lodge, I really hit the wall myself, and had to take a fair amount of fluid on, a bar and a gel just to equalise my energy levels. The heat was relentless and the lack of shade or breeze had affected me very early. I was passed by countless people as I toiled across the Luibeg burn and started the climb, filling my water bottles, dunking my hat and generally showering myself as much as I could.
The Lairig Ghru is an ancient droving road that cuts through the mountains and as such the actual ascent is pretty minimal, with only 640m of climbing in total in this marathon distance race. However when you are struggling as much as I was then any slight incline felt substantial. As we rounded the corner with the Devils Point mountain in view I started to feel better, I was feeling rehydrated and the gel had kicked in, and as the trail became more rough and technical I was back on form, passing most of those who had gone by me earlier. Technical (downhill) running has always been my strong point and it showed as I made my way quickly to the Pools of Dee (the source of the famous river), helped by a slightly cooler air at the highest point of the race.
Ordinarily the boulder fields at the Pools of Dee are pretty tricky to negotiate, usually slippy and difficult to navigate in, but this was not an issue on race day given how dry the whole area had been for weeks. Despite this it isn’t exactly quick running! I crested the top of the col to be greeted by a stunning view across to Aviemore, a smiling BBC crew (apparently there was a drone overhead) and an always appreciated mountain rescue team (who I later found out had to be deployed to aid a dehydrated stricken runner and a helicopter evac was required).
A fantastic descent from the top into the ancient Rothiemurchus forest awaits. Fantastic if your legs are feeling fresh, not so great after 20 miles of hot, hard running! Still my mantra is always to embrace, enjoy and relish it regardless of how tough you are finding it. You might never get the opportunity to come back to do it and at those moments you need to appreciate how lucky and privileged you are to be there. Anyone who has had a few injuries over the years would be quick to agree with me I am sure. The Caledonian pine forest is stunning and provided some much appreciated shade as I wound through to the iron bridge that we had walked to only a few days earlier. A flat (and increasingly breeze-less and hot) section led me to Coylumbridge, where you join the pavement to take you along to Aviemore.
Pavements and concrete usually equal quicker running, but as many off road runners will attest to (I am thinking those who have done the Bob Graham round leg 5), it just doesn’t happen like that, so with 25 miles in the tank it was a mental battle to try and keep some sort of respectable pace going in the remaining miles. Fortunately on the final stretch along the main road in Aviemore I glanced at my watch for the first time in a long while, to see that I was approaching the 4 hour mark and if I was able to do a bit of a sprint finish I would be able to achieve my pre-race “target” of sub 4. The marshals and volunteers at the finish had spotted this too and were screaming at me to sprint in, which I duly obliged (I couldn’t exactly not with them shouting at me!) and crossed the line in 22nd place in 3.59.55!
A brilliantly organised, enjoyable race through stunning scenery and one that I would highly recommend. The organisers even sort out coaches to take you on the 2 hour drive back to Braemar. Now if the air-con had been working it really would have been perfect…