Monday, 15 July 2013

A Labour in Vane

When Matt staggered back home wearily after the Arrochar Alps race a couple of weeks ago, he mentioned that he'd hobbled through an idyllic little camping spot on Ben Vane: a sheltered plateau about half way up that would serve as an excellent base camp from which to hustle the kids up their first Munro.

Feeling uncharacteristically indulgent towards the urchins, we relieved them of their usual sleeping-bag-carrying duties and bought an additional giant rucksack for us grown-up mules. We parked at Inveruglas Visitor Centre, and headed sherpa-like into Glen Sloy.

The broad tarmacked road (which serves Sloy Hydro Dam) ascends gently round the base of Ben Vorlich for a couple of miles, and makes for easy walking. Nevertheless we managed to hit the 60ish minute mile pace, as the kids dawdled and admired the abundant cow pats.

Endless fun.

Somehow, walking at snail's pace is much more tiring on the burdened shoulders and back than a brisk hike, so we took a bit of time out for some chocolate fudge, body temperature Coke, and boulder appreciation. At this point I could see Ben Vorlich, Ben Vane, Beinn Ime and Beinn Narnain, and I marvelled at the Arrochar Alps race route. Matt's six-hour race time suddenly made sense. The slopes are steep, rugged, apparently pathless, and make the Pentlands seem like diddy wee hillocks. Sloy Dam loomed in a vaguely sinister fortress-like manner. It took a very long time to reach.

60 minute mile pace...huzzah!
Once up past the dam, the path fizzled out onto a nice flat grassy area overlooking the loch. We debated the possibility of setting up camp here, but Matt felt that a final push towards the sheltered hollow further up was worth it. We hummed and hawed for a few minutes, and Matt decided to make a solo venture upwards and take photos for me to assess. As he headed off, scrambling in places and diminishing in size against the vastness of the hillside I felt a growing sense of aloneness: a slight quiver of fear at being in the hills with three small (and very slow) children. What if he didn't come back down? How long would I wait before trying to herd the children back down the road towards a phone signal? I was relieved to see him reappear fifteen or so minutes later. A brisk wind had picked up over the loch, and that plus the photos settled the decision for us to head up the hill to the more sheltered hollow. Matt went up again by himself with one of the rucksacks, and came back to get the second rucksack (lovely man!) and shepherd us all up to our base for the night.


Our sleepy hollow.

Family-friendly campsite with recreational facilities.

Base camp.
The little plateau on first appearances lived up to the hype: definitely less wind, and the lay of the land afforded us a slightly extended sunset. Small white butterflies flitted among the bog-cotton and the kids immediately entertained themselves with a bit of bouldering. However, as we brushed through the long grass and slightly squishy wet turf, we realised that we were disturbing swarms of midges....literally thousands of them. It was time to road-test the new bottle of Smidge. I've never had much luck with insect repellants, but this one seemed to work miracles AND smelled quite nice! It seemed to provide a fragrant force-field around my bare legs and face. Any un-Smidged skin continued to be nipped, which meant we had to try to rub it into our hair. I envied Matt's baldy heid.

We set up the tents and settled down for our now traditional camping supper of frankfurters in wraps with baked beans, followed by a bar of Marvellous Creations jelly bean/smartie/space-dust chocolate <dribble> and washed down with medicinal levels of wine.
"Pyramid Rock": the most coveted boulder, and scene of urchin skirmishes.
As soon as the sun disappeared behind the summit of Ben Vane, we headed for our sleeping bags and tried to ignore the fact that some creature (I sheep, I suppose, but I was too scared to look) was racketing around our tents. This, in conjunction with a deflated sleeping mat, resulted in a night of restless and disturbing dreams, the lowlights being: The Crazed Gun-Man of Arrochar Alps, an obese spider cramming a chinchilla into its mouth, and being taken prisoner by British communist revolutionaries while wearing only a pair of pants made out of a giant leaf. I was very glad to eventually wake up to this lovely view:

A serendipitously accurate rendering of my blurry morning vision.

The morning briefing: "We're going thataway!"
Over our early breakfast, we watched clouds gathering around the top of Ben Vorlich and decided not to hang about with our attempt on Ben Vane. We eyeballed a reasonable looking route as far as we could see and headed on up. The kids might be road dawdlers, but they dig a bit of clambering. I was left to bring up the rear, often with my heart in my mouth as we negotiated our way round some steepish areas. In less than half an hour we reached a very wet and slippery gully leading to the crest of the false summit, and we rerouted around a rocky outcrop.
Rosie balancing a large rock on her head.

Propping up part of the mountain.

Ben Vorlich looking imposing.

At this point Ben Vorlich behind us was looking quite menacing. The cloud had thickened considerably around the top, and it seemed likely that the summit of Ben Vane would be similarly claggy. I decided to nip ahead and assess the conditions and how much further we had to go. Within a minute or so, I was in the base of the clouds. We clearly had a significant distance to go, with a fair amount of scrambling, and so being a craven yellowbellied coward cautious, I took the decision to leave the summit for another day. We headed back to base camp and PUFO'd.

Possibly the true summit in the distance.

As we made our way down, we ruminated over our thwarted Munro-bagging attempt, and pledged to come back and have another go soon. "Maybe next time we could go up the path instead," pondered Matt. "Path?!" says I, through gritted teeth. "You didn't tell me there was a path option." <frosty glare>. As we skirted the base of Ben Vorlich we got a text from Mike Lynch with the amazing news that in the time it had taken us to not manage one Munro, Graham Nash had conquered 24 of them in his Ramsay Round. Quite mind-boggling, and I can't wait to hear a blow by blow account of his journey soon.

Beast of burden.

After a swift descent to Inveruglas Visitor Centre (we must have been getting on for 30 minute miles!) we'd worked up quite an appetite, and the cafe a welcome sight. "We'll have one, please!"

Monday, 8 July 2013

Top Dollar

This is the first race I've done more than once, which felt like a double edged sword. On the one hand, it was nice to know the route and roughly what to expect, but on the other I realised I'd be disappointed if I didn't match or better my time from last year. Yes, I appear to have become a PB hunter. The weather certainly had no problem in matching its form from 2012: clear, sunny and warm with a light breeze. I packed as much water as possible in my bum-bag, and donned my new running sunglasses.

 There seemed to be loads of Carnethies milling about in the luxe cricket grounds of Dollar Academy, but with offspring threatening to hurl themselves off the pavillion balcony, I was too distracted to chat. Last minute child-wrangling did take my mind off pre-race nerves, however, and before I knew it we were herding along the road towards the woods. I'd forgotten that the start of the woodland steps is a bit of a bottle-neck, but a couple of other runners must have had this in mind and were ruthless with their elbows. I was pretty apprehensive about the ascent of Saddle Hill and White Wisp, remembering it to be a long, hard slog for the best part of a couple of miles. It didn't disappoint. Saddle Hill in particular is a bit of a killer, requiring a bit of scrambling / clutching at tussocks:

I was in no position to take photos. This is a very accurate artist's impression of my view as I grabbed handfuls of grass.
Once you're on top of White Wisp, this race is a cracker. The grassy tracks over the ridge of Tarmangie and Maddy Moss are very runnable, and the shortish ascents of Andrew Gannel and King's Seat offer a hydration opportunity with the change of pace. The views are also swoonworthy, but I was too preoccupied with keeping both my PB and the distant wee Helen-shaped fleck (who had motored past me and numerous other runners up Saddle Hill) in sight to focus properly on the scenery this year.

I'd forgotten how long the descent from King's Seat is: a quad-burning 1.5ish miles back down to the woodland. I seem to remember being overtaken by dozens of runners on this section last year, so it was gratifying (although slightly alarming) to be running mostly by myself with only the occasional glimpse of runners ahead to reassure me that I hadn't gone astray. My poor, abused big toe was being battered to a pulp as my foot slammed repeatedly into the front of my too-loosely-fastened shoe. On the plus side, I realised that my eyes weren't leaking as they usually do on the downhills, thanks I think to my extremely comfy, cheap, light Decathlon shades protecting me from the wind: evidence against Digby's hypothesis that the tears get shoogled out of the eyes by the bumpy running motion.

I galumphed and puffed my way past Chris Henty, who always seems so unruffled as he lopes along, giving the impression he's out for a civilised afternoon stroll. We exchanged mutual jelly-legged woes, and I headed for the shade of the woods. The cool, damp air was a perfect tonic and the narrow, rooty, stepped path gave that exciting illusion that I was moving at a dangerously fast speed. I kept getting a glimpse of Helen zipping along below me on the zigzag trail, and realised that if I could keep up with her I'd definitely beat my 2012 time. My feet, legs and lungs were all hurting by this point, and it would have been so easy to slack off on the pace if I hadn't had a red vest to chase! Out of the woods and with less than half a mile to go, I knew I was heading for a PB. I gritted my teeth and flogged along that last short stretch of road, feeling unsporting as I passed Helen. It feels a bit cheaty to pip someone on the flat when the hill-race "proper" is done.

The turning in to Dollar Academy was well marshalled this year, and I pretty much threw myself at the finishing line, before crawling onto the pavillion steps for a nauseated / stars-in-front-of-the-eyes lie down.Warm-down stretches were conducted by leaning over the cake table for huge slices of amazing Victoria cream sponge and cups of tea. Helen and I compared battle wounds on the sunny balcony: my minced toe, and her gouged and bloodied knee (an injury sustained at the beginning of the race, which would have sent me lesser mortals whimpering home).

So, a glorious day! The only fly in the ointment was a catastrophic failure on the shower-front. I'd hoped to freshen up before heading off for a night's camping, but the women's showers were all broken. We had to make do with splashing ineffectually in the sink while eye-rolling and tsking at the sound of grufty menfolk scrubbing in the showers next door. Oh, and the next day some bloke stole the limelight from my FOUR MINUTE PB and best ever percentage by winning Wimbledon.


Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Lairig Ghru 2013

The two-and-a-half hour drive from Edinburgh to Braemar gave me plenty of time to contemplate my suggestibility and lack of common-sense when signing up for races. The Lairig Ghru is a 26.5ish mile race through the heart of the Cairngorms: a marathon over rough ground. I had completely bypassed any training or tapering schedule, opting instead for a single bash along the canal to Linlithgow the weekend before (resulting in two more throbbing, blackened toenails). By the time we arrived in Braemar, I'd worked myself into a lather of fear, having tried in vain to latch onto a positive angle to the day. Weather forecast: poor. Foot and leg condition: creaky. Distance: 6 miles further than the point at which I'd fallen apart on my canal run. Track record on navigation: piss poor. The runes were falling in the shape of Mountain Rescue vehicles, and rather than feeling like a plucky adventurer, I increasingly felt like an irresponsible fud.

And then I met Jim. "What food are you taking, Jim?" "Oh, er...packet of crisps and a bag of sweeties." "And what about water?" "Well the race organiser says there's plenty of water in the burns, so I'm just taking this empty bottle. It'll be fine. Don't know what you're so worried about anyway." And then he reminded me that fellow runners John Ryan and Alex McVey had run the leg-destroying Arrochar Alps yesterday. In John's words, Carnethy "Home for the Bewildered" truly is bursting at the seams.

So, as an apparently lone beacon of quivering nerves in a sea of in-yer-face nonchalance, we set off for the first roady few miles. I chatted briefly to Melanie Sinclair who was "just doing it as a bit of a training run" in preparation for the Devil O' the Highlands. Bonkers. After about three miles I noticed that my hip was hurting quite a lot, which was a worry. I decided to monitor the situation and decide whether to continue at Derry Lodge (about 9 miles in). We turned off towards the Mar Estate, and stopped for a swig of water at the unmanned refreshment point at the turning onto a landrover track.

The miles between the Mar Estate and Derry Lodge were fairly uneventful: a barely perceptible incline along smooth gravelly track. My hip wasn't easing off, and now my rucksack strap was cutting into the back of my neck. I wasn't particularly happy. However, Derry Lodge took me by surprise at 8.5 miles and I didn't feel ready to bail out so I grabbed a fistful of Jelly Beans and pressed on.

Luibeg Burn
I took a moment to cool my heels at Luibeg Burn, and take some photos (secretly hoping someone might fall in). My hip demanded some attention, so I slapped on a dollop of ibu-gel. The trail from this point was a bit rougher, which I liked, and as it swept round the base of Carn Mhaim the clouds gloomed eerily around the peak of The Devil's Point.

She'll be coming round the mountain when she comes...

I spent most of the next few miles bracing myself for the boulder fields, so much so, that I didn't fully appreciate the journey. I paused at a particularly crisp looking burn for a few swigs, and being out of breath accidentally inhaled the water. Not sure if the thirsty runner downstream appreciated my spluttering and snotting. At last (must have been near the 16 mile mark) the path disappeared into rubble. I would LOVE to see the fast guys on this stuff. Do they run? Who knows. I picked my way through the heaps of rocks very cautiously and was overtaken by several runners. As I slowed to snail's pace I felt a pang of hunger, and decided to take a few minutes out to have lunch. I picked a rock (tricky decision) and sat down for a few handfuls of my "race mix": granola, honey roasted cashews, chunks of fudgy chocolate brownie, and sultanas, laced with mint TicTacs (Chris Henty's suggestion, which results in a Russian Roulette-ish frisson of anticipation while chomping through the sweet stuff).

I slapped a bit more ibu-gel on the hip and boshed a couple of amphetamines (just kidding Mum, it was paracetamol) and, feeling renewed, weaved my way round the Pools of Dee. The gorge was quite awe-inspiring at this point, and the steeply curved scree slopes seemed to sing of their glacial history. I read that when the Lairig Ghru was used as a drovers' road, the villagers would be paid to keep the track clear of rocks. I might have a word with Deeside Runners about that for next year.

Rocky rocks.

Loadsa rocks.

Rock o'clock.
Eventually the valley and the clouds opened with a vista down to Aviemore. For some reason I'd been expecting the trail to miraculously become runnable at this point, but it was mostly still very technical and demanded high concentration not to fly arse over tit. I stubbed my toe several times along here. However, I was making good progress and overtook a few runners.

Keen to get in under five hours, I didn't stop for any more photos. The SHR website described the next section as a "long tiring flog through the forest", but the first couple of miles were fantastic: a gentle descent through sun-dappled trees. The path was a bit rooty, which relieved me of the pressure to go full pelt, and lined with heather so luxuriant that it felt like running through a well-tended shrubbery. As the path flattened out and became wide, smooth, fast-runnable landrover trail my legs, predictably, started to falter. The trees lining the path loomed tall, which simultaneously exaggerated the length of the track ahead and my own smallness. By Coylumbridge, I was very tired, and demoralised by the prospect of a couple more miles along the road. I chummed up with another runner, and we puffed and grumbled our way along the tarmac, literally counting off the minutes and metres. A road sign declaring we we entering Inverdruie was met with mutual anguish. Surely we must be on the outskirts of Aviemore by now? I was exhaling in little sobs. At last we hit the signed fork to the right, taking us along a path to the bridge over the Spey. I could visualise the map, and knew we were so close to the end, although my watch was already reading 26.5 miles at this point. We ducked under the railway line, and up onto the main road ("Last hill...push it up this one!" said my chum, and to my surprise I obliged). 

Where was the goddamn police station?? We slogged on and on, looking for some sort of flag or finish line. "You're nearly there!" shouted a supporter. "HOW NEARLY??!"  I raged. "About 100 metres!...just there!!" I  looked ahead and felt surging joy to see Rosie tearing towards me. We high-fived and she cheered me in to the finish-line (which was actually a guy with his arm stuck out). I flopped down in the car park and was informed repeatedly by small family members that were were cakes and biscuits "just there" and that they were "only for the runners" <meaningful stare>. I got the hint and went to stock up on a cup of vegetable soup and a cheese & herb scone (delicious) and rather more cakes and biscuits than are feasible for one person. 

Jim rocked up for a chat, having cruised in with a sub-four hour time and a magnificent 19th place, with John Ryan and Alex McVey coming in shortly after (Arrochar Alps? Bovvered!!). And at last, I squeaked into the top half of the field. Chuffed!