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!

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