Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Lhairig Ghru

Course map and profile
The Lhairig Ghru is the best known hill-pass in Scotland, climbing to an altitude of 835m as it crosses through the central Cairngorms, one of the wildest areas in the country. For many years Deeside runners have hosted a race which starts at the police station in Braemar and uses the Lhairig Ghru to finish outside the police station in Aviemore.
As it is an isolated self-sufficient 43km point to point hill race, there are strict entry criteria of being able to run a sub-4 hour marathon and having hill experience, but this year saw a record-breaking number of participants (221) of which I was one.

I had completely forgotten that my friend Konrad has convinced me to enter it a while telling me that it was very much a "road runner's hill race". I got a reminder email from them a few days before the event and had a slight panic. Konrad's wife Jasmin told me to just relax and enjoy it as a low-key run post World-Trails, so with that in mind I headed up there (though I was still nervous on the startline...not least about going the wrong way as I really wasn't too sure of the route though I did study the map in detail).

I started relatively near the front, but as the first few miles were on tarmac and climbed steadily uphill along the Dee Valley towards Mar Lodge, they suited me and I found myself running solo nearer to the sharp end of the field. There was a cut-off at Derry Lodge (about 7-8miles in) just where the route narrowed to rougher single track and I actually reached this in 8th place overall.

The Lhairig Ghru
It did not seem like it was going to be a day for fast times (though Murray Strain put paid to this notion by setting a new CR) as there was a stiff headwind, which is never the most encouraging thing as you start as point-to-point race. The positive thing about the wind was that it meant I didn't get too hot (in fact it was touch and go as to whether to put my waterproof jacket on at it would spit with rain, then clear, then cloud over again). The negative thing about it was that my legs had already started to feel empty by the 7mile mark, and so it seemed like a hard effort going into it when it should have been easier running.

Ankle rolling territory
Despite the recent dry weather in the Lowlands, the Highlands has its own climate, so we still had to wade the Luibeg Burn. I tried to rock hop as much as possible but was passed by a couple of guys who just ploughed straight through it .A short steep climb up from the burn then took us over a spur and down into the Lhairig Ghru valley itself, where the narrow singletrack became much rougher underfoot. I managed to avoid banging my toes on too many of the rocks strewn across the path but wondered if I was going to set a CR for the number of times you can roll your ankles while still actually running.

It can be sunny at the Pools of Dee!
The weather deteriorated as the path steepend, but the roughness underfoot meant that it was impossible to let the concentration lapse for even a minute without risking a tumble. This, combined with the past pace of the race meant that taking on nutrition wasn't the easiest (so I actually ate most of my "hillfood" after crossing the finish line, only managing jelly babies en route). Although I remembered the climb being longer than the descent on the course profile, I was surprised to find myself still climbing after more than 17 miles, but when I topped out at the Pools of Dee, I regretted longing for the summit. The Pools of Dee are really several boulderfields with no obvious paths across them...and I managed to time her stumbling across this area for the arrival of a painful hail storm - nice!! How much did I curse Konrad at this point?

Boulder-hopping anyone?
It was still hailing as I started to descend and the hail/rain seemed to have done something to one of my contact lenses so I found it hard to see my exact foot placement. Many speedy men descended past me while I tried to find any form of path through the rough rocky ground, but the weather dried up and the path improved after a mile or two. At one point it appeared possible to run just to the side of the path on a grassier surface, and so I thought this would be better as it would save me from having to pick up my feet all the time to avoid rocks. Unfortunately taking this option caused me to take a tumble (how predictable) as my foot sank into a hidden grassy hole and my body carried on regardless - which led to a good faceplant and crack to the head. Slightly dazed, I picked myself up, spate dirt out of my mouth and carried on down towards Aviemore, kindly refusing help when I passed some race marshals who suggested I stop with them for a bit and recover.

A couple of miles of pretty, though rooty, single track through the woods took us down onto a wider gravelly forest road  (well, I'm told this part of the route was very pretty as my knock to the head means I only have hazy memories of it). My friend Georgia caught up to me as I went through a gate on this forest road (which did seem to go for a very long time). She was breathing heavily and said she'd been trying to reel me in all the way downhill, and so although I urged her not to let me hold her back, she said that she was starting to struggle and so seemed content to run with me as I chatted away, and before we knew it, we were turning out onto the main road at Coylumbridge.

Happiness is....a race finish!
I thought it would be nice for us both to finish together, so although Georgia kept urging me to go ahead, I dropped my pace a bit and hung back for her when I accidentally edged ahead. It was, however, several miles of very runnable flat roads and path into Aviemore and she suddenly dropped a singnificant way back from me with a mile to go. At her urging I continued, and found msyelf picking up the pace without realising it.

Having ducked under the trainline into Aviemore, the final section was a game of "dodge the tourists and the traffic"  along the High Street to where some people in High-Viz jackets marked the finish line on the opposite side of the road outside the police station.

"My" quaich
I was very happy to finish as I'd never thought I would take a win at a classic long distance Scottish hill race (20th place overall) - the winners' quaich stayed with the race organisers after presentation but at least I got to take home a nice swollen lip and developing black eye as well as some good memories!