I am not good at long races. I am simply never fit enough and it is only by October every year (i.e. The Pentland Skyline) when I normally have increased my fitness to a level worthy of the long races.
I have in fact quantified this problem. I teach multiple regression to my students using my Scottish Hill Racing profile metrics. The figure below shows the residuals from a linear modelling of the data – the details are not important (it’s all non-linear really) – but any dot above the zero line means that I have run that particular race slower than the model prediction. On average (the red dotted line) I am slower than predicted for ANY race < 6.5kms in length (I cannot sprint) and results again start slowing down at distances > ~25 kms. My racing distance sweet spot is between 8 and 22 kms – excluding other factors such as terrain etc.
OK – that was the preamble.
The Lairig Ghru is a stunning route through the Cairngorms providing some of the best views of, and tracks through, a glaciated landscape you’ll ever find in the UK. Most people walk it, taking 2 days, and camp somewhere in the middle. The race, goes south to north starting at the police station in Braemar and finishing at the police station in Aviemore. At 43 kms (~650 meters elevation gain), it is clearly outside “my norm” (in fact, this is the longest race I have ever done!). I only decided to do it as Duncan said last year after the Ochil 2000s (33.5kms, 1400m), that I would have no problem with the Lairig Ghru. However, from my simple linear model it was very likely that I would do MUCH worse than the model prediction of 4 hrs 12 mins. My aim therefore was 4 hrs 30 mins as it is around that time when my Garmin GPS watch’s battery normally dies.
So – on Saturday, Andrea and I drove up in the afternoon to stay the night at the Spittal of Glenshee. Although we could have blitzed up very early Sunday morning, I felt that this more leisurely approach would mean I would have plenty of time to eat loads for the 10am race start on Sunday. I was also so bloody anxious, I probably would have crashed the car anyway!
On race day, we got into Braemar for about 9am and, once registered, had a good 40 minutes to warm up and make a few pre-race piccies. There were over 200 runners so the village was pretty much gridlocked. Our plan was that Andrea would see me off and then drive around to Coylumbridge near Aviemore and then run backwards along the LG route, meet me on the way and then buddy me back for some of the way back towards the finish.
At about 10.10am, we were off and I could not resist having a little sprint to get to the lead pack. This works well for some fun cheeky shots, but did unfortunately mean that I spent most of the race being passed by runners.
The first 5 kms or so was on the road up the Dee valley where I briefly had a nice chat with Walter who clearly would beat me this day! The route then tracked NW across the river into the Mar Lodge estate. Not being a road runner, I tried to run at what I felt was a sensible pace (5-6 mins/km). Maybe in hindsight this was a tad too quick but it felt comfortable at the time. I arrived at the Red House in Glen Derry (dendro derived building date of 1808 :-)) at 1:08 – well inside the 1:30 cut-off and I felt good. In fact, once we crossed the river, the route finally transformed to a more normal trail and I did get a little carried away and passed a few people.
Unfortunately, this overzealousness resulted in a slight tweak of my right calf. After a few kms, the first major climb started after we crossed Luibeg Burn, and I realised that my calf was really tight and was threatening to go. I spent the climb (walking mostly) trying to stretch it in the hope that it would loosen.
At the top of the rise the route shifted more to the NNW and for the first time we had our first view of the Lairig Ghru in the distance. The next 5 kms were rather tortuous. I had been so hung up on running ‘sensibly’ to Derry and then worrying about my calf, I had forgotten to
eat anything – only having had one gel. The path was steadily getting more and more technical and I realised that my stomach was growling. Bugger – I had left it too late and was feeling rather fatigued. You would have thought I would know better! I now focused on trying to stuff as much food and energy gels into me as my stomach would take, washed down with plenty of electrolyte. This was easier said than done and I kept getting muesli stuck in my throat and spent quite a bit of time retching. Oh – and it was also raining a little at this point and getting rather cold. So – you can see – I was loving every minute of it!
On the final climb towards the high of point of the Lairig Ghru, the route enters a cobbly boulder field where there is essentially no path. This technical section is infamous and running is not really possible. Despite the rain making the rocks damp and slippy, I managed to finally get a semblance of strength back into my legs and passed a few individuals. Maybe my luck was final turning and on the other side, I could sprint down to glory. My pace had been drastically slowing since the first climb out of Luibeg and I really need to increase it on the run down. Surely this was my time.
835 m.a.s.l: Lairig Ghru pass summit: 27 kms done, 16 kms to go and all downhill! I was looking forward to this – I knew Rothiemurchus well. Unfortunately, I had only been up to treeline from the Rothiemurchus side and the 4 kms between the Lairig Ghru and tree-line was rather technical. Instead of flying down and gaining pace and places, I lost control of my legs and they constantly cramped the whole way along the very technical track. It was a nightmare. I luckily did not fall, but my hoped-for pace gain was lost in the wind.
To top the misery cake with further “brown” cream, on entering the forest, all the gels and muesli bars I had forced down earlier decided that they would now like to leave me. At this point, I saw Andrea, who in her typical hyperactive jovial style was shouting, “well done, well done, you’re doing great” with me thinking, “arrrgh…..I’m gonna xxxx myself, I’m gonna xxxx myself”. The path at this point was less technical, so I managed to squeeze my buttocks together, shout to Andrea that I needed toilet paper and after digging through her bag she soon easily caught me up with my needed “relief”. After a “brief” diversion, I was back on the road – 7 kms to go. Andrea buddied me and fed my salted crisps while I steadily choked on them. The 3 kms through Rothiemurchus forest seemed to go on forever. I could feel my speed slowly decrease. There was nothing I could do. I was not cramping now, but the muscles in my groins were complaining and I could barely raise my legs.
On hitting the road at Coylumbridge, Andrea left me and sped off in the car to get to the finish to see me cross the line. Just a few kms to go and I just kept focussing on putting one foot in front of the other, ticking of known points along the road: the Hilton, the visitor centre, the larch stump, the turning to Loch an Eilein, the tennis club, the river, the underpass below the railway and then suddenly I was on the main street in Aviemore. Literally only 500 metres to go. No matter how hard I tried, I could not increase the pace. I must have looked like a stumbling wreck.
I crossed the line in 04:49:44, 125th from 221 runners. Not my best race at all. I have never been so exhausted in my life and to be honest, I felt a little emotional at the end. I gave Andrea a massive hug as she had been fabulous, not only supporting me the whole day, but keeping me going through the Rothiemurchus pine woods which had seemed endless.
If you want to “live” the race as I did – here’s the route until Coylumbridge where I stopped my stopwatch just before it died. Just click the link:
Now reading this back to myself, it all sounds a bit of a nightmare. I guess it was – the 2nd half at least – but that mainly reflects my lack of appropriate training on long flattish trails. Give me a 3 hour hill race – no problem – but running 30 kms on the flat, I am obviously useless. Back in 2006, I failed to complete the Skyline on my first attempt and was determined to conquer that race – I have now ticked that box 8 times. So – the big question is – will I run the Lairig Ghru again? I certainly need to change my training plan/style. I need to run many more long trail races. The technical nature of the Lairig Ghru is really not the problem, but you do want functional legs for those tricky sections. I need to also learn to eat while running. The ascents on the Lairig Ghru are not that steep and with fit legs, are mostly runnable, so eating while moving is a crucial skill that I am sure the “ultra-types” are used to. Yes – I think I have no choice to try this again – but next time – I will train quite differently.
As a final word of context, the winner, Murray Strain, came in at 2:58:10 – running a technical rough trail race of 27 miles and 650 metres of ascent. That would be a good marathon time – let along the Lairig Ghru. Complete respect.