It was identified early as one that I really wanted to do this year - a long classic in stunning scenery. Although when I signed up for it, I didn't really consider the logistics involved. It meant getting up at 4:45am, and collecting James from East Linton at 5:30am, to be sure of getting there in time for registration. And then there is the fact that it is a point to point race, the finish being 27 miles away in Aviemore (over the hills), or 60 miles on tortuous roads, but with the car stranded in Braemar.
Having allowed time for eventualities such as traffic and roads we of course got a clear run and arrived before 8 for a 10 o'clock start. The public toilets weren't even open!
|The place was buzzing when we arrived|
|Don't mess with the local ducks...|
|This mother duck and her ducklings were all carrying concealed flick-knives|
|A crocheted shelter - Braemar isn't twee at all|
We had a bit of a wander around, taking in all the sights that Braemar has to offer. Which wasted about 10 minutes. I did get to inspect a really interesting war memorial though - part of an engine salvaged from a crashed aircraft. I'm always amazed how young the protagonists were - of the 8 that this memorial commemorates, the eldest was 25, and the two pilots were aged only 19 and 21. My son is 17 this year, and the idea of him in control of a car causes me some concern, never mind a Wellington Bomber. I can't escape the idea that the whole country was basically blagging it during WW2 - loads of people with almost no training or experience, but nobody wanting to be the one to point it out to the rest so everyone just got on with what they had to do. Giving it a bloody good go, rather than being paralysed by the fear that you'd fuck it up.
|Take your pick of the war memorials|
|I'll go for the salvaged bomber engine|
|First glimpse of sun|
|Toad of Toad Hall bought it during the warm up|
|Time, at last, to join the masses|
|Away we go!|
A couple of miles on, James asked how my legs were feeling. I opted for a positive spin (trying to persuade myself more than anything), but James admitted later (hence the question) that he found the first 9 miles or so really tough. He'd had a swimming session the day before and, despite trying to take it easy (is that really possible?), it appeared to have taken quite a bit out of him.
|Supporters offering high-fives... jelly babies would come later|
|Sun bright enough to cast shadows, but drizzle misting the lens - the weather was really changeable all day|
|Footbridge to the Mar Lodge Estate|
The next section along the side of the River Dee was pretty flat and fast, so again I tried to make the most of it and gap the runners behind. There were a couple of water stations on the way, which I ran straight through (having my hydration bladder filled with 1.5 litres), and gained a few places as a result.
I was with a group of 3, soon to be joined by a 4th, when we crossed the river. The guys in front were taking their time a bit which frustrated me, but I then promptly slipped and almost sat down in it. Fair enough, take your time.
The climb off of the river is short but steep, so I decided to walk it.
|Steep bit after the river crossing|
There is then another quite long stretch of decently runnable terrain. The path is narrow and littered with rocks and puddles, but after a while you get into a rhythm and begin to develop a sense for where to put your feet. Until you caught your toe on a rock and had to save a tumble, giving yourself a scare, and having to build the confidence again. To being with I'd been trying to avoid the puddles, but after a while I realised that that was pretty pointless - my feet were wet anyway, and often the rocks were more slippery than whatever lay beneath the surface of the water.
|Decent running for a while|
At times the path would get really rocky, and I started to wonder whether we might have arrived at the boulder field. Surely you'd know it when you saw it? Or maybe not; perhaps folk were exaggerating how bad it was? I was trying to remember at what distance we were meant to top out and begin our descent back down to Aviemore. I had it in my head the worst of it was over by 18 miles, so was counting down the miles to that point.
Then came another nasty (at this stage of the race) incline. The 3 guys in front kept running for the most part, but I employed a walk-jog strategy, with an emphasis on the walk. I convinced myself it was not a complete waste by using the lull to take on an energy bar.
|Slog up to the boulder field|
Before long I closed right up on the chap lying a place ahead. I was happy enough at this point to settle in behind him and just follow him down. We got to chatting, and I made sure to tell him that he wasn't holding me up - I didn't want him to feel pressured into going faster than he felt comfortable, and injuring himself in the process. And I was pretty disappointed that the tricky rocky ground was continuing as far as the eye could see - in my head, once we'd cleared the boulder field proper, it was meant to turn into fantastic, smooth, fast, wide cinder trails that I could fly down at 6m/m pace. No such luck.
|First glimpse of Aviemore in the distance|
|Last photo before the camera's battery died|
The sun was beginning to come out now, and it was getting warm. But the ground was still slippery and deserving of respect. I came very close to breaking a leg when, on approaching a drainage channel, my foot slipped on a granite flagstone and fell down into the narrow but deep trench. I managed to stop very quickly, but still bashed my shin off the flagstone on the other side. It took me a good 5 minutes or so to work out whether my leg was now sore-sore, or merely sore.
On entering the forest there were a couple of marshalls counting in runners. I asked what position we were, and they said about 10th. That'll do nicely.
The light through the forest was lovely (shame I don't have any pictures to show you), but the tree roots were problematic. I nearly tripped again a couple of time, as fatigue was kicking in, and I wasn't lifting the moon boots high enough off the ground. But in other respects the Hokas were fab for this job - the big wide cushioned soles smoothing out sharp stones, roots, and spreading the pressure on sandy sections. I had been worried at the start when I'd seen that Salomons seemed to be the plat du jour, but having got this far knew that things would only get better when we hit the road.
And then, all of a sudden, we moved on to proper smooth trails where I found I could open up again. In no time I'd gapped my erstwhile companion. Which proved a little bit of a problem as a couple of times I found myself at forks with minimal signage (one advertising a choice between Loch Something-or-Other and Coylumbridge - neither of which, you'll note, is Aviemore) and was reduced to shouting to tourists for directions.
Approaching the turn on to the road I found the mum and 2 kids (the high-five supporters) from earlier in the race. The mum said that I had a choice between the cycle path or the pavement on the other side, and that the pavement was probably easier/quicker. James said that she hadn't been so clear with him about his options, and he'd taken the path which was twisty and went up and down. Not what you need at that stage.
In the distance I could see a runner with a white top - the firstmost of the group of 3 approaching the boulder field. But he was like a desert mirage and refused to get any closer to me. I asked a man clapping if he could see anyone behind me and he said no, so at least I could concentrate on simply getting home.
And with only a mile or so, I could for the first time start to believe that I was going to hit my targets for the race. I had studied the results for previous years, picking out the times of the good runners that I know, and decided that anything under 4 hours was good (a "B target"), and anything close to 3:45 was, well, better (an "A target"). Ian R's time of 3:40 from 2008 was dismissed as an extremely impressive out-lier. Translating that into minutes per mile equated to 9m/m for 4 hours, and 8:30 for 3:45. And I was sitting bang on 8:30!
The last blast up Aviemore High Street didn't go on for as long as I feared - I even had to ask "is this the finish?", as I couldn't see the Police Station that we were supposed to be running to!
I got my 3:45, and finished in 8th place. Very pleased. James came in not long after in 12th, and beating the 4 hour mark. He was also very pleased, having beaten his time from the first time he'd run this race, and having recovered well from his early-race funk to finish feeling much stronger.
With a few hours to kill, James and I hit the Mountain Cafe, where had a fantastic all-day breakfast - something I'd been craving since daybreak.
After an eventful coach journey (one poor guy had a fainting episode and was in quite a bad way) back to Braemar, we eventually got home around 9pm. With sun-burnt face, shoulders and arms!
As I said at the start, a long, but ultimately satisfying, day out.