Monday, 29 June 2015

Lairig Ghru

A long, but ultimately satisfying, day out this.  

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
After registration and a really cursory kit inspection (which I thought was a little surprising, given this might be one where proper safety kit could be called into service), I had a wee jog up the road.  For two reasons - one was to bag the extra 3 miles I knew I'd need to add to the 27 of the race to qualify this as a Tynecastle Bronze.  The second was so that I could test out Jack's GoPro with a chest harness for the first time.  I thought 3 miles might be enough to reveal whether it was going to be irritating or uncomfortable over 27. But it felt ok, so I went with it.

First glimpse of sun

Toad of Toad Hall bought it during the warm up

Time, at last, to join the masses

Away we go!
The first section is on roads, but there is a balance to be struck between making the most of it before the slower stuff to come, and burning yourself out much too early.  James and I ran together here and were able to hold a conversation so hopefully we'd judged it ok.  James also got talking to a Dundee Hawkhill runner that he recognised from the recent Haddington 10K.

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

Stable block
Around the back of the stable block was the first uphill section.  This acted as a bit of a shake down, and did quite a lot to establish positions for what was to come.  Luckily I managed to move up the field a bit, and this was where James and I separated.

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
On arriving at the boulder field, I saw two of the three (the other had cleared off entirely) in front head up on quite a high line to the right - presumably trying to get above it.  Having spoken with both Ians at the club, they had suggested that this was a false diseconomy - energy expended that wouldn't pay back.  I ploughed straight through the middle, and it wasn't actually that bad.  I run occasionally on the rocky beaches on the East Lothian coast, so that practice may have come in handy.  The last of the 3 had been around 200 metres ahead but was very quickly the same distance behind. I did take one tumble, but all that happened was that I scuffed my left hand up a bit.

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

There was a surreal moment when I saw a walker approaching up the path from Aviemore, and realised that it was my son's S2 form teacher.  "Hello Mr Jackson!"  Quick smile and handshake and away we went again.

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. 

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Decisions, decisions, decisions - Seven Hills of Edinburgh

Starting to write this on Monday night, I'm aware that Peter B has already scooped me.  And he'll no doubt have more/better photos because I didn't bring a camera and have been reduced to "magpie-ing" other people's "shiny".  Sorry about that.  So, there'll be no hard feelings from this shop assistant if (after realising that this wasn't what you thought/hoped) you look uncomfortable and say that you're "just browsing", before gravitating towards a fascinating item near the door, and then bolt for freedom when I turn my back.  I'll just need to make more of an effort next time.

Given that we ran in reasonably close proximity for much of the race, perhaps you could treat this as a sort of sensory experiment and read Pete's blog at the same time as mine to see if it creates a stereo or 3D effect.  But I've deliberately not read his blog yet, as I don't want to taint my own recollections, so it could just as likely result in some kind of horrible destructive interference.

Anyway, the title of this post alludes to a number of decisions, and the first was which vest to wear.  The official club line is crystal clear on this - the previously retro vest (green, white and black horizontal stripes) is now the mandated current/new vest, while the new vest (white with a green diagonal stripe) has become the old disused vest, until folk get nostalgic for it in a few years time and the cycle begins again.  Got that?!  After a number of races where we have failed abysmally to all get it right, Andy A has begun promulgating the theory that we must always have a "designated numpty".  Having brought both vests, I elected to take on the mantle.  Stuart may not speak to me at training this week as a result.

The second decision was team selection.  Instead of it being simply a matter of the club in question's first finishers, the Seven Hills has a quirk that you've got to gamble on your counters ahead of the race.  The others had sensibly discussed it without the "benefit" of my input, and plumped for a mixed team of Rhona, Jamie and me; with Neal, Richard and Andy forming an all boys team.

After a couple of team photos, the first of which Neal W missed due to "last-minute weight reduction", we were called to the start.  Dr Neil and Alan B had already departed 30 minutes earlier with the challengers, which seemed (and proved) overly pessimistic.

Neal descends from Heaven to join the team photo
(photo: Richard T)

(photo: Richard T)

(photo: Alex O)

On the line Alan L dropped the bombshell that the gate from the Castle Esplanade down into the Gardens was open this year.  Damn, another decision to make.

(photo: Alex O)

Keen not to get churned up, tripped and trampled in a maelstrom of thrashing legs on the steps down onto Waterloo Place, I took off like a scalded cat.  Bursting out through a group of startled Japanese tourists onto the road, I found myself in around 5th place.  Gee'd on by the need to put on a decent show for the tourists (trading waves of greeting with 2 or 3) , I continued the pace across and up North Bridge, before rounding the corner onto the Royal Mile.  The Arcade was mysteriously closed this year - possibly on account of the all the whooping and hollering they get when several hundred hyped-up runners rumble through.  Need for a decision averted! 

I reached the checkpoint at the Esplanade a little behind a gaggle of red vests - Dessie F, Stewart W, another two Carnethys (I think) - and David L of Porty.  Dessie and the unknown two headed for the steps and Johnston Terrace, while Stewart and David made for the Gardens.  I have never tried the Gardens before and was put off by a tale I'd heard (possibly an urban legend) about a chap who'd literally broken an ankle a few years previously.  On turning back from the checkpoint I spotted Pete, who gave me a thumbs up that I hoped signified his approval of my route choice, and not just a generic friendly greeting.

On crashing down on Johnston Terrace, I caught a brief glimpse of Dessie and the reds disappearing behind the line of tourist coaches.  It was the last I saw of them until the finish.

My first mile flashed up on the Garmin at 6:30, which wasn't bad considering a couple of flights of stairs, a couple of busy road crossings, various herds of tourists, and a rise up to Castle Hill.  I then seemed to run in glorious isolation for an age - nothing at all in sight in front (it later transpired that Dessie and the reds had continued along Bread Street and Morrison Street) and no sound of footsteps from the rear as I made my way at (for me) eyeballs-out pace along Castle Terrace, up Lothian Road, then down Queensferry Street and Belford Road.  The second mile flashed up at 5:30.  Hmm, the ache down my shins suggests this is unsustainable.

I decided to rein it back a little for fear of blowing up early, and was promptly passed near the Modern Art Galleries by a blue shirt (not a club vest).  After rounding the corner onto Ravelston Dykes, David cruised past and said hello (without any perceptible shortness of breath).  I'd expected him to be ahead already, so this was very odd. 

The sense of disorientation continued up at Mary Erskine's where I was joined from behind by Stewart and Peter.  Peter chuckled a little and said that Johnston Terrace had *definitely* been the right choice - gaining us time and distance (at least for a while) over David and Stewart.  

I did my best to stay with the M50 Allstars up the footpath past the fancy surgeon's house on the corner and through Murrayfield Golf Course towards Corstorphine, but my recent foray into ultras seems to have resulted in some unfortunate neural reprogramming.  If a hill is tarmacked then I'll persevere and run it, but trail, grit or mud often sees me walking to preserve energy for the next flat or downhill.  I made it up the steep bit to the zoo fence with Pete still just about in sight.  However, a quick glance back down the path revealed THE HORDES, including David F of HBT, Dougie C of Porty, Graeme D of Carnethy/Porty, Megan C of Fife, and many more.  I felt a little like I was standing alone on an exposed beach, with a gargantuan wave about to break over me.

Shake it off and turn the focus back to Pete in front!  After passing through the clearing and the water station, we veered off right towards the Tower.  Or so we thought.  In a classic example of following the runners in front rather than thinking for yourself, a line of five of us (blue shirt, David L, Stewart, Peter and me) came screeching to a halt at the edge of a sheer drop amid a frenzy of swearing.  Forced to double back, we saw Megan beat us to the checkpoint.  For me it was likely only a matter of time anyway, but she stayed ahead for the remainder of the day.

On the descent off of Corstorphine I shouted a hello to Graeme and waved to club mate Jamie.  Despite the time lost to the error, I was a bit disconcerted to see Jamie given the effort put in thus far - the Seven Hills is on the DRC championship list, so points were at stake.

While, a 100 yards or so ahead, Stewart and Megan went for Kaimes Road, I followed Peter down the footpath just before it.  I don't imagine there is much in that, but at least you're not going to encounter cars on the path.  We were spat out on to the Road about half way down, and the gap to Stewart and Megan remained more or less the same.  And Tom from EAC was a fashionably late arrival to the party.  At the foot of the hill is the busy crossing of St John's Road.  Although Stewart, Megan and Peter had all got across with a minimum of fuss, I could see the first of the back-marker challengers waiting anxiously for a gap in the traffic.  I opted for a kamikaze barely-looking and don't show any weakness policy (imagine a Roman native striding fearlessly into a sea of Vespas and Fiats), and narrowly avoided being struck by a black Audi TT.  Once on the other side, Tom remarked that my approach was "bold".

The subsequent long tarmac section up Carricknowe Avenue, through Stenhouse, across Gorgie Road and onto Chesser Avenue was pretty uneventful.  I lost a lot of ground to Stewart and Megan (so much so that they dropped off my radar entirely after a while), a fair bit to Peter, but managed to stick quite close to Tom.  And proving how much the race was ebbing and flowing already, I was passed again by David L just before the Corn Exchange.  I can only imagine that he took a sub-optimal route off of Corstorphine that brought him out behind me.

Having survived another round of playing with cars under the railway bridge on Slateford Road, we (Tom, me, and I think Olly S from Carnethy) headed up Allan Park Drive, over the canal and on to Craiglockhart Sports Centre and the steep bank at the back of it.  Although quite dusty and covered in beech nut shells, I went up it well, with the result that I was back closer to Peter and had gapped Tom and Olly a little.  David was nowhere to be seen though, which could mean one of two things...

I did see another David (Forrester, an old uni friend, that I've not seen in years) at the checkpoint on Craiglockhart.  Indeed, he handed me a cup of water and a cup of juice, which was very welcome as it had started to warm up slightly.  A glance at the watch revealed that my average pace had gone above 7m/m for the first time, but that seemed ok given that we were now at almost 8 miles in.

I enjoy the fast section down to Greenbank Drive - a chance to recover a little, but also a nice reminder that you can still move quickly after a section of slow slog, gritted teeth and burning muscles.

The "secret" alley up to Fly Walk was totally chocka with racers and challengers, so pretty much everyone was reduced to a crawl (it is surprisingly steep though).  This had the effect of concertina-ing the pack back up, which I was not altogether unhappy about - Peter now back in range.

From the lowest point at the Braid Burn, it is then a pretty steady climb up to the top of Braid Hill via Riselaw Road and Braid Road.  Peter stretched away again, and I was passed (again!!) by David L, Olly S, and for the first time by HBT David.

But what I lost on the up, I regained quite quickly - first on the bolt across the golf course, and then because another queue had formed on the tricky steep rabbit path down to Braid Hills Drive.

Crossing the road to the Lang Linn Path, David L seemed a little unsure of his footing, and allowed Peter and I through (the first time that I had genuinely passed him!!).

I took quite an early wide left line of the path, but strangely wasn't followed by Peter who continued straight on.  This was more than a little alarming, as Peter had shown me my chosen line on a Tynecastle Bronze run in late December.  Ah well, in for a penny!

Thankfully it worked almost perfectly, bringing me out near the bridge over the burn and bang on the right line up the steep bank on the other side.  Halfway up I heard scrambling behind me, and looked back to see Peter.  Result!  I had a brief walk to "gather myself" on reaching the path at the top, which prompted Peter to sportingly call out "keep going Nick".  So I set off again, and managed to stay just ahead until the Blackford Hill sleeper steps.  Which I had no intention of running.  Peter and Tom (where did he reappear from?!) managed to keep their momentum a little longer before succumbing, so I just tried to stay close to them on the trudge up and past the antenna to the checkpoint.

The next bit was again pretty regulation stuff - down Observatory Road, through the allotments and along West Saville Road towards Mayfield.  I can't have been moving quickly enough on the tarmac however, as both Dougie and David L pulled a Penguins of Madagascar move on me ("just smile and wave boys, just smile and wave...").

After turning right at Duncan Street, we crossed over onto Blacket Avenue and caught up with Mary and Dr Neil.  Mary seemed in pretty high spirits, which was nice to hear, and Dr Neil must have been having a good run (assuming I wasn't doing much worse than I thought) as I'd passed him on Braid Hill last year.

I hesitate to tell you what happened next.  On arriving at the water station at the main entrance to Pollock Halls, I was keen to wash my filthy hands (too much crawling on all fours up muddy banks) on one of the sponges I'd seen earlier.  However, in a moment of brain-fade, I thrust my hands into a bucket of water.  Which, on seeing the expressions on the faces of the marshalls, I suddenly realised was their supply of drinking water to fill plastic cups.  Sorry!!!

A quick limbo through the locked turnstile, was followed by a look at the watch.  The time was 1:32 and I'd done 12.5 miles - I thought surely I can manage 2 miles in under 26 minutes (even if 0.5 of it is up Arthur's Seat) and beat last year's time?!  Which thought process convinced me to walk and take on some jelly beans.

Do you want three guesses at who passed me then?  Correct - David L, fresh from who knows what detour!

The ascent up Arthur's Seat is now largely a blur.  Isn't it funny how the body forgets pain, no matter how bad it was, once it's over?  I don't suppose any woman would have more than one child if it didn't.  Anyway, I digress.  What I can remember was an excellent guided tour from Pete, picking neat lines through what might have passed for Princes Street during late night shopping in the last days before Christmas.  And that no doubt helped me to get up there in a relatively keen time and distance travelled. 

The 3 Amigos - Pete B, me, then David L (in luminous yellow)
(photo: Willie J)


#Smile, though your legs are aching...#
(photo: Willie J)

Willie J was lying in wait near the summit to take unflattering pictures, and I then had a brief word with Charlie Ramsay at the summit proper, who obviously didn't recognise my "numpty vest" and asked which club I was from.

With no time to enjoy the view, Pete led the way off the Seat, down into the Bog.  I was surprised to see a couple of challengers coming up the way that we were descending - they must have taken a very long route right around the hill. 

Despite being nearly blinded by the sweat and tears in my eyes, bounding from rock to rock was fun, before breaking into a faster run on the smoother paths.  We even had the guilty pleasure of shouting at tourists to GET OUT OF THE WAY!!! (please, and thank you)

As we were just about to leave the Bog, we spotted a challenger girl stopped at the edge of the path, stretching out her calves.  Peter opted for a remarkably superstition-free bit of self-jinxing, and declared "it's about here that I always cramp".  And almost immediately cried out in agony and frustration. 

Which left me with another difficult decision to make.  For much of the race I had been using Peter as a hare.  A target to chase; someone that if I could keep close to I knew I'd do pretty well.  But with no real thought or desire to beat him, because my place in the race was secondary to my time, and the club championship points on offer.  And not least because he'd contributed so much, and I had given back so little.   I urged him on, and hoped that he'd be able to run it off quickly.  And then passed Tom in the car park outside the Palace who was suffering the same problem, if not more so.

Now on my own again, I negotiated the final stage past the Parliament, along Calton Road and back up the last blast to Calton Hill.

I managed to finish a little over 5 minutes quicker than last year - very, very pleased.  And then things kept getting better.  Jamie and Rhona both had great runs to deliver a 3rd place overall team prize.  Rhona also was 2nd woman overall, and 1st female Vet.  And thanks to a very generous prize policy, I got a prize for 7th man.  Delighted!

It was very pleasing also to see friends from other clubs doing well - Dessie took a great win, Peter was 2nd M50, and Porty (Dougie, Peter and David) took 2nd team.

I really, really enjoy this race, which has a tremendous atmosphere, is incredibly well organised by Alan Lawson, and is also great value.  And what makes it for me is the lack of a fixed course - the post-event dissection was full of route discussion, and I'm already itching to recce some of the ideas I've heard.

3rd overall team (and 1st mixed)
(photo: Kathy H)


7th (totally chuffed) male
(photo: Mary H)