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Lairig Ghru Hill Race 2023 - James Barnet

This was a race I'd been wanting to do for a few years. It takes a pretty epic 26.5-mile route from Braemar to Aviemore through the rugged, wild and remote Lairig Ghru pass in the Cairngorms, passing between some of Scotland's highest peaks including Ben Macdui (2nd), Braeriach (3rd), Cairn Toul (4th) and Sgor an Lochain Uaine (5th). It's just an awesome place to be and I knew the race would be quite some experience. It was basically a marathon through the mountains.

Now at the outset, I'd like to make it clear that I would call myself a road and trail runner, NOT a hill runner. I knew the terrain through the Lairig Ghru would be technical and challenging, having walked some of the route before from both the Linn of Dee side and up from Rothiemurchus Forest. I'm not fazed by technical terrain, we're out in the hills all the time on it, but I know that I'm just not competitively quick over it, especially in cushioned trail shoes lacking ankle support. So for me, I wouldn't be pushing too hard over the technical stuff for risk of causing an injury. The number of bleeding knees and bandaged arms at the finish line testified to the risks this race can carry if you make a mistake - very easy to do when your legs have already run well over half marathon distance before you reach the worst of the terrain.

The race starts off from the centre of Braemar and a good crowd assembled to cheer us off. Without too much time to ponder the stupidity of entering such a race, for Steven this was his 3rd time, we were off. The race starts off in a very benign way with almost 5 miles of tarmac alongside the River Dee, except for a brief bit of trail up past Mar Lodge. I knew this would be my best opportunity to make up some time on the hill runners I was surrounded by, so pushed on at around 7 min/mile pace to gain good track position. The warmth and humidity, along with some gentle undulations, made this section feel harder than I felt it should have done on paper. Just before mile 5, we were off onto the trails, climbing above the River Dee. The first section of trails out to Derry Lodge are straightforward and easy, more akin to what I'm used to. After a main climb, the trail undulates its way to Derry Lodge across a gravelly track, which doesn't quite give the grip you want it to. The bigger factor though was the heat, as the sun came out once onto the open hill and the temperature started to rocket. I pushed on at around 7.30 min/mile pace but it felt like some real effort.

Once at Derry Lodge, we were directed onto a footbridge across the Derry Burn onto bouncy peaty terrain, which started to become more interesting. Although straightforward and easy, there's no doubt that the track out to Derry Lodge is dull. Beyond there, the trail narrows to a small stalker's path and undulates over the rough topography, which was far more enjoyable and varied. The trail is fairly straightforward out to the Luibeg Burn and I maintained my decent position I'd gained from a good start on the road. Once across the burn though, there's a bit of a kick up as the trail starts to climb the lower slopes of Carn a' Mhaim. It's not super steep but was enough to see me walking for the first time in the race. We were now approaching mile 11 by this point and my legs were feeling absolutely shot. I started to ponder if I'd gone out too hard and that there was a long way to go if I were to hang on like this to the end of the race.

Once across the Luibeg Burn, the trail also starts to get much more technical and I found myself starting to be passed by the hill runners behind. The trail was well defined, you couldn't really go wrong with navigation, it was just bouldery. The risk of twisting an ankle on an awkward piece of granite, or not quite lifting your foot high enough over a misplaced boulder and flying headfirst into the bouldery landscape, seemed high. I pushed on at a safe pace for me but seemed to be relentlessly going backwards, constantly having to make way for faster runners closing me down from behind. A brief shower and gusty breeze were also very refreshing by this point. The rain wasn't significant enough to properly wet the rocks, but was sufficient to cool down overheating runners.

This technical trail was to carry on for 10 miles, all the way up to the highest point of the Lairig Ghru and a decent way down the other side. No races in the Dundee Road Runners Grand Prix or Fife Midweek Series can prepare you for that. After a flatter section past the Corrour Bothy, where I felt I picked up reasonable pace again, the trail progressively climbs into increasingly rough and wild terrain. The gradient is never steep but the technicality made it so tiring. Each step required some sort of careful thought process and to do this at pace made it mentally exhausting. Physical exertion was also starting to take its toll and negotiating the tough terrain with jelly legs made it all the more difficult. Steven passed me shortly after Corrour Bothy and disappeared off into the distance. I was happy I'd been leading him for over half the race but just couldn't get anywhere near him on that terrain.

The toughest section was from the Pools of Dee up to the high point and the descent down the other side. The rocky trail would intermittently vanish between avalanches of granite boulders derived from the steep mountain slopes to either side. Everyone picked their own route through the boulderfields, over boulders which would unpredictably move beneath the feet. The sky was progressively darkening again and a rather chilly gusty breeze was blowing us through the high point of the Lairig. It was clear that more significant rain was on the way.

From the high point of the Lairig, there are 10 downhill miles to the finish. Sounds easy doesn't it? Not so much. The first 5 of those miles involve more technical terrain, initially very rough, but which gradually becomes more runnable the further down you go. As it became more runnable, I was still being passed but less frequently and people were not pulling away from me at such a speed. Over the first 5 miles of descent, I felt like I had a lot more pace to give, but just couldn't give it on that terrain. It was during this phase that steadier rain set in but fortunately for me, I had passed the worst of the bouldery terrain and the rain was instead rather refreshing.

The trail finally becomes less technical as you head into Rothiemurchus Forest, where tree roots start to become the new hazard. I didn't find these as bad as people said though and started to pick up the pace. I would not be passed again during the race and would in fact gain at least 9 places over the final 5 miles to the finish. The trails very abruptly became runnable again for me and I was back into 7 minute miling. I ruthlessly passed those who had recently passed me and felt great. Finally, I could open up and unleash that pace I'd been harbouring for the past 10 or more miles. Things were going great until unexpectedly, I developed cramp in my right groin. I'd never had that before and assumed it was to do with the sideways motion required on the technical stuff higher up. I used up the last of my isotonic water, managed to run it off and resumed my pace.

Although an easy non-technical finish, the forest trails through Rothiemurchus seemed to go on forever. Like the track out to Derry Lodge, they were dull, straight and you just couldn't see an end in sight. After some time, we emerged onto the road at Coylumbridge and finished the final 1.5 miles to Aviemore on tarmac. This was where I passed the most people, many walking by now, just surviving to the finish line while I breezed past. For the hill runners, this was their worst part of the race. But for me, I was flying to the finish, trying to resist a return of the threatening groin cramp.

I finally crossed the line in 41st place out of 200 finishers in a time of 4hr18mins14secs. For a non-hill runner, I don't think it's too bad to be in the top 25% of a Category C long hill race and we received a nice wooden medal as a memento. There was also a copious amount of really good-looking cake at the finish, but sadly Steven and I both felt too sick to eat any! Was it an experience? Absolutely. Would I do it again? Never say never.

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