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Lairig Ghru Fell Race - 24th June 2007

Three years ago WAC had an influx of new members with Aberdeen connections, Gillean, and Andrew and Jane Douglas. After one year as WACers, Andrew and Jane returned to Aberdeen, we have kept in touch ever since. They joined Deeside Runners, and soon I learnt of an extraordinary race that their new club organised, ‘The Lairig Ghru’. This is a 28 mile fell race that starts at Braemar (near Balmoral), over the Cairngorm mountains before finishing at Aviemore, a Scottish tourist centre. In recent years I have limped from one injury to the next, lucky to get 3 months on, 3 months off, I needed a goal and Lairig Ghru was it. The original plan – scuppered by injury – was to go up in 2006. By September I was running again, but I suffered a calf injury in January, in mid-March Lairig Ghru 2007 was looking like a lost cause. The first week in April I finally got going again, I had a place in the London Marathon for three weeks later. If I had the remotest chance of running Lairig Ghru I needed to run the marathon, even though I hadn’t done more than 15 miles in a single run since October. London was Wendy’s first marathon and that also acted as an incentive. I got through London OK, and spoke to Andrew and Gillean and they were still up for the ‘Scottish race’, and so we booked our flights. Jane had a very good excuse for not racing, she was 6 months pregnant!  It is impossible to recreate the conditions of Lairig Ghru in Southern England, but the Neolithic Marathon and the 33mile Marlborough Downs Challenge a fortnight later would have to suffice. The Lairig Ghru race stipulates that competitors should carry ‘a whistle, full waterproof body cover, a map and compass’ and ‘competitors should typically be capable of a sub-4 hour road marathon’. The sub-4 hour marathon is something I haven’t managed for far too long, so I just put that out of my mind. I bought a rucksack and camelback, Tim Box lent me some of the equipment on the list. I needed to run the Neolithic and Marlborough Downs races with full kit to get used to it. Both races passed without incident (at Marlborough I loaded the rucksack with extra weight), it appeared that stamina/ endurance was not going to be an issue, but my times were pretty poor. I had two more runs planned prior to Scotland, a half marathon near Oxford and the Puddletown Plod. I took a tumble in the half-marathon and gave my dodgy toe a severe jolt in the first mile. I completed the race, but the toe was sore enough for me to go down to A&E the next day for a precautionary x-ray. Thankfully, there was no break. This put me out of the Puddletown Plod but I was running again in time for the Wimborne 10 time trial were I could only manage 1:26. All I had to do now was stay out of trouble until race day. My last run was at Rona’s barbecue on the Thursday before the race. I managed the run fine, but then went over on my ankle on Rona’s garden path! Friday morning I had physio and acupuncture on the ankle.

On Saturday I drove to Exeter and Gillean and I were to fly from there. Andrew would meet us at Aberdeen. I was up early so decided to look at the Met Office website, there was a severe weather warning for the Grampian Region! Northerly winds (the race would be into the wind all the way) with heavy rain falling as snow over 800m (our highest point was 850m). It was great to see Andrew and Jane and also Andrew Law, a friend of their’s, who would also be staying overnight and doing the race with us. The rain was incessant. Again we looked at the websites, there was a slight improvement, mention of snow had gone and the wind was becoming more easterly.

Race day arrives, it is still raining but not quite so hard, we drive off to Braemar. The weather isn’t great, but not nearly so bad as the Met Office had predicted. There were only 70-odd runners in the race. We get all our kit out of the back of the car and there is a great debate about what we should take and what we should leave behind. We look at the other competitors, a few have a big rucksacks, others are running in vests and shorts with a bumbag! We are somewhere in the middle, but we all take survival blankets. If you get stuck in the mountains or slow down too much, you are going to get very cold, very quickly. The whole event is very low key, the man in charge advises us that a stream we have to cross is in spate so using the stepping stones is not a good idea and there is a bridge which will add around 1km to the route. There are cut-off points at 8 miles (1h30m) and 18 mile (3h30m) and also at the finish line at (6:00). These times don’t seem over generous, bearing in mind the terrain. The start line is at 330m asl, the first cut-off is 8miles at Derry Lodge (420m), where the mountain rescue station is.

We are off. The first couple of miles are on tarmac road. A mile gone and Andrew said to me, ‘We are going too fast’. We are on a gentle climb, doing between 8-9min miles which he feels will be unsustainable. He might be right, but a glance over our shoulder shows only about half a dozen runners behind us, the other 60-odd are pulling away. We then run on a track to Derry Lodge. Eight miles done, we are there in 1:20, ten minutes inside cut-off. I feel I am running as well as I have anytime recently. Just beyond Derry Lodge we see an eagle as it soars high above us. At 10 miles we get to the stream we had been warned about, all four of us are still together. The two Andrews go for it and we saw them haul themselves up the bank safely on the other side. Gillean and I decide that caution is the better part of valour. If we can stay on the stepping stones the water looks as if it will come up to our knees, one slip and you will be in it up to your neck and tumbling into the River Dee and downstream at speed. The two Andrews disappear, and Gillean and I head off to the bridge on what is the most difficult path we have seen so far. I notice that those behind also opt for the bridge. We pick our way through the rocks and finally get to the bridge, on the other side is a peat bog which is almost as difficult to negotiate. We have lost quite a bit of time.

Gillean at Lairig Ghru

Lairig Ghru on a Clear Day

A little further on and we swing into the Lairig Ghru, a spectacular high-sided valley. One luxury item Gillean and I have allowed ourselves in our kit is a camera each and we both take photos, there is some low cloud around and it is still pretty damp. We are now on a narrow footpath which doubles as a shallow stream. It starts to get tricky underfoot with lots of small rocks to be negotiated. The stones become much trickier as we approach the Pools of Dee – Gillean begins to edge away. Immediately after the Pools of Dee we are faced with the boulder fields. Words can’t describe what this was like to get through. Gillean does her ‘Braveheart’ bit here, showing the agility of a mountain goat, she skips fearlessly away into the distance, I didn’t see her again until we got to the finish line. I got the first boulder field completely wrong and lost the path (and the plot) completely, at times I was literally clambering and crawling across wet slippery rocks. A couple of times I came to a complete stop, wondering which way to go next.  With my history of injury to ankles and feet it was scary stuff. It would have been so easy to have slipped, fallen or slid. I thought I am never doing this again but knew I must banish the negative thoughts and just make sure I get out of there in one piece. I couldn’t help thinking that if you did get injured how would anyone get you out. By now I was traveling at less than walking pace, so I put on some extra cover as I was getting colder and I wasn’t too far away from the highest part of the route (850m). While I was making hard work of getting through the first boulder field, a runner passed me on the other side of the boulders and when we encountered the second boulder field I was able to follow the route he found, which made life a lot easier.

Eighteen miles done and we have reached the highest point, in the next 10 miles we will drop 600m. I pass two mountain rescue men, safety is some way off, these guys have had to trek miles up here. One of them says, ‘Take care, it’s a bit slippery’. An understatement! The shelter from the hills has gone and suddenly we are going straight into driving rain on treacherous rocks. Footprints in the peat give some reassurance that I am heading in the right direction. Then one wrong step and I am on my backside in a bath of wet peat. I finally get back down to the tree line and I begin to feel safer, and arrive at the next checkpoint with another runner. There they tell us that the main road is about 3km away – so we probably have around 10k to go.

I decide to take on water and gels properly and he pulls away slightly, and I lose sight of him in the trees. I get to a crossroads of footpaths and continue straight on, I should have turned left. To begin with the route I am on heads in the right direction. It strikes me that it is odd that I can’t see anyone when I emerge into a clearing, it also strikes me that this is a very long 3k. When the path starts to veer east I know I am in trouble. The road isn’t that far away, I can hear it. I decide to leave the track and follow the sound of the cars, I end up in a bog. I eventually find a track heading in the right direction. I can now see traffic through the trees, I get to within 50 yards of the road, my heart sinks – there is a river between me and the road. The river is about the width of a road and is in spate. I contemplate heading west down the valley looking for a bridge, but I know there is no crossing in the vicinity because I have already tried to cut across. I could head alongside the river to the east, but that is the opposite direction to the way I need to go.  I could go back to that crossroads which is probably 5km back. None of these options appeals. I take another look at the river, I reckon it is probably about waist deep. I decide I am going to go for it. With my first footsteps my feet slide off the smooth stones on the bottom, I need to take it steady, I don’t want to think about what will happen if I lose my footing. I make it to the other side and stumble out on to the bank.

I have about 5 miles to go alongside a busy road. It surprises me how fast I am able to run after all that difficult terrain. I reckon I am probably doing 8:30min/miles for the last 5 miles with a slight gradient in my favour. I cross the line in Aviemore, it is about as low key as you can imagine – a man with a clipboard sheltering under the boot of an estate car, I have finished with a time of 6:19:23, the runner I lost sight of in the woods finished in 6:06 and he is convinced he took a wrong turn a little later and also lost time. Two other runners beat me by a minute. Who knows if I could have beaten the 6:00 time if I hadn’t got lost? I was relieved to see I was credited with an official time and a finish, and I was spared the indignity of the wooden spoon (just). Well we did it, Andrew D (5:01:28), Andrew L (5:02:56) and Gillean in 5:44:12. Long after other races will become a vague memory, I shall remember the Lairig Ghru and a great weekend spent with Andrew, Jane, Andrew and Gillean. Thanks guys.

Ian Kennedy


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