Before lockdown club member, Bryony McLeod, had been training hard and looking forward to a new challenge this year. Like most 2020 running plans Covid-19 got in the way. So it was great to see her run in the delayed Lairig Ghru race and make 5 months of training worthwhile. Here is her report of the race through the famous route through the Cairngorm mountains…

Having heard many great things about the Lairig Ghru race from others in the past few years it had planted itself at the top of my bucket list of races. The route is 43km long from the police station in Braemar to the police station in Aviemore, traversing one of Scotlands most well-known mountain passes on the way taking in about 700m of climb. I thought 2020 would be a good a time as any to take on this challenge, with little knowledge of what more 2020 would bring.

Expecting to run this race in June, I started marathon training in March. As I’ve never raced farther than a half marathon distance before I decided to take the training seriously. This coincided with the start of lockdown so it wasn’t quite the off-road hilly trails I’d envisioned but I enjoyed exploring more of the southside of Glasgow. The race was postponed and so my marathon training extended for two more months, a great chance to get more comfortable with the milage but also adding the pressure for when race day was finally going to come around.

Just after the start of the race in Braemar

Race day finally arrived and it was an early departure from Glasgow. With the Lairig Ghru being a point to point race, and with Covid restrictions, there was no bus back from the finish this year so it fell to my husband Ali McLeod to take on the role of chauffeur. We made it to Braemar with plenty of time for a leg stretch and to catch up with some friendly faces. I’d had a look at previous years results and set my race goal to be under 5 hours. We started in waves of 6 every 5 minutes, chosen based on our predicted race time so I was starting at 9:20. We were called up with 15 minutes to go and had our kit checked, mine contained enough food to probably feed everyone in my start block, and then we were off.

Crossing Victoria Bridge before passing Mar Lodge. Image by Fiona McLachlan

The first 5km are fairly flat along the road to Mar Lodge and I knew it was important here to not start off too fast. Despite this after the first kilometre I’d already ran off the front of my start group, I had a quick check of my watch and I was right on track based on my plan so I went it alone from there on. This proved to be a great motivator for me by not wanting any of them to overtake me further on in the race. The weather was turning out to be lovely and the views down the River Dee valley and over to the Cairngorms were a great distraction. I was feeling good and was keeping a good pace over to Derry Lodge. At 14km in there’s a cut off here of 1h30 but I arrived with plenty of time to spare. A short time farther on from here was the Luibeg Burn crossing, it was a refreshing XX but with short legs like mine the water was above my knees, so was glad for the dry weather.

Running up Glen Lui towards Derry Lodge

After this the path got rougher and we had our first bit of proper climb. Around the corner and you can see the Devils Point in the distance. Here I must have been looking up too much as I had my first face plant of the day. A quick check and my knee just seemed to be grazed so I knew it was best to keep running before it had a chance to stiffen up. I must have fallen harder than I realised as I got complimented by the next walker I passed for the state of my bloody knee. You carry on through valley before climbing towards the Pools of Dee. Fall number 2 of the day happened here and I was starting to worry I’d given too much energy too early. I had something to eat and felt good so decided I just needed to relax and enjoy. The benefit of the wave start meant there were plenty of people around at this point and passing them was real good motivation to keep on running.

Passing below Carn a’ Mhaim before the ascent to Pools of Dee starts. Image by Alex Rose

As you reach the Pools of Dee you also reach the infamous boulder field. Luckily the weather was dry and I found it pretty good going. And managed to stay upright throughout this section. After 27km and the highest point in the race I had to get my legs back in gear for running downhill. I took on my densest snack here, some cold baby potatoes which were a real treat in contrast with much of the sweet food I had in my race vest. With views down to Aviemore in the distance it was starting to settle in that I was actually doing the race and more so that I was capable of finishing it. The runners ahead of me had really thinned out by now so I only passed one more runner (and had one more face plant) before reaching the Rothiemurchus forest. Since Derry Lodge I’d only checked my watch a couple of times for reassurance I was on track. It was now that I realised I was 35 minutes up on my schedule. I changed my goal time, with 10km to go, to being under 4h30 and the race against the clock was on. This also meant that with all his good intentions my cheerleader arrived at his spectating spot in the forest a few minutes after I’d ran through there. The last stretch through Rothiemurchus was perfect underfoot and was about ticking off the kms. Then you are out on to the road at Coylumbridge with just a few kms to go. I found this the toughest section as there was no longer any of the scenery to distract me. I put my head down and thought of the finish line. Finally I was onto the high street in Aviemore, there was only a few hundred metres to go but also (what felt like) a few hundred tourists to dodge between me & the finish line. I reached the police station in 4h22. Full results here

Running through Rothiemurchus forest

After a quick clean-up of my gritty knee, we headed to the Old Post Office café in Kincraig for some post-race treats and it was dawning on me that I’d actually done it. Not every week in my 5 months of training had gone to plan but it was so satisfying to have put that work in and to see the benefit. And one of the best take-aways from that process has been re-discovering my love of running.

Thanks to Raymond Leinster for the header image at the start of this article.

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