Larry Who? The Lairig Ghru Marathon

The Mountain Cafe was a perfect finish line

Aviemore and its inhabitants were basking in the heat of a June day, the start of another spell of warm weather to grace the country’s skies.

Ice-cream was becoming as popular as oxygen, with hoards surround the sweating teenager stuck behind the parlour.

“And do you want two scoops?”, they would ask the woman in front of them. “Uhm … aye why not? He probably will.” Taking the twin cone out of his hand, the woman would turn to her son to present the ice-cream.

However, as she stood up straight, she was met by an odd sight. Sprinting down the road towards her was what looked like a mad man who had just been to a rather funky disco.

Snarling, teeth bared like a wolf, clad in a purple vest and wearing a bright red pack, this chap charged towards her, making some rather uncomfortable noises as he sped past, a race number hanging loosely from his front and blood trickling from his knee.

Where had he come from? Who was he? Why was he running? And who is this man, in similar fashion, chasing after him?

In short, he had come from Braemar. To answer the second question, that guy was me- the one in front, being chased by another guy. I know, the colour co-ordination was not great, but rarely do you see a hill runner attempt to match their wardrobe too expertly. Then they might be called a road runner.

Rewind to four hours, 44 minutes and 15 seconds previously, 20.74 miles away as the crow flies, and over 200 similarly clad individuals are lining up for the start of the Lairig Ghru marathon.

The times to beat: 2:58.10, set by Murray Strain in 2017, and 3:32.38 by Lucy Colquhoun some dozen years previously.

“Number 26! Number 27!”, called the marshal. We all stood on the road opposite the town hall in Braemar. The sun was out, the skies were clear, and as our numbers were called we moved to the side of the town hall.

Camera crews from The Adventure Show filmed us as we crossed the road, I moving forward as number 27 was called. Soon, we were all stood next to the town hall, and were told to make our way to the start line.

Roll call

Think of a marathon, and you will probably imagine a big time board, timing chips, crowds, balloons, a starting horn and some semi-popular figure with a megaphone shouting, “Good luck!”, as all the competitors file out of the starting line. Not to mention the fact you have paid 40-odd quid to put yourself through this thing.

Lairig Ghru? Pay 12 bob, stand on an invisible line and get shouted at “Three, two, one – GO!”, and the local cafe owner says, “Woo!” as you hop by.

The Lairig is a famous mountain pass in Scotland, stretching from the Linn o’ Dee to Aviemore, taking in some of Scotland’s most dramatic landscapes through the Cairngorms.

It’s an extremely popular route for walkers and hikers, the latter using it as an access to the slopes of Carn Toul, Braeriach and Ben Macdui, while the former use it as a challenge in itself.

The Lairig Ghru itself is 19 miles long, so the organisers added on some seven miles to make it just over a marathon distance – 26.7 miles.

I had to joke when I was interviewed by The Advenutre Show the day before the race when they asked me: “So, it is just over a marathon, and a technical one at that, how are you feeling about it?”.

“Well”, I chortled, thinking of the guys who were starting their West Highland Way Ultra and across the pond the famous Western States 100, “being 26.7 milesmeans it is technically an ultra, so I am definitely stoked for it!”.

Later, I would catch a few finishers saying the Lairig Ghru did indeed have the feel of an ultra to it: a point-to-point race, dramatic scenery, a substantial climb, and the technicality of the Chalamain Gap.

This was my first marathon. Training had been solid, though not as rigid as the plan I had originally devised. My girlfriend and I had signed up together, but after she picked up a knee injury (for which she places the blame on my shoulders after a sprints session I had created) that plan was scuppered.

A lot of my training was just getting out and running in hills. I would, of course, look to build the distance every week, but a lot of training was just getting some vertical miles in and getting time on my feet.

The week prior to the race, I helped out at the Celtman Extreme Triathlon up in Wester Ross. Originally, Robin Downie had mentioned a fellow Celtman needed a support runner for the mountain section.

Initially I raised doubts. ‘That’s my tapering period’, I squirmed.

“I reckon it’ll just be the eight or so miles for the mountain section”, he said cheerily. Perfect. Lovely taper.

I text Mark later that week to introduce myself. A message from Mark on May 2 at 9.02am reads: “Just the run and possibly doing the full 42 k though if that’s ok.”

I did not respond until May 13.

Truth be told, I said: “Sh*t. He wants me to do the full thing.”

“Get to cross the line of Cetlman, though”, I was reminded.

I was in.

The Celtman experience is one that deserves a blog post all to itself, but safe to say I caught the bug. And a bug. Getting soaked to the skin for nearly six hours left me stuffed full, from head to toe, in a hideous cold that had be chocking and sniffing all week. Everything had gone well on the day, Mark and I crossed the line together, Mark finishing 11th of the white t-shirt winners.

No good story finishes with the words: “It was pretty sane”

Now, I had to shift a cold and get ready for the next challenge. Even on the day of the race, I was blowing into handkerchiefs and coughing like a 40-a-day smoker. It was going to be a long day.

Carbed-up and hydrated as much as possible, we hit the tarmac for the seven or so miles from Braemar to the Linn o’ Dee. Immediately, I started trying to find pace-makers – recognisable figures in the crowd I would keep in my sights as much as possible.

I wanted around four hours, preferable quicker than my uncle’s self-proclaimed ‘rather modest’ time of 4:18. Starting out on an eight minute mile, I got to Derry Lodge well ahead of the cut-off time of 90 minutes, leaving the old shooting lodge 66 minutes in.

Two miles later, and things were looking difference. I often get a blister on the arch of my right foot, but had not had it for months. Eschewing logic, I had not packed blister pads or taped my feet. Rookie error.

My feet felt like lava. Though the Inov-8 Roclite 290s are a darling pair of shoes, they can get hot. Boy were they hot.

10 miles in and I was putting my feet into any and all water I could find, slipping back in places thanks to my awkward shuffle. Meanwhile, the running vest/Salomon vest combo was giving some serious chaffing, so when I touched the skin I got no sensation from it.

Still 16 miles to go.

As you round the corner after the second notable climb of the day the stunning vista of Devil’s Point and Carn Toul emerges, with Corrour Bothy at their feet.

A Carnethy runner past me, and soon we were pacing with one another, trotting along for a solid 20 minutes without a break in pace. Soon, though, I remembered I had not drank for any of that time. Reaching down to swig a soft flask was the seconds required to take a good kick at a recumbent rock and go head first into the dirt.

Scuffing my hands and taking the skin off my knee, I waved away assistance. “Nah, it is ok!”, I said.

I had to laugh. My last race had seen me in minor injuries with five stitches after slicing my knee open on Stuc a’Chroin. When I looked down and saw no white tissue was on show, I knew we were safe today and trodded on. Now, though, it was getting hot.

As we climbed into the Chalamain Gap, everything was hot to touch, and somehow I required that right foot more than ever just as my blister squealed at me.

The Chalamain Gap is an impressive boulder field, but more impressive is its location between the sides of Braeriach and Ben Macdui. At its summit, you get a straight shot view to Aviemore – our destination.

Around the summit were several walkers with tents and sleeping bags on their rucksacks, many sat beside what I would describe as idyllic oases; beautiful pools of water that all I wanted to do was jump in, right there, right then.

But we continued.

Cresting the Gap, we had about 10 miles left. “Good man”, I said to myself, “into single figures now.”

We picked up pace as we descended, popping out in the Rothiemurchus Forest, some six miles from the finish. At this point, things were starting to hurt. It was not anything specific (apart from my foot and chaffing on my chest), just that weird feeling of your body going, “Mate, no. Just hold it. It ain’t right.”

It is funny how, in these races, you do find your group. Several of us were playing cat and mouse with each other most of the day, and we always stayed within earshot of one another. It then became my mission to finish ahead of them.

Everyone says the forest is the hardest bit of the race. They do not lie. The four or so miles in there are the longest four miles you will ever do. It is just a relentless, never-ending plod to Coylumbridge.

At the end of it, I rasped to a woman who held out water: “Do you have Lucozade?”. I knew she did; I had spotted some the second I got there like a dog to a bone. Throwing some in a cup, she passed it to me. Seconds later, I was gone, having downed it and started up again.

It was like the kiss of life. ‘This is it’, I thought, ‘the road. Last bit. Last push.’

George Foster (Keswick AC) coming in hot to take the win. Photo: John MacEwan

Past the hotel, past the mountain rescue hut, ahead was a final water station and there, right there, were all those guys I wanted to beat, crowded around it.

Water with just a mile to go? No way! I scooted past – come on, I was hardly battling for contention but any victory counts, right?

Passing the Old Bridge Inn, I passed another, before heading below the railway bridge.

It is rather odd. Four-and-a-half hours before, I had left the streets of Braemar. Here I was, running hell for leather down the pavements of Aviemore, holiday-makers watching me bemusedly as I groaned past them, running as hard as I could to the Mountain Cafe.

I blew past the ice-cream parlour, a woman starting at me while her son licked a twin cone ice-cream. He is lucky I did not just pull it out his hand and stuff it in my mouth, but the prospect of being ‘nearly there’ was too great for delay.

There! A woman in a high-viz waved at me across the street. The end is nigh!

I like to think it was a sprint finish. Not really. My legs were not moving particularly fast, there was much more arm involvement – like throwing myself forwards.

Crossing the line, I thought of the guys doing the West Highland Way, Mark doing it the week after Celtman. And of the guys doing Western States 100. How did they do it? I would have to run back to Braemar, back to Aviemore, and then back to Braemar again to do what they were doing.

The year’s winning time was 20 minutes down on Strain’s, the heat taking its toll on a lot of competitors.

The first marathon is done. The next? Let us see. I finished 71st out of 214 athletes with a time of 4:44. 4:18 is still out there. Next year? For sure.

Stay tuned for news on that and other hill race reports.

Special thanks to John MacEwan (fellow OHR runner) who sadly pulled out due to Achilles issues, but assisted with transport and some loose change for a well-earned chippy. 

Published by Ross Brannigan

“It is worth ascending unexiting heights if for nothing else than to see the big ones from nearer their own level.” - Nan Shepherd

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