Rounding off 2018 on a pie

Breaking the lawers of physics. Photo: Sam Fisher.

2018 has been a funny year. Having taken time out of hill running (and, really, running generally) this year was my first bite of the Scottish hill racing apple, and it was as wild and amazing as I could have hoped.

The first race in May, Stuc a’Chroin was an incredible race: classic Scottish mist and drizzle, steep-steep climbs, scrambly ridges and bog. Finlay Wild was storming into the distance while us mortals slipped and slid down into Glen Ample, out of Glen Ample and back into it.

It all went to plan…until a rock decided to take a gouge out of my knee and land me in A&E. In a way, though, hospital was a minor thing; the race had been so much fun and so well supported that it didn’t even matter I had not managed to finish!

However, two weeks with five stitches just over a month before acting as a support runner in the infamous Celtman Extreme Triathlon and my first marathon was not ideal, but I do not think it had a massive effect.

2018 left me in stitches 😅. Robin and I bandaged up at Stuc a’Chroin.

At the start of the year, a friend approached me with a proposal: “Do you want to be a support runner in the Celtman?”. At first I was reticent, but got in touch with the chap in question and eventually (within seconds) decided to jump aboard.

I had an opportunity to help someone realise their dream, and when I got to know Mark better I knew this event was more than just beating the course – it was a much more personal challenge.

There we were – having ran through cloud, lashing rain and a persistent drizzle between the downpours – embracing at the finish line of one of the hardest triathlons in the world and grinning wildly after an incredible few hours running through the mountains of Torridon.

Celtman finish photo
The end of a journey with Mark.

There was a beautiful madness to it.

The Lairig Ghru marathon came towards the end of June, on the second day of a blistering heat wave for us in Scotland.

I should say for us in Scotland, because running in 30C might seem quite ordinary for many from warmer climes, but this was another challenge to deal with. Blisters 12 miles into a 26.7 mile race meant the day was going to be a physical and mental challenge as we entered the saucepan of heat that was found on the flanks of Ben MacDhui.

Again, despite all this, it was an amazing race. The mere act of running from Braemar to Aviemore and looking back from the finish line up to the Pools of Dee was one of the most satisfying things I have ever done.

The other most satisfying thing was getting a lift back to the start from fellow Ochil Hill Runner John and getting a chippy when we got there – absolute delight!

The cool June air that comes in the evening after a sizzling afternoon played across my battered legs, soothing the chaffing on my chest from my race pack. But more than that – I felt completely and utterly alive.

It’s strange that in those moments after the testing, your sense of life is heightened to a level of complete immersion with your surroundings. For sometimes hours you have put yourself through multiple challenges on physical, mental and emotional planes, but when it is over – that is what it is all for.

Bike standing against bealach na ba sign
Some rehab riding in the northwest.

However, the only way to reach that is through the challenge itself; the cake, the laughter, the drowsiness and buzz can only be achieved through this testing, and we reach a level of total contentedness.

After the Lairig Ghru I spent some time in the northwest of Scotland, before swinging by Fort William on another sizzling July day to run the Half Ben Nevis Race. I was carrying great form off the back of the marathon but hadn’t tested myself in a hill race since Stuc a’Chroin.

Dashing out of the playing field of Glen Nevis, it took about 500m for me to think, ‘This is going pretty well.’ Immediately ahead of me was Bob Wiseman, a neighbour and fellow Ochil Hill Runner who holds the Three Peaks record at 14 hours 36 minutes.

I knew this was going to be a fantasy position to hold on to (6th), but I kept with Wiseman right from the Nevis Inn and to the point the Youth Hostel path joined on. I let him go and settled in.

Allan Smith passed me. At the time I was not aware of who he was, but when I looked at the results later and learned more about him, I was pleased to have stayed ahead of him for just over half the climb!

A good few more passed, putting my back into about 13th, but I was consolidating; I knew my strength lay where gravity is one’s friend, so when we hit the burn turnaround I knew I had the edge. I started to soar down, overtaking two in quick succession.

Then – and I remember this so vividly – my right foot set down on a rock that was angling away from my trajectory. It slid down the flat edge, bending further to the right and I felt an electric shock fire up the side of my ankle as I almost left my foot behind as I dived down the mountain.

I thought little of it – really, I couldn’t; the taste of vomit and crippling lactic in my legs as we pounded the 1km of tarmac from the Nevis Inn to the playing fields definitely put it entirely out of my mind. Plus, a 10th place finish was more than enough to cure it temporarily.

The following days, though, it puffed up, but I just took it as a sprained ankle…which it probably was, until I decided to repeatedly run on it until I heard a horrific snap sound on Ben Lomond (coming from my ankle, of course).

A 4am sunrise run on Ben Ledi in July. Photo: Robin Downie.

Rest, rehab, physio – easy! A few weeks spent riding my bike and in the gym and we were good to go. Right? Maybe not so fast. An attempted Glen Etive horseshoe ended with another snap.

That was it, off running again with an officially diagnosed torn peroneal tendon. Fast-forward a similar four weeks of rehab. In fact, after several weeks of very little running and a lot go gym work, the gym started to become enjoyable again.

What followed were some excellent weeks of training and some brilliant runs, culminating in a seven Munro epic with the Fellkour Squad over the Lawers hills. You’d think after snapping my ankle a few times in summer would dissuade me from anything stupid again. Well, it did…right up until I jumped off a three-meter rock and cracking my other ankle.

The fateful day on Ben Lomond. Photo: Jordan Young.

But enough of all that! It fixed and I learned not to be an idiot on a mountain again because taking time off running is rubbish. Listen to your body and don’t jump off giant rocks if you want to have consistent training!

Last Saturday was an opportunity for redemption. For the past three years the Kirk Craig’s Christmas Cracker (KCCC) has eluded me  – what makes this all the more worthy of admonishing is it that KCCC is a family organised event!

In its first iteration in 2015, I wasn’t interested in hill running at all, and in the second year I filmed the race in a mini-documentary format (Adventure Show, I am still looking for my call).

runners going up a hill
Allan Smith just ahead on the KCCC. Photo: Mark Johnston

Last year, I did show up to the race, but as a total hill race novice had no kit with me, and as I dashed madly about the house 10 minutes before race start I realised I did not own a compass or whistle.

Finally, this year, was a chance to run the thing. The route is one I have stomped a hundred times this year in training, so I felt a little inside knowledge might help a little. The race start changed thanks to a bull being in the usual field, so we moved up the hill a little to run parallel with the field.

This meant it was a narrow, muddy start, meaning whoever was keen to win had to get up front early to come out of the tunnel in the lead. KCCC is a classic hill race: roll up at 11am, pay £5, stand in something representing an organised start line, and run off like head cases through the long grass and mud.

A friend asked: “So, where is the start line?”. “You’re looking at it”, I said, indicating the stretch of unmarked grass next to a tent.

Out of the gates I wanted to stay up at the pointy end to prevent the blockage that would occur in the mid-pack. I stayed in about 7th position through the technical single track alongside the fence – mud everywhere, hardly any secure footholds and rocks creeping under the sodden leaves.

The brutal descent, but HOW MANY CHINS?

At the first martial point we made a hairpin turn up and left to start the climb. The climb is largely a hands-on-knees affair, with it pitching up significantly at points and long drags at others. About halfway up the climb I had surrendered two or three places, soon giving up a place to Angela Mudge – an overtake I have never been more honoured to be the subject of.

As we came to the last corner, Allan Smith passed me. This was it. We had come full circle: from that surprise good performance on Ben Nevis which started the ankle problems that would dog me all summer to this final race of the year back in good form, Allan and I were racing again.

We crossed the moss and made our first descent to the big boulder. Mark Baugh, another OHR member, came absolutely flying past me two-thirds of the way down. It was incredible to witness – he was flying, I mean flying!

When we turned around at the rock, though, he faltered, falling far back as I hopped back up the climb we had just descended. Having passed her on the descent, a woman in grey tights wearing a pair of orange ON shoes blasted by on the ascent. In the hall earlier I had joked she must be a triathlete.

Indeed, I had not expected to be right, nor had I expected she was, in fact, Lesley Paterson, the current XTERRA triathlon world champion. She gapped me, but I held her in view as we crossed back over the moss to the Kirk Craig’s summit again.

Now it was downhill all the way. ‘Ankles, stay straight, stay straight, please’, I was begging. ‘No more rolls, please’.

Although Lesley had disappeared now, I caught her just a few turns into the descent as we all slipped and bum-slid down sections of the steep descent. The last section to the hairpin is tricky: an off-camber, muddy single track with gorse on either side acting like magnets trying to draw you in.

In the summer time, they would absolutely succeed with their heavy aroma of coconut, but in their dried winter state they are like barbed wire to anyone unfortunate enough to become entangled in them. I could feel someone bearing down on me from behind and kept up a sharp pace back along the wall to the finish.

race sprint finish
The finish line grimace. Photo: Brian Sharp.

A feint up to the the left was an attempt to throw them off a little before diving back on the main track. They didn’t take the bait. In fact, a miscalculation put me on the lower, muddier track while he took the higher and drier line. I held on for a time, looked back and realised there was a fair distance between me and the next runner, so I put in whatever beans I had left and crossed the line in 45:49.

In the end, I finished 19th of 105 runners, making it my best (proportional) performance in a SHR race. I sat with friends in the mud, laughing at the sprint finishes and clapping as the other competitors crossed the line. We talked of the race – the people who passed us, the sections we slipped up, how it was “Aye, not bad!”.

Tom Vas – a former colleague and a good friend – and I jogged back in to Tilly Glen to stand in the freezing burn and wash the worst of the mud off our legs. It was glorious. The crisp December hill water rushed over my battered calves, delivering some sort of elixir to them.

In the registration hall, prizes were given, jokes were passed about and much pie and cake was eaten. So many pies – including macaroni pies!

2018 gave its fair share of emotional rollercoasters, but at no point ever did I think, ‘Sod this. Running in hills hurts’. If there is one thing I learned this year it is that the hill has so much to give when you’re in a pair of shorts with a bum bag, and nothing but your legs to take you where you want to go.

I have walked in hills for many years, but the wild and unshackled feeling of running through the mud, grass, rain, wind, sun and snow with minimal kit anchors you in a child-like time that many would leave behind them. To move thus is to run with the pulse of the mountains; they may be gargantuan entities which form over millions of years, but in those snapshot moments they are racing and beating with energy.

I like to stop and close my eyes to put my fingers into the crannies of the hill – feel my way into it. With blood pumping and breath rasping, it’s like a heightened awareness is achieved. And as your fingers reach into the dirt and merge with the landscape, new ways of experiencing the hill can be found there.

2018 has been my year of baptism, of stumbling to my feet; 2019 shall be the year of discovery, of searching with every part of me and having some amazing running adventures in Scotland.

More than myself and the mountains, though, everyone who I have shared this year with has made it one of the most amazing years of my life. You all know who you are, and some are featured in these photographs, but I will say again: thank you.

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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