My eyes slid open. I had been in a restless sleep of waking dreams, curled up like a hibernating hedgehog, goosebumps like prickles across my neck.
It was cold. I had a flashback to that cold bivvy above Kinlochleven at the start of the month. At least this time there was an extra layer of tarpaulin between me and the wintry air of the Cairngorms this time.
I pulled myself from my sleeping bag. The libations of the evening had not quite frozen since the temperatures had dropped. Lifting open the zip of the tent, the cold air rushed over my face like the breath of a fridge.
Around me, tents sparkled with constellations of water droplets, shimmering all the brighter in the frosty night. As I stood up, my hamstrings, calves and feet or yelled in protest at being awoken from their state of relaxation.
I hobbled off to the bathrooms, trying to figure out the question: “What had made my legs hurt more – the race, or the ceilidh?” One misconception about hill runners is that they are a weedy, wimpy breed without much muscle.
I can attest, as I shuffled across the damp grass, rugby matches tend to be tamer.
The festivities marked the end of the 2019 Scottish Hill Running championship calendar, with the Meall a’ Bhuachaille race taking place the same day.
Since a phenomenal performance at the Ben Nevis race in September compared with a reasonable result from the longer Ring of Steall Skyrace, I hoped to replicated that good performance on the shorter course outside Aviemore.
At 13km with 700m elevation, Meall a’ Bhuachaille appears relatively tame. As it always is with these races, though, take out one element and another comes in; this time, it was speed that was the name of the game.
The day was clear and cold. After hitching a ride with friends from Fort William, I pinned on my numbers and got off on a thorough warm-up. The ever-pessimistic MWIS had forecasted for -15C on summits for the day. If they were true, it may have crossed the minds of some of the hill running die-hards to don more than a vest and shorts.
As it was, extra layers appeared a scarcity in this cohort, despite the lazy wind cutting through us.
The field was stacked for this race. Up front were Finlay Wild, Rob Sinclair, James Espie, Sam Alexander, John Yells, Andy Fallas, Robbie Simpson, Caroline Marwick and Heather Anderson. The men’s field was much deeper than the ladies for some reason this year.
I enjoy the hive mentality at the start of a hill race. Even if you can’t see the race organiser reach for his horn or whistle, a rustle of silence falls and faces turn to stone as we set ourselves for the start. Usually a “Oh! So, we’re starting” is voiced in surprise, such is the casual nature of it.
The horn blasted. Within seconds, the whole field is over the start. Within seconds, the leaders are 100m ahead, racing along at 3:30/km pace – about 17kph.
As I did at Ben Nevis, I kept my head level, keeping a constant turnover going and holding onto a different set of heels until I felt a need to pass. The first two kilometres went past at similar paces, around 4:08/km. This might have been a touch fast, so I reeled it back a little, conscious of a steady climb to Meall a’ Bhuachaille’s summit.
We left the fast fire tracks behind to follow the Allt Coire Chondlaich and the stepped path into the coire from which it takes its name. The south easterly wind picked up, splashing a chill over each of us as we climbed steadily higher.
We made it to the bealach, turning right towards the summit. By the halfway point in this climb, the leaders were making their bounding strides towards us. Finlay was some 45 seconds ahead of second placed James Espie.
As I neared the top, a slight nervous excitement bubbled up in me. I was briefly transported back to a jelly-legged descent in similarly blustery and cold conditions on Scald Law during the Carnethy 5. How long ago that seemed. It seemed appropriate to start and finish the 2019 season in similarly baltic conditions.
I rounded the cairn, wondering whether my legs would ping to life or fall to pieces with the change in gradient. Thankfully, the former was true. The cold seemed to take all feeling from my legs, meaning I could take obscene leaps and daring lines down the rocks and over the heather.
I felt like I was floating. My legs just turned beneath me, my torso levitating across the plush ground. I was passing people, flying down the side of the hill towards the bealach.
We joined a trod, leading us on the 600m contour around the base of Creagan Gorm. I settled in behind another runner, using him as a bit of a bog canary to find the holes ready to ensnare weary legs (all’s fair in love and racing, right?).
The climb up Creagan Gorm is another steady gradient, made easier with the wind to our backs. I passed two more, joining a mini tit-for-tat between two other runners who kept exchanging positions. Off the summit, I opened the throttle again, enjoying the freedom I was feeling in each descent.
I snagged two more positions with a cheeky line to drop below the pair of them. I led them off through a bit of a bog as we chased the summit of Craiggowrie, keen to make use of the frozen patches to cut some corners.
The frost meant the ground was firm in a lot of places (though, I was slightly chastised for mentioning this by a lady at the dinner who complained it was “alright for you fast sods! It’s a quagmire when we get there”, to whom I apologise).
I chanced a look up as we rounded the final cairn of the day. Our position at the prow of the plateau gave a tantalising, crystal clear view over the River Spey, lying like a blue ribbon wrapped around Aviemore.
There wasn’t much time to consider the view. From 670m, we had a muddy rollercoaster descent of 200m back into The Queen’s Forest. The rush of the descent took me with it. I was flying down through the rocks and mud, avoiding the grasp of the bogs by the skin of my teeth. Anywhere I put my feet, there seemed to be a sure landing, a firm portion of ground to spring from.
I battled with another guy right up until the forest before he nipped ahead when my luck ran out and I sank knee-deep into bright green moss. Not all was lost, though.
The final 2km is on an arrow-straight descent on fire roads, the type you just lean forward, take the brakes off and let gravity do the work. Ahead Stewart Whitlie – a competitor I benchmark off of when I am feeling good – came within touching distance.
I know he is a V50, but there was a small amount of satisfaction in pulling off a smooth pass of this unassuming terrier of a racer. I could see another Stuart ahead – Crutchfield – an even more coveted scalp, one I had never come close to, was in sight.
Over the last 200m, though, the road flattened out. The matches had largely burned out, and it was only with a lot of gurning and hurling of arms I threw myself through the last straight, over the bridge and across the line to finish in one of my best performances of the season.
In a time of 1:15.10, the Meall a’ Bhuachaille race was over, and with it the SHR championships. I must extend a massive thank you to Highland Hill Runners for an amazing event; Scottish Hill Runners for a fantastic ceilidh (particularly Angela Mudge and Dave Scott for all their work on the AGM, prize giving, dinner, etc.); my friends and clubmavtes for lifts, company and laughter this year; and to the hills and nature for being an absolute gem and existing.
Lastly, congratulations to Finlay Wild on a new record in the race (missing out on a sub-1 hour by eight one-hundredths of a second), James Espie for winning the championship and Jill Stephens for winning the ladies championship trophy.
This year, I had set the goal of completing the Long Classics and championship. For 2020, perhaps with a wiser head on, I will make the latter the priority. I have enjoyed the challenge of the longer races this year, but they don’t light up the fire in me like the shorter races.
With a slightly lopsided regime, I had gotten injured in the middle of racing season, missing a couple of championship races, meaning I did not complete the series. Next year, though, I am excited to take on those just announced for 2020:
- Cioch Mhor
- Stuc a’ Chroin
- Hart Fell Horseshoe
- Glenshee 9
- Tom na Bat
I will do a full review of the year later in 2019. Until now, I am excited to set my sights on my first A race of 2020 (Stuc a’ Chroin) and begin winter training!
Until then, keep your running wild, your head in the clouds and your soul happy.