The Lairig Ghru Hill Race is badly named. I have no issues with the first half of the name. Right enough it follows the Lairig Ghru, but hill race? 640m in 43K?! It’s a trail race. Putting the modest elevation aside, it’s a stunning route, slicing through the Cairngorms with some of the best views your eyeballs can absorb, particularly on a sunny Sunday morning in September.
Having lost my enthusiasm for virtual racing approximately 800 metres into my first attempt back in March I was curious to see how the staggered start times in groups of 4 or 5 runners would compare. Would the Lairig Ghru hill race feel like a true race or was I doing a glorified time trial? Would a lack of racing and structured training in the last few months allow me to finish in a manner befitting of the only Westie representative? Would I be able to run it in under 4 hours and even beat Tom Elliot’s 3:53:35 from last year?
A few weeks out I’d ran a nice route along the fist half of the race route (veering off to a fun easy scramble up Sgor An Lochain Uaine’s North East Ridge, well worth a visit), and back in October 2019, the day after Meall a`Bhuachaille hill race, I  peeked at the decent on a post-race run with a bunch of Westies. I did a short trawl of race reports to make sure there weren’t any nasty surprises on the short bits of the route I’d not seen first hand. An internet search led me to discover an episode of The Adventure Show which had covered the race in much detail. Never have I felt so clued up about a race route (which is pretty much constant path).
Covid had delayed the race by a couple of months and bought in extra challenges for the voluenteer organisers who did a great job at keeping everyone safe and contamination free.
Prior to race day runners selected a time slot on the understanding that they needed to be finished by 3pm in Aviemore. On race day competitors were requested to wear a mask for registation (which was outdoors) and then were kept in a holding pen before their start time. A couple of minutes before blastoff runners were walked over to the start and set off precisely on time to make time-keeping as straightforward as possible. It was all very clear and seemed like a great solution to the difficult task of executing a cultural event in a Covid world.
I opted for a 10:15 start time which meant my journey from Glasgow started at a tolerable hour of the day and had a little margin for error.
I pressed the start button on my watch and I was off. I was taking part in a running race for the first time in months. It was hard not to feel overjoyed and I proceeded to run out of Braemar as if I was at the start of a Parkrun and not a ‘category C Long Hill Race’. The first few miles are nothing to shout about, road running with gently rolling hills but it doesn’t take long till you’re turning right, crossing a bridge and on to a gravel track which in every relevant Walking Highlands user report I’ve read recommends cycling in on as it’s a long and dull trail. I like running, long and dull is what I spend my time doing so no bike for me or the other 133 people racing.
Things get distinctively more Cairngorm-esque as one approches Derry lodge where a choice must be made; cross the Derry Burn as it meets Lui Water or cross next to or over the Derry bridge itself. I made the former choice as I reasoned dry feet would be  lighter and therefore quicker. Wet feet always win, cross the Derry Burn as it meets Lui Water. I’m a hesitating idiot.
Thankfully there’s no real decision to make at Luibeg Burn, the bridge is way too far upstream to consider so I jumped stright into the cooling burn, giving my legs a moment of entertainment, horrifying a couple who had been psyching themselves up to make the crossing.
The steps up from the burn opened out to a brilliant view of hills and for the first time I really felt like I was running through mountain country. Running along the foot of Derry Cairngorm and slowly contouring around to pass Devil’s Point on a trail which slowly but noticably increases in technicality.
At the highest point of the race I glanced at my watch and saw I’d been going two hours thirty, and knew this was the same pace that Tom Elliot had set in last year’s race. I got excited, needlessly excited.
I managed to navigate across the ankle-snapping boulder field by the Pools of Dee at a pace slightly above that of a bumbelling toddler, despite my attempts to channel Ella’s mountain-goatlike decending skills that I’d been trying to wrap my head around as she flew down some vertical hillside in Torridon back in July. Well, I didn’t fall but more work to be done.
Rock turned to soil and the path began to weave in between trees, I had 10 or so K to go but increasinly urgently needed a wee. First I tried to ignore it and then thought through releaving myself mid run, either wetting myself or dashing through the forest with my penis spraying urine in all directions. I ruled out the water pistol running idea because whilst I’m an idiot even I think seeing a bearded man running through a forest towards you whilst fountians of piss proceed him might be an upsetting image to take away from an otherwise lovley weekend in the Cairngorms. Soiling myself Radcliffe-style was tempting and looking back on it would have been the right choice as I still had one more river to cross but instead, according to my watch, I stopped for 138 seconds at a delightful tree well out of the way of any potential trauma victims.
I began to feel the distance, any spring in my step was long gone but I tried to keep my cadence up. I remember thinking, “Speed isn’t everything, I won’t heel strike my way to the finish, sure I might not win the Lairig Ghru ‘Hill’ Race this year but at least I’d get to the finishing line looking like I knew how superior running bimechanics work and Tom won’t only be beaten in time but also in step frequency.”
On reflection I’d clearly cracked.
That road from Coylumbridge to Avimore ain’t right. No hill race should finish like that. But it did, and I was glad. Till I looked at my watch.
I’d missed my four hour goal by 100 seconds and didn’t even come close to Tom’s time.
But true failure only ever comes from a missed learning oportunity, when we miss a step along the path to self improvement. And I learned – never rule out the water pistol technique.
The 2020 Lairig Ghru Hill Race didn’t feel like a glorified time trial, despite my obsession with Tom’s previous time. It was brilliant seeing so many people out running in the hills, getting the odd line of conversation and a sense of camaraderie. I was so pleased to be racing.
These things, they shall return, eventually.
1st Male – Robbie Simpson – 3:03:24
1st Female – Fanni Gyurko – 3:34:24
1st (and only) Westie, 29th – Arron Sparks – 4:01:39
Many thanks to Deeside Runners & all the volunteers who helped organise the race & Cairngorm Mountain Rescue.
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