A wee bit of patter on my first Scottish hill race of the season, with the second (Slioch) now looming on the horizon. I ‘borrowed’ the main photo of the hill from Google as the race photos have yet to be released, it was a lot snowier on the day:
The Stuc a’ Chroin 5000 Hill Race is classed as a ‘Category A Long Hill Race’ under British Athletic Rules. The clue is in the title but the course takes in approximately 5000 feet of ascent over 20 km. The 3D image below, taken from the race website and originally courtesy of Geomantics gives a good overview of the route:
The Scottish winter has been devious and crafty this year as it was in 2015, pretending it was handing over to the next season only to pounce back in surprise a few weeks later. This clowning around is of course much applauded by those still able to get out on ski’s at short notice. In the few days before the race photos of a snow covered Cairngorm Plateau started to appear on the British Backcountry webpages and I began to wonder whether I should be packing skiis or running shoes.
Scottish Hill races make me nervous. It starts the day before as thoughts turn to the race and doubts arise on my training or lack of up until that point. I wolfed down some soup and pasta on Friday night, chucked some gear in the van, then had a couple of nerve settling beers (Drygates Outaspace Apple Ale in case your wondering how pretentious my drink choice was). I struggle to know what the ideal thing to eat on race mornings is, guess it depends on what you’re used to and enjoy. Some people rattle on about carbs and I’ve even got friends who follow low carb, high fat diets where everything must seemingly be smothered in lard if you’re to make it through the day. Anyway I’m far from being a professional so I had a cup of builders strength tea, bacon sandwich and Alpen then jumped in the van and set off. Race day nerves do something brutal to my stomach. Without going into too much detail if you’ve ever noted what a dog does after the first few minutes of sprinting around on a walk you’ve got the picture. Then it’s a matter of nibbling food for me to try and have something in the stomach for the race but not too much that I have to bomb another shopping outlet toilet block.
The weather on race day was really good, a brief window between snow on Thursday and torrential rain on Sunday. I arrived and registered early which gave me more time than planned to worry. The race started adjacent to a tennis court in the centre of Strathyre at 1 pm. The route immediately begins to climb with a few bottlenecks in the first kilometre keeping runners in line. Dry shoes and socks are given their first dooking in sloppy peat puddles as the route passes through mature pine forests onto a ‘reinstated peat track’. The peat track, soaked by snow and rain over the past week is hard going as the bog sucks away any momentum you try and build up. At this point I was keeping pace with Alan Smith, a legendary Deeside runner who has done more Scottish Hill races than I’ve had hot dinners. He’s got a set of legs that a rhino would be proud of and I watched as they pulled him in and out of the endless bogs as we ascended. Nearing the top of the first climb I realised I was sweating like Pavarotti in a cake shop so slowed up a bit, the forecast for snow showers around the time we were due to summit had persuaded me to put on a fleecy top instead of running vest, wrong choice. The sun seemed hotter than before as I stumbled along a deer fence. It’s often hard to judge the depth of a peat puddle, when bracing for a sink in up to the knee you often find only a few centimetres before the hard, the opposite is of course true. I sank in a couple of times before reaching checkpoint 6, the top of the descent into Glen Ample.
It’s a steep and unforgiving crossing over to the other side of the valley where a small deer path leads up the side of an old iron fenceline. From here you can see the leaders puffing hand on knees to the summit of Beinn Each. Again the sun felt hot and reflected off the snow and runners exchanged banter on this tough ascent. I met a fellow Invernesian at this point and enjoyed following him along the rocky ridgeline to which leads to the summit of Stuc a’ Chroin. The race is remarkably well supported with smiling marshals offering water and jelly babies along the route. They also allow you to mark progress along the ridge as they change from small dots on the summits to real people offering real goodies. It’s not easy the old hill running, some days I find it easy to slip into the zone but this wasn’t one of them and I was beginning to feel the effects of energy expended so-far. It’s extremely important not to let yourself get gurney, look at the views, think of how fortunate you are to be able to live a lifestyle which includes hill running for fun. Of course it’s difficult in the moment and I begin to wish silly things like I was born a dog so I had 4 useful running limbs instead of 2. A couple of snow showers passed.
Having turned around the summit cairn the descent was a mixture of soft snow, in places covering loose rock, bog and standard ridgeline vegetation. Mercifully the route cuts west just before the ascent to the summit of Beinn Each. This was undoubtedly my favourite part of the course where the initially steep route contours round the hill giving the legs some relief as you descend to the bottom of the glen once more. From here final main ascent brings you back over the route followed on the way out, back over the awkwardly side sloped snowy/boggy ground and back into the Sitka spruce plantations.
This next bit I hardly dare mention and am still kicking myself about. Having descended a steep slope the path takes a couple of turns back into the plantation. At this point I couldn’t see anyone ahead or behind and wasn’t concentrating on the path ahead. Having noticed a flag out to my left I somehow managed to run off course and spent a few minutes stamping about purple moor grass bog looking for footsteps. I wasn’t until a couple of other runners appeared above me and disappeared into the woods I realised that I had been led astray. Idiot. These things set you wrong as well so when I got back on the descent I struggled to focus on jumping through the endless bog holes. I crossed the finish line a few minutes later still unable to believe my mistake.
I drowned my sorrows with fruit squash and soup like they were drugs and alcohol then collapsed in the now sun drenched finish area. It took me just under 3 hours at 2:59:10.
Back in the van I put on my down-jacket and turned the heaters on full. Rubbing my eyes and face I could feel a dusting of salt over weather beaten skin. A quick u-turn in the crowded car-park and I headed back onto the road, letting my shoulders drop and thinking ahead to a deep bath. Although it had its tough points I’d had a great day out chasing friends along snowy ridgelines and up and over valleys.
Having woken up with relatively fresh legs on Sunday I headed out for a short coastal run from the village of Kippford in South-West Scotland. Sheets of rain swept in from the Solway Firth, driven forward by heavy gusts of wind. Water dripped from the end of my nose as I drew in heavy breaths of moisture laden air, it was bloody brilliant.