Sunday, 3 June 2018

Stuc a Chroin - First time, last time

The summit of Stuc a Chroin
In other news, I’ve moved to Edinburgh. 
Jury’s out as to whether this is a good thing or not but needs must. And I need a job. Time will tell how its going to pan out but so far its not been a resounding success.  However, I now don’t trust “time” anymore. I remember at one time Edinburgh being a pleasant place to be and as a running environment certainly not the people and traffic pollution nightmare that I am currently experiencing. Has the city got exponentially busier in the last 8 years or has time played his old trick on me of fading memories?  There once was a time (there you go again) when there were hoardes of brown vests on the meadows and in Cloisters on a summer evening, a time when you knew EVERYONE,  and the last train back from the Black Rock race contained more Trotters that just me, Ian Campbell and, inevitably, YP. And I was clearly so boring that even YP fell asleep. Changed times. Did I really think I could go back in time? Fool that I am.

Have you noticed when you are about experience or do something momentous or life changing everything takes on a certain significance even in hindsight, that last meal, that last conversation, that last look backwards over your shoulder. Something that would have ordinarily meant nothing suddenly seems to have taken on some sort of meaning. I ran the Stuc a Chroin race at the weekend, nothing special in that you say. Well true enough, its just another hill race (although a brute of one). It also marked the start of my move back to Edinburgh after quite a few years in Aberdeen.  I always intended to come back to Edinburgh but somehow over time that urge became less and in Aberdeen I created a life for myself, and one that I am missing. The last orienteering competition , the last Krunce race, all of them more significant events than being simply the monthly krunce or the weekly forest sprint orienteering. Those final few trips to Aberdeenshire hills did involve me staring wistfully and tearfully into the distance wondering if I was making a mistake.

I also don’t have a computer at the Edinburgh flat (or a kettle, tv, toaster or ironing board etc but that’s a whole different story) so hence the delayed blog. You can expect my Transylvania blog post round about September at this rate.

Stuc a Chroin is also the race that marked the start of my hill running life. At the age of 18 I was in first year at university and hating every minute of it, and then I found the subset of the Dundee Hawkhill Harriers who, led by Charlie Love, went hill running. It was a revelation. Until then running had been something that was done in the confines of a track with fat coaches in tracksuits with lots of badges sown on to the tracksuit shouting at you. And boy, could they shout. Hill running became my escape from everything and has remained so until this day.

I went running with Charlie and the Hawkhill Harriers every Sunday morning to places like Glen Clova, Tullybaccart and the Lomond Hills and then decided in one spring month to attempt Normans Law, a small hill race in Fife, Clachnaben in Aberdeenshire and then Stuc a Chroin as my introduction to hill racing. I can’t remember too much about Normans Law or Clachnaben except that Clachnaben was over a slightly longer route than it is now and that you had to climb Mount Shade twice and that I didn’t like running through the heather much. I also remember Steve Pryor of Cosmic Hillbashers fame marshalling the race and giving me a cup of coffee at one of the checkpoints. Clearly I wasn’t in the lead or anything at that point. 

Stuc a Chroin, however, is now firmly fixed in my memory. That was one long day out. I believe it was a British Championship race that year meaning that in theory there should have been loads of other runners out on the course to follow in the thick mist. There wasn’t. That or I was too slow to keep up and they all vanished into the mist ahead of me. Anyway the upshot of this was that I was lost on the hill and had absolutely no idea where I was. After what seemed an age of hunting around the hillside I found a flag and then another and followed the flags to the group of marshalls. Amazingly they let me continue, this being the days before such things as timing cut offs, kit checks and "Elf and Safety" in general and so I plodded on up the hill and on to complete the race in a very slow time and most definitely in last place. I was rewarded for my efforts with a bottle of whisky at the now sadly defunct post race celidh. The Hawkhill harriers stayed at the Munro hotel which was famous for it’s a) relaxed bar closing times and b) bottles of dog flea shampoo lying by the bath.

So this year has been the first year since then (23 years ago) that I have attempted this springtime triple. It was in a different order this time with Clachnaben being the first of the three. Again Stuc a Chroin was the most memorable and, again, I'm not sure it was for the right reasons. As the rest of the country bathed in glorious spring sunshine, the raindrops splattered on my car windscreen as I drove into Callandar. The rain had stopped by the time I reached Strathyre only to have been replaced by thick mist. Oh joy.
Race Map and Profile (C Scottish Hill Racing website)
I registered, had my kit checked and then went and had a scone from the little cafĂ© near the car park, after all I was clearly going to need all the help I could get. It was a surprisingly large group of runners who lined up on the start line of this new Stuc a Chroin course, the start and finish point having changed since the early days. The steady climb on the track wasn’t too bad but then we hit the rough ground. And then it was bad from pretty much then onwards. The amount of snow that had fallen over the winter time had all melted turning the course into one deep boggy mess. I slipped and slithered my way down to the bottom of Glen Ample under the buzz of the drone that I supposed was to be shooting stunning race film footage. In the mist. Good luck with that one.
The climb from Glen Ample (C Scottish Hill Runners Website)
The ridge on a clear day. So thats what it looks like (C Scottish Hill Runners website)
A wee bit of a scramble (C Scottish Hill Runners website)
Next it was the famous climb, hauling yourself up on your hands and knees a slope that at times felt almost vertical. 
The infamous "on all fours" climb (C Scottish Hill Runners Website)
Although I have done the race a few times since that first ill fated attempt I can only assume that I had blanked a lot out of my memory, the various ups and downs and twists and turns that formed the ridge from Ben Each to the summit of Stuc a Chroin itself. Maybe if id actually been able to see a bit ahead the route finding would have made more sense but as it was I was just running from marker flag to marker flag and from cheery group of marshalls to cheery group of marshalls. By now the people in front were coming past and I spotted a lot of familiar faces, Michelle, Steph, Mannie, Nigel, all going well. Eventually though I made it to the summit and turned to go back down. Worryingly though there didn’t seem to be too many people still on their way up the hill behind me and I was a little to close to the back of the field for my liking. Oh well, not a lot I could do about that except just keep going. It felt a lot easier running down hill and didn’t seem like any time at all before I was back at the bottom of Glen Ample and ready for that final climb. This final climb out of Glen Ample is really worth a mention though. As a climb on its own it isn’t actually very high and should be easy enough however you need to have enough left in reserve to get you up that wet boggy slope. In past races I have climbed past other competitors sat on the slope resting with that 1000-yard stare into the distance. I’m sure I’ve seen grown men crying too.
It was worth it for the view (C Daniel Kershaw)
And thats what it looked like on race day...
I should use rain-x on the lens!

I found the next section a bit of an ordeal though, falling and sliding through the bogs and rivers while trying to follow something that could be loosely termed a path until reaching the track again. Amazingly I actually managed to over take 3 people on the track to the finish but in hindsight I’m not sure if they were fellow competitors finishing the race or if they had DNF’d and were just trying to make their way back. 

I managed to finish the race just as the prize giving had started which is always a good way to make an entrance. It was also a definite improvement on the first time I did this race when I arrived back at the finish long after the prize giving had finished. The prizes appeared to be bottles of whisky which is such a good race prize. I did find out though that the race organiser had brought forward some of the checkpoint cut off times due to “deteriorating conditions” so ordinarily maybe there would have been one or two more runners behind me in the race.
Stuc a Chroin "tan line"
I have to say that although this type of terrain is not really my forte the length and difficulty of the race was just what I needed to be able to switch my brain off entirely to all of the other stresses in my life. It’s a bit hard to think about anything else or worry about anything else when doing this race….exactly the same as I found all those years ago running it for the first time as a student. It doesn’t matter how often you run the race it always offers escape from work rubbish and all of the other general rubbish life throws at you. Whether running it for the first time or the last time (I always finish Stuc a Chroin swearing that it will be the last time I ever do it) makes no difference to that, it will always be an escape.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Chapelgill Hill Race - "Does your mummy know you're here?"

Race map and profile (c Scottish Hill Racing)

Last month Fife AC lost a club stalwart and a friend. Frank Cation was a larger than life character who was instrumental in my, and many others, introduction to hill running. The number of stories of his antics would make a couple of blog postings on their own as there are stories abound of the mischief he got up to, often with the assistance of partner in crime Tom Ross – from trying to put a donkey into a fellow runners tent and when they failed to extract the, by now somewhat nervous, animal from its field they settled for a duck and a chicken. Or the nights in the pub when Frank would disappear and then suddenly reappear, lurching through the assembled crowd with the pubs supply of toilet roll stuffed up the back of his jumper to form a hump, growling “The bells Esmerelda, the bells” much to the amusement of the Fifers and the consternation of other unfortunate pub goers. This also may have been shortly before his false teeth found their way into the bottom of somebodies pint glass only to be noticed a little later by the lucky recipient. 

And then there was the running, unexpectedly finding yourself rugby tackled to the ground while running uphill on a training run or swimming in the reservoir mid run on a sunny Sunday morning. Frank was an enthusiastic, hard as nails hill runner of the old school and if somebody was complaining on a training run that it was too hot, too cold, too steep, too far, too muddy etc they would be met with a withering look and the line “does your mummy know you’re here?”

This seems particularly pertinent over the last few weeks where people have been giving each other “kudos” on social media for getting out running in the snow and ice and people actually reporting on social media that they are not going running because its too slippy and “dangerous”. I think I know exactly what Frank’s response would be to that kind of behaviour! 

Many races were cancelled in the face of the “Beast from the East” so it was purely down to good fortune that conditions were not so bad that Chapelgill had to be called off and I can only blame an excellent piece of persistent badgering by Jocelyn that saw me drive from Aberdeen to the borders and back in one day to do a race that was less than 2 miles long. I swear that woman could sell ice to eskimos. 

Chapelgill was the first counter in the Scottish Hill Runners championship series but there is not much to say about the format of the race. Run up the hill until the summit where the race marshal directs you back down. Simple as that. There was no doubt about it, it was cold. Very cold. The Beast from the East was showing his claws. It was less than zero deg C in the car park so I’ve no idea what the temperature was at the summit that the summit marshalls had to endure but I know it was very windy. At times the weather seemed to clear, if not warm up, then all of a sudden another of flurry of snow would blow through in the relentless wind. Ian and I quickly registered then sat in the car prolonging the inevitable. I know, I know, what would Frank have said?

Eventually there was no choice and we had to extract ourselves from the nice snug interior of the car to go and run. Happily, there was a bit of shelter from the wind in the valley where the race start was located and after warming up I summoned up the courage to remove the second layer of waterproof clothing that I was wearing all the while staring in bemusement at the folk wearing shorts. If the course was steep or slippy in any point and bum-sliding was a requirement then that is going to hurt!
It looks like the weather is clearing...
......Oh no its not!
There was still a bit of snow lying and the ground was quite hard but not frozen so in that respect conditions were quite good and personally I was happy that there seemed to be no icy cold water to run through at any point. The field of 130 runners set off and I had a good climb staying just behind Michelle Hetherington, slowly losing all feeling in the right side of my face in the strong icy wind as I climbed.  I managed to keep all feeling in my fingers though, always a problem for me when running in the winter. On reaching the summit we went round some fairly cold looking race marshalls and then Michelle took off and ran away from me but overall I was pleased with my descent only losing one place within two hundred meters of the finish as my legs became a bit shaky with effort. 
The start
With people taking slightly different lines of descent it was difficult to know who was in front of me and who was behind me by the time I finished especially as most people were well wrapped up in layers of waterproof gear. Most people scurried off to the warmth of their cars after the race rather than hang around and, as one race marshall commented “race photos? No chance!” 

Fife AC fielded a full ladies team which finished second behind Carnethy and I like to think that Frank would have been proud of us for getting out there and getting on with it.
At the Fife AC training camp at Loch Laggan
At the 12 Trig Trog race