Sunday, 24 December 2017

Out of the darkness...

Winter days are short. Bright sunny winter days are in short supply. So why when then sun shines do we shut it out? Probably to stop folk like me from whiling away the office hours by staring out of the window. Mind you, the view really isn’t that inspiring, just the office car park. Not sure what I really expect to see though? herds of wildebeest roaming the prairie? the Niagara Falls? To be honest I would have settled for the car park.

Apparently, the solstice fell on a nice clear winters day but who could tell. And they say work place depression is on the rise - no shit, Sherlock.

Out of the darkness comes light, so they say. Even though I was late and missed the actual solstice by a day I ran up to the top of Clachnaben to watch the sun set and I was rewarded with stunning skies, reds and pinks and blues and although the pictures below are pretty good given they were taken with just a phone they don’t in any way capture the intensity of the colour and the dazzling brightness that I was met with as I summited the hill against the back drop of the black mountainsides.

I took a lot of photos. I stayed until I had got pretty chilled, I was shivering so much I was taking blurry photos before it occurred to me it would be a good idea to put a jacket on before reluctantly turning around and descending the hill slowly in the encroaching darkness. I went on to a party thrown by a hill runner for a lot of other hill runners who themselves had gone to the summit of Morven in the dark. Now that’s a good way to celebrate the solstice. In fact, I’m all in favour of replacing the commercial hell of Christmas with solstice celebrations, bring back standing stones, mistletoe and druids! Basically, any form of celebration that doesn’t involve going to Union Square to actually have to buy something. 

I wonder what would really happen if we were to celebrate the solstice or yuletide instead of or (heaven forbid) as well as Christmas? It would almost certainly be hijacked by commercialism if the chance to make money out of it presents itself like so many other little traditions have been. Do you think B&Q would stock various types of yule log to cater for all tastes and sizes of house? Only to be undercut by cheaper versions from Aldi or Asda? Maybe you would also be able to buy Plastic Living flame style yule logs which could be put in the attic and carted out every year. Maybe you would be able to buy a mini Stonehenge for the back garden. 

Throughout the world there were all sorts of variations on the theme of celebrations of the winter solstice ranging from the chinese Dongzhi Festival, the Scandinavian Feast of Juul to my own personal favourite, the Roman feast of Saturnalia which basically amounted to a week-long bender. If anyone is thinking of re-enacting the Feast of Saturnalia then I believe, according to roman custom, that there was the necessity for a human sacrifice to close the celebrations. After the last two weeks I've had that’s not an entirely unappealing thought right now.

Even then I suspect M&S would be desperate to convince us that no Roman party would be truly complete with out a knocked down price Vienetta and a box of Ferrero Rocher.

Happy Solstice folks!

Sunday, 17 December 2017

The Magic of Marcothon and midweek mountain mental floss

Woah Woah, we’re half way there…. Woah Woah, Livin’ on a (wing and a) prayer…*

Half way there. Well, more than halfway I suppose. It’s actually going quite quickly but I suspect that has more to do with the speed of Christmas approaching being inversely proportional to the amount of necessary Christmas chores I have managed to complete rather than anything to do with the Marcothon itself. 

This year Marcothon has come at exactly the right time for me. It’s given me a focus, a target, when everything else seemed a little bit hopeless so thank you Marchothon. If you thought the introduction to my last blog was bordering on the self-pitying side then this one was building up to be a full on misery fest but a change of work circumstances in the last two days has changed all that. You’ll be glad of that, there’s nothing worse than a self-pitying blog post or Facebook post. 

The thing about Marcothon is that it takes away any decision making which is ideal as you plunge into the darkness of the winter months in Aberdeen. You will be going running today. Come what may. There is no other option. And, like running success or failure in general, it is down to you, not a decision made by someone else, you either run or you don’t there’s no office politics behind it, no individual can do it for you or stop you. Only maybe illness or injury could do that, or by your own decision. That’s the beauty of it, the simplicity compared with the everyday crap of everyday life. Similarly for quite a while I’ve found my “midweek mountain mental floss” has been an essential part of keeping me sane. And not requiring bail money.

Therefore I have had days of amusingly slow runs as I negotiate the sheet ice lining the city streets and the country trails interspersed with what I like to think were convincing Torvill and Dean impressions but, which I suspect from a bystanders point of view, were actually more like Bambi impressions. For anyone too nervous to venture out running on the ice in town I have a tip for you. Go and do a night race on frozen tracks in a forest with only a head torch to guide you and after that the well lit city streets seem far less treacherous in comparison.
Reflective course markers
Time keeping was a chilly job tonight!
I actually like running in the winter and there are some great races such as the night series put on by Deeside runners. The first race in the series is the Cnoc Dubh night race near Cambus O May. The race start itself was moved by a couple of hundred yards so that the runners didn’t have to negotiate the sheet of ice covering the car park. Lining up on the start line we were warned it was going to be slippy on the track and down to the river and then we were set off into the darkness. The car thermometer had registered -5 deg C in the car park and it was definitely an icy blast I felt as we started the climb.  Some brave souls were wearing shorts too. Sure enough the gravel on the wide landrover track was frozen solid and so I tried to stick to the very edges of the track to get some traction from the grass and twigs at the side. Being pretty worn out at the moment with legs that felt as heavy as lead I could only watch as the torchlight of the majority of the field disappeared into the blackness but the course was very well marked with reflective markers so I wasn’t too concerned about losing my way. The first exciting bit was the descent down the gulley to the river crossing. I had managed to catch a few people up so there were four of us running together by the time we reached the gulley, all tackling the descent from different directions and so when the race marshal at the bottom of the descent started yelling that someone was too far over and not to head over the cliff it was a little difficult to tell who he meant was about to plummet headlong over the cliff. On balance not going over the cliff did seem like good advice though. I carefully slithered my way down the gulley which ordinarily is pretty muddy but tonight was frozen solid and crossed the burn while managing to keep my feet dry. Always a bonus. With it being so cold and frozen keeping the feet dry wasn’t as much of a challenge tonight as it often is but still I wasn’t spared that heart stopping moment when your feet break though the crisp snowy surface and plunge into icy boggy water underneath. Oh joy.

I got across the second stream crossing without further soaking my feet but almost face planted as I jumped across not realising that the other side of the path was sheet ice. I got up, no damage done and carried on. I don’t think I was really going fast enough to damage myself if the truth be told. The squeals and yelps I heard behind me suggested that the runners following me had just done exactly the same. Eventually these runners over took me as I picked my way down the track to the finish as well as stopping to give directions to folk who were on their way out to assist an injured runner. 

Given the conditions it was probably inevitable that someone would come a cropper but happily no one did any major structural damage to themselves and we all made it back to the Riverside café for soup and tea, coffee and cakes in front of a fantastic woodburning stove while enjoying the post race chat with other runners and generally feeling as though we had all had a bit of an adventure. I love the simplicity of these events. It’s a great form of escapism and the camaraderie is second to none. There is something magical about running in the ice and the cold and then warming up in front of a fire.
Soup, cakes and prizes

The race is a bargain at an entry fee of £2 and the prizes were chocolate Santas. Lets hope this batch of chocolate Santas won’t be re-called by the store for some “wee problem” like last years were…

Race winner Fiona with her chocolate Santa

*Song lyric credits to Jon Bon Jovi. Sort of.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Autumn Trail Half Marathons

Monymusk House (cc race entry form)

Yes, I know, the frequency of my blogging has been extremely poor of late. So much so that one of these races can be counted as winter rather than autumn. I can only look on with envy at the output rate of bloggers such as Peter Buchanan and Mary Hunter who seem to be able to turn out great blog postings at least two or three times each week and who can make the mundane seem interesting and entertaining. Its now safe to say I have reached an all time blogging infrequency low point by covering 3 months of events all in one blog posting. I guess the trials and tribulations of life have really got in the way properly over the last few weeks and my creativity, not to mention my energy, has been sapped with filling in job applications. Sadly now my current rate of cake production reflects this too. And now the spectre of Christmas is looming in all its commercialised horror. Pass the Prozac.

Not to worry. As Simon keeps trying to remind me, its only work. Its not life. And more importantly it’s not running. 

So on to the important events of the last few months and the important things in life. The running.

 The Dramathon
The contents of the Dramathon race goody bag
Whisky and running. I finally found a race that takes in that divine combination. It is such a divine combination that Simon was even lured into signing up. Predictably it was a sell out event necessitating an early sign up and featured a choice of events, a marathon, a half marathon a 10k and a marathon relay. We opted for the half marathon or “half dram” as I was reliably informed by Simon that it worked out as the best deal in terms of drams per mile. And lets face it, that’s what counts. This was the inaugural Dramathon and it was a great event with a fantastic concept. In the weeks before the event there were rumours abound that we would actually have to drink a dram at each of the distilleries that we passed but that was not the case and the drams were presented to us at the finish line in the form of whisky miniatures from the distilleries that we had passed on route. I kept quiet about my disappointment at this lest people got the wrong idea about me.
Steve and Ian were also doing the "half dram"
Race competition... :-) (cc Dramathon website)
Nervous grin
On your marks... (cc Dramathon website)
Go! (cc Dramathon website)
The weather forecast wasn’t promising, and it was distinctly grey looking overhead as we were all bussed to the start line for this point to point race however, there was a lot of lively banter on the bus to cheer up proceedings although even that didn’t work on Simon. I think he was grumpily plotting his revenge for the 2 second gubbing that I had inflicted on him in Munich two weeks previously. I had done as the race organiser asked and carried waterproof kit…only to see that quite a few others were lining up without the mandatory kit. I hate it when that happens, its either mandatory or it’s not (or I missed the email saying it wasn’t. Probably that.) 

After a wee bit of hanging around we were set off from the old railway station at Tamdhu along the Speyside way. Predictably Simon disappeared into the distance within minutes of setting off and I decided not to go with him which turned out to be the wise move. The route was mainly along a tree lined track so it was quite pretty with the russet autumn colours but a bit limited in terms of views and it seemed as though at no point was I running alone out of sight of anyone as there were plenty of marshals on the route, and plenty of other competitors although you had to be careful that you were running against someone in your own race and not a competitor in the 10k or relay who had just overtaken you so it was a case of casually checking the colour of the number of the runner who was coming up behind you. That’s always a mixed blessing, sometimes its nice to have someone running near by to focus the attention but at other times the peace and quite of the trail is also good. The marathon runners faced a different problem. Setting off further down the track they had to try to weave their way through the tail enders of the half marathon and 10k who were often running or three abreast across the path which seems remarkably inconsiderate of the slower runners and possibly something that should be mentioned to them in the pre-race briefing.
It was good runnable trail

Steve was enjoying himself far too much
Having had an ok-ish run in Munich I was surprised and a little bit disappointed to find that my legs seemed to seize up in the last few miles so I was relieved when the course weaved its way through the grounds of the Balvennie distillery to finish amongst the traditional white painted buildings of the Glenfiddich distillery. As I was pretty glad to reach the end I have to confess I wasn’t too disappointed that the race was short by about half a mile but the lack of accurately measured race distance was certainly a problem for some even though the race information had stated that the distances were approximate. I think some of the complainers were those aiming for membership of the 100 marathon club and because this race fell short of the required 26.2 miles then it didn’t count. The 10k runners got more for their entry fee with an 11k course. The complaints seemed a little ill thought out. It’s a point to point trail race where the organisers have to bus the runners to the start point. It seems unlikely that the organisers are going to find an appropriate start point where they easily can park three 52 seater coaches at EXACTLY 26.2 or 31.1 miles. 
Quite glad to be nearing the finish line (cc Dramathon website)
I won a prize!
Simon won a prize too
And so did Bert
Winners in the marathon race

The course seemed to be predominantly flat although the Garmin print out seems to suggest a gradual uphill climb uphill climb between 7.5 miles and then end which possibly explains my gradual slowing and happily for the most part the promised deluge of rain didn’t materialise except for an impressive 5 minute downpour mid race.
It was worth it for the Glenfiddich cake
Race booty
Like many of these events not organised by traditional running clubs and featuring complex logistics and large numbers of competitors it was quite expensive but not prohibitively so and the concept of a Dramathon with its distillery setting was well worth it. As was the post race coffee and Glenfiddich cake in the distillery café. We stayed around for the prize giving and it was fortunate that we did so as Bert, Simon and myself all won prizes and Kirsty and Jeni also won prizes in the marathon.  

The Monymusk Hilly Half Marathon
Monymusk honey - my prize for going the wrong way
It does exactly what it says on the tin. It is hilly. And it’s a half marathon. Well, sort of.
I had done a fast (all things are relative) 4k cross country the day before and I was surprised how stiff my legs felt in the first mile although I didn’t just attribute this only to running the cross county but also driving the 5 or so hour round trip to and from Cumbernauld. I felt as though I could barely get moving as I ran through the long grass in the field and the section of country lane but once the climb proper started my legs gradually came back to life. Good thing too as I was freezing and shivering on the start line, the wind was pretty chilly, and I really needed to get running to warm up.
Race route

The wide track through the forest on Cairn William hill is a runnable gradient and so there was no excuse for walking and my body temperature had now reached a comfortable level. As I reached the edge of the forest and neared the open hillside I was met by a runner coming down off the hill on a path to the right. She was stressing a bit and saying that she couldn’t see anyone on the path ahead and asking if she was going the right way. As far as I could tell the course markings indicated that it was the right path so I said yes it was, although with a confidence I did not feel. But lets face it, if you say anything with enough confidence folk will believe you. Suffice to say I was mighty glad to spot another runner in the distance up ahead after following the path for a few hundred yards. This narrow track led to the summit of Cairn William and we descended the hill via the “zig zags”. The photos below were all taken the following day on a wee hill walk over Cairn William.

At the path junction at the bottom of the zig zags there was a wee crowd of supporters including Ian, Gillian and their 3 dogs. There was also a large yellow arrow pointing in the direction of the race route which for some inexplicable reason I looked straight at then ran in the opposite direction until Ian called me back. I think maybe I was trying to follow the Cairn William race route. My efforts won me a spot prize of a tub of Monymusk honey basically for being the first eejit to go the wrong way. Just goes to show how being an eejit can pay off – although I was very lucky that Ian was there to redirect me or I could have had a slightly longer day out than planned.
Me heading off in the wrong direction (cc Ian Cran)
Inevitably Ian Hamilton, my hill running nemesis, had passed me at speed on the descent of Cairn William and I could see him up ahead as I ran down the road and then onto the riverside path before dipping under the stone bridge where Ewen was doing a sterling job of stopping runners from falling into the river. It was a narrow stone ledge under the bridge that had to be negotiated and as far as I know nobody took an icy plunge.

(cc Ewen Rennie)
Eventually a narrow footpath led to the finish line in Monymusk and back to the village hall for the huge array of cakes and soup that was on offer for the runners. I believe this race is only put on every second year so sadly it will be a bit of a wait for the next edition. It was actually short of the full half marathon distance but as the competitors were in the main all hill runners rather then the “runners world” types there were no complaints. And I don’t fancy their chances if they had complained!
Cakes for after the run. Well  it was Halloween after all
 The Water of Leith half marathon
Jim Bruce leading Simon astray
Like the Heb halfs this has become an annual pilgrimage for me. Founded by Jim Bruce as a cure for Heb half runners going cold turkey over the lack of Heb halfs in the winter Jim was again taking part – when he wasn’t trying to lead Simon astray with amazing whiskies. The race itself was under new management with Andy and Angus taking over from Peter Buchanan and doing a fine job of bringing their own management style, brand of humour and ethos to the event. Peter had retired as organiser after quite a few years of sterling work and was making the most of the opportunity to compete too. To top it all off he won the race and was part of the winning team.
The startline (cc Andy and Angus, the race organisers)
I was set off with 2 other runners. One was dropped during the first (ever too slightly fast for my liking) mile but I had a right battle on my hands with the second runner until the very final mile. It was a much warmer day for the event than it has been in previous years which makes me feel better on the start line rather than standing shivering while waiting to get going. I was feeling tired after a fairly miserable week at work but the tiredness seemed to leave me during the race. The miles went by quickly enough and it seemed to be no time at all before we were running along the new tarmac footpath around Murrayfield and unlike last year where I was overtaken by a steady procession of runners this year I seemed to be the one doing the overtaking and you have to admit it, its always good for the morale. I should mention that this is a handicap race based on your predicted time for a half marathon hence the overtaking and the being overtaken. It was also handy to have folk up ahead when you weren’t too sure of the route.
Starting off (cc P Buchanan)

The startline
An uphill start - but not for long

Other changes to the route included a flight of steps taking us up the river bank away from the river due to a path closure. There were 116 of these steps so I was reliably informed by one runner but its got to be said that counting them wasn’t foremost in my mind as I wobbled my way towards the top. I saw these steps as a chance to make a break away from the runner who had started with me but by the time we reached the road at the top my legs were jelly from trying so hard and she trotted off past me into the distance. Meh! The route changes meant that this race was a little over the half marathon distance, I made it 13.4 miles but others garmins showed 13.6 miles. I really dont fancy anyones chances if they tried to complain about this to the race organisers!

With it being such a nice day the path was full of dog walkers – a few of whom seemed to be clueless about the concept of keeping their animals under control thus adding some additional furry obstacles to the route. This left one runner finishing the race with a bashed up knee and split lip due to falling over a dog. 
Nearing the finish
The Water of Leith soup kitchen

Simon takes on a new role as sales rep for Lucy Colquhoun's new business enterprise...

Eventually I got past my close competitor again and broke away in the last mile or so but was running scared, convinced she was going to come back at me. The final stretch when the shore at Leith comes into sight always seems to go on for ever but once through the finish line you are greeted with homemade soup, bread, tea and cakes all courtesy of Eric who makes the trip every year form Newtonmore to man the Water of Leith soup kitchen. This year Simon was assisting while also doing a great sales job of promoting Lucy Colquhoun’s new range of runner’s snacks in Lucy’s absence. He was muttering about asking for commission.
The prize giving
Jim Bruce collects his prize
My prize
Peter Buchanan collects his prize...
and was part of the winning team

The prize giving was in the pub as always and my prize as first lady was a bottle of prosecco. For the avoidance of doubt I hasten to add I was first lady across the finish line in the handicap not first in terms of being the fastest runner. Happily I was within a minute of my predicted time so nobody can accuse me of being a bandit but it probably means I will be handicapped out of sight next year to ensure no future victory. Oh well.