The Graeme Cooper Memorial Hillrace, 24th April 2011
“In November 2006 former University of Aberdeen Lairig Club member Graeme Cooper, and fresher Richard Hardy set out to attempt a winter climb in Coire an t’Sneachda in the Northern Cairngorms. Conditions took a turn for the worse in the early afternoon and they were last seen abseiling off their route as a storm picked up. After a long struggle out of the coire in gale force winds and waist deep snow the pair finally succumbed to the cold in some of the worst conditions mountain rescue personnel had ever experienced.
Graeme’s family have donated the ‘Cooper Memorial Quaich’ to the Lairig club and it is presented to the winner of an annual hillrace held by the Lairig club. The course comprises of a 12km run around Loch Muick, (undulating, rocky terrain with minimal height gain) and a final loch side challenge at the boat house, before the final sprint back to the club bothy at Allt-na-Guibhsaich for refreshments. The race is intended to reflect Cooper’s spirit and anyone who has experienced the notorious ‘sting in the tail’ of the race will agree that he will be having a laugh at us all!”
Sunday morning dawned bright, sunny and warm with clear blue skies. I cautiously got out of bed and tested my legs – to my relief they felt pretty good. I definitely could feel that I’d ran the day before, but I felt that I still had plenty of miles left in them. After a breakfast of toast and peanut butter I packed a rucksack for the day ahead, trying my best to think of everything I could possibly need at a remote mountain race miles away from civilisation which involved getting wet!
In my bag I packed the following:
– 1.5ltr Camelbak of water
– 2 bottles of Powerade
– Spare shoes and socks
– Spare running tights and a tech tee
– Sunglasses and sun cream
– Fuel bag of ShotBloks, Clif Bar, Nutrigrain bar, Sport beans, Protein bars.
– Snack bag of dried apricots, raisens, walnuts, and pecan nuts and some oatcakes.
– iPod, camera, caffeine tabs, ibuprofen pills and gel, knee support.
I left the house at 9.30am to head to the Aberdeen Sports Village to meet Donna, Mike and his fiancée Annette to catch the bus ran by the Lairig club out to the starting line. We introduced ourselves to the Club President and hopped on two mini buses along with around 20 other people. The journey took us out on exactly the same roads as I had traveled on the day before to Balmoral, except we drove only to Ballater before turning in to the mountains and following a winding single track road all the way up to Glen Muick.
This is an breathtakingly beautiful area of Scotland in the highlands, on the edge of the Cairngorm Mountains. I always forget how accessible this area is during the summer and I really ought to take more advantage of it.
The Lairig club have their own bothy on the edge of the Glen at Allt-na-Guibhsaich and when we arrived there were about 15 people already waiting who’d stayed overnight after doing some climbing the day before. We arrived around 12pm and everyone piled out of the buses and started getting ready.
Some more groups and pairs of people turned up and got ready to join in the fun – in the end there were 44 runners and about 10 further people involved in the race. It was very informal – we all lined up at 12.30pm in a rough formation on the landrover tracks by the bothy. Mr Cooper’s father said to go after three and counted down “ONE…TWO…THREE!” and off we scampered.
There was an initial kilometre on rocky landrover tracks downhill to the shores of Loch Muick where I was just trying to find my groove. A lot of the speedier runners including Mike, shot off like bats out of hell and immediately the field became very spread out. As I continued down the track I realised quite how heavy my legs were feeling and how tight my arm and shoulder muscles were. At the Loch shore we turned left and began to circumnavigate the Loch in a clockwise direction, starting by going right along the sandy, stony shore. Anyone who’s ever run on sand will understand the difficulties of doing this and how much harder you have to work to propel yourself forward, and at this point I really began to feel the burn in my legs from the day before. After only two miles!
We began climbing the sides of the Glen in which Loch Muick is nestled on an undulating narrow trail pock-marked with puddles and boulders. I continued with the front of my calves in agony and legs like lead as the trail climbed higher and higher – the only thing going through my head was the mantra ‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional’ in time with my steps. The first few miles were the toughest miles I’ve ever run. Seriously.
I gave up on all hope of maintaining a certain pace or keeping my speed up and just concentrated on putting one sore foot in front of the other. What made up for all this pain was the utterly breathtaking surroundings. I was randomly snapping pictures as I went so you’ll get a sense of the size of the Loch we were circulating. At points I could see Mike’s distinctive red and black top far, far ahead around the loch and saw that he was either leading or was in second place – wherever he was he was kicking some serious ass.
The field of runners were now completely spread out – I could see a lady well ahead of me and I couldn’t see anyone behind me, so I was tackling this pretty much on my own.
The path at around three miles turned into an utter nightmare – this wasn’t even a trail anymore so much as a sheep path clinging to the side of the mountain. I found myself leaping from rock to boulder to rock, scrambling through streams and hurdling heather.
I passed several hill walkers who were navigating carefully with climbing poles and was proud to realise how much of a lunatic they must had thought I was – a pigtailed woman wildly galumphing over rocks and through heather. I’ve become one of the people I used to look at in wonderment and think “Why the hell are they doing that?!” I felt like quite a badass if I’m honest.
Oddly enough doing all of the mountain goat rock leaping had seemed to loosen up my weeping leg muscles a bit and by the time the path decended down to the Loch shore again at roughly 5 miles I was feeling a lot stronger. I was plodding at 9.30/10 minute mile pace though, but at least it was steady and I wasn’t having to run/walk any more.
The last two and a half miles were on rocky landrover tracks again. I could see one guy ahead of me and I really wanted to catch him up but I could never quite get there – as soon as I got close enough to pick him off he sped up again and took off!
There he is speeding up again! It was good to have that continual incentive kicking my ass all the way. The sun was out from behind some clouds now and it was baking down on me – I was soooo looking forward to the ‘sting in the tail’ at Mile 7…
So what was the surprise, and why had I taken a towel with me? At mile 7 when I finally reached the Boathouse and the end of the track up to the bothy, I found myself directed into the loch with instructions to wade out to a stone, touch it and come back and then down a can of my beverage of choice – Tennants lager or Irn Bru. The water felt so refreshing! I wish I could have fully submerged myself in it but I only got wet up to my thighs. I ran up to the man with arms outstretched and grasped the cool, inviting can of Tennants and nailed as much of it as I could.
That’s another thing ticked off my ‘to do’ list then – drink beer during a race! I continued slurping away at the can and spoke to some of the other people who had come in before me and were still working on their beverage. Donna and Annette came in just as I was heading out again so I got a quick picture of Donna before heading off on the last uphill kilometer, fuelled by a can of lager.
Step, step, step *burp* step, step, step *buuuuurp* step, step, step, retch, *BURPbuuuurpBURP* is the only way I can describe it….
You can imagine the turmoil in my tummy I’m sure – but I got to the finish line in one piece in 1hr 24 minutes and 11 seconds, and even picked off one last girl on the way. Unfortunately when I stopped running I thought I was going to do some projectile vomiting so I quickly went behind a tree to preserve a little of my dignity while I made some awful sounds!
Mike caught me just as I was coming up to the finish line…
And guess what – he came in second place! He finished the course in 55 minutes 13 seconds and seemed pretty chuffed with his run – you can read his race report HERE.
Donna and Annette came in shortly after I did at around 1hr 27 minutes I think. They had opted for the Irn Bru at the loch but had suffered no less from the bubbly tummies! We all sat about and relaxed at the bothy for an hour or so, refuelling and enjoying the weather before the minibuses left at 4pm to take us back to Aberdeen.
In short, despite the pain in my legs at the start I REALLY enjoyed this race. It was small, low key and informal – the perfect antedote to the full on madness that was Balmoral the day before (the press has reported 9,000 runners on Saturday). I’d love to come back next year and give it a shot with fresh legs – or better still, organise a day out with my running friends sometime in the summer and run around the Loch with no pressure.
I’d love to recommend this race to everyone, but then if everyone were to come along it would lose the special supportive feel of the small field. Put the last Sunday in April in your diary for 2012 and come along if you can.
So let me pose some questions for you:
– Do you prefer bigger or smaller races? Why?
– Have you ever drunk a beer during a race?
– The blogosphere is full of pictures of races amongst Palm trees – did you enjoy the change of scenery with my insight of how we do it in Scotland?
Thanks for reading as always, and welcome to my new readers who have dropped by via dailymile or twitter – do comment and say hello!