Friday, 29 April 2016

Run away to the hills......

The original plan was for a lovely relaxing weekend up in the Cairngorms to chill out after the marathon (plenty of good food, good drink, good company and use of the spa/pampering facilities), but as the marathon hadn't happened, there was nothing to recover from and so it would have been "wrong" not to get out and play in the hills!

As more of a hill novice, I was happy to leave all the routeplanning and packhorsing to my experienced "tourguide" and just carried my own essential gear (though clearly I stole some of his food as well!). We started by driving up to the end of the road at the Linn of Dee and set off up Glen Lui.
The bitter wind was a slight indication of the weather to come but there were also periods of sunshine - oddly enough, at one point the sky was completely blue overhead yet it was snowing!!!! We jogged past the boarded up Derry Lodge (a former shooting lodge) and then headed up the steep slopes on Carn Crom. It was so warm in the sun going uphill that we actually had to remove layers of clothing, though they were soon replaced as we hit the wind higher up. By the time we reached the summit at 890m we were already in and out of the snow (both underfoot and in the air).
Towards Ben Macdui from Carn Crom
From there it appeared to be a snowy ridge run towards Derry Cairngorm though the summit at 1155m was not visible as the snow clouds descended. As long as you were warmly wrapped up, it wasn't bad running weather - though is was more of a run/hike on the uphill sections. It wasn't the easiest to work out a line to follow as your feet sometimes sunk in a very short distance but at other times you were ankle deep in softer snow.

By the time we summitted the visibility was rather poor and the wind was whipping snow into our faces. We descended to the next col to put on full waterproof clothing and eat some food. When the clouds cleared, there were amazing views to be had in every direction. Not wanting to cheat ourselves out of a summit, we detoured slightly to the top of Creagan a'Choire Etchachan (1106m) before heading towards Ben Macdui.

Fun descents in the snow!!

At 1309m, Ben Macdui is the second highest mountain in Britain, but unfortunately I didn't really get to see much of it. I knew there were cliffs over to our left and so we had to make sure we didn't veer too far that way, as overhanging cornices were a worry. It was a good lesson for me in how deceptive things can appear in whiteout conditions. I was constantly trying to look for visible rocks to stay right of, but lines in the snow could be mistaken for an approaching edge. I was so glad to be there with someone who was confident in those conditions, though luckily I managed to avoid him looking back and seeing me in tears due to the pain from my cold almost(!) numb feet!! What a big girl's blouse I was!!

We may not have reached the summit by the most direct route (on a sunny day) but we did just keep climbing until we made it - and I know I was there as I saw the cairn, trig point and view (!) indicator. It didn't seem very worthwhile continuing on our planned loop to a few more peaks as it was tough going in the snow, and there was little (ie nothing) to see so we decided to make our loop slightly shorter. This involved running a certain distance on a specific bearing, then turning and doing the same again on a different bearing, which took us to the edge of the plateau and our final high point of the day (Srin Riach - 1110m).

Looking back at the view as we
descended and the skies cleared

It was fun trying out different running techniques in the snow depending on the slope, the depth and the wetness of the snow, ie straight-legged or knees bent landings, leading with a flat foot or a heel dig etc. The fastest bit of running I did, however, was actually straight down a slope when the map slipped away and started making its own speedy descent - aided by the wind!!

By the time we got back to the valley floor and the longish run out, I was confident of my footing and stride again, and so offered to take the heavy pack for the last few miles. I only ran with that weight for about 3 of the 19 miles...and it was certainly a leg workout, so full respect to Neil for carrying it for the other 16 (though I did try to lighten the load by eating the food out of it!) !!

Before driving back home a couple of days later, we decided to get another "little run" in - this time in the Lochnagar area. I was reassured that it would only be about 20K, so I thought my tired little legs would be able to handle it, though it was forecast to be rather windy.

Lochnagar's northern corrie

We drove to the carpark at the Spittal of Glen Muick set off across the valley to the far side, initially on a track then along a lovely path through the woods. I felt really tired as we ascended a rocky track, as if I was at the end of a long run, but this seemed to improve as we turned off onto a smaller path and climed up to the coll between Lochnagar and Meikle Pap (and it did look rather like its name suggests!!). It would be a shame to miss a summit so we ascended Meikle Pap (itself being higher than Scafell at 980m) and then took a break to eat some food and put on extra clothing as the wind was really rather strong! It was worth it for the great view across Lochnagar's northern corrie with a lochan cradled below.

Back down to the col and then straight up the next slope, known as the Ladder for its steepness. I have to say that this was rather a scary ascent for me. The sun was shining brightly but there was a big windchill so that the snow had quite a hard crust on top of it. I found it hard to get my feet to sink into the crust far enough for good purchase so I kept being blown sideways across the icy surface as I climbed (despite trying to stab my mitted hands through the top as extra anchor points). It was the one time when I wished that I was heavier, or was carrying a heavier pack at least (though not enough to have seriously offered to carry the heavier gear).

On top of Lochnagar - not the warmest of days!!

I was so relieved when the slope eased off onto the plateau and realised we had reached the top of Cuidhe Crom (1082m), and luckily it was still clear so we got further fantastic views as we ran round to thr right following the edge of the cliffs (though not too closely). The wind felt like it was blowing shards of glass off the surface into our faces as we tagged another couple of cairns on the way round to the rocky outcrop of Cac Carn Beag (at 1155 this is the true summit of Lochnagar). The cloud was coming and going and so there were brief glimpses of the whole Cairngorm massif, though I could understand why Queen Victoria is reputed to have written "it was cold, wet and cheerless, and the wind was blowing a hurricane" when she made the summit!

I enjoyed running across wide expanses of snow from there, though had a few funny moments when descending off the plateau. I was trying to land as I'd been shown 2 days previously (with a straight leg to sink into the snow and get some good purchase) but would suddenly hit a raised lump/rock with one foot. This would throw me totally off blance and see me pitch headfirst into the snow - comedy really!

Some of the joy might have come from thinking that Carn a'Choire Bhoidheach (1113m) was our last Munro, but then I heard the words " we're about halfway distance-wise but have done most of the climbing"..... After dropping back down to start yet another climb, I was very tempted to just lie down in the snow for a rest. It's amazing how much energy is required to take each step when the snow is sticky and wet. By the time we got to the top of Carn an t-Sagairt Mor at 1047m, I wasn't up for much chat or looking out for our last glimpse of the view to the north, and even had to be convinced to eat some food.

Looking towards Loch Muick from Broad Cairn
The food clearly worked as we made great time after that, knocking off Cairn Bannoch (1010m) at a fast pace. In no time at all we were on our last peak (Broad Cairn at 998m) looking down towards Loch Muick. From there I could pick out the path down across the slopes below and along to the end of the plateau, from where a few steep rough zigzags took us down to the lochshore. The final few miles were covered at breakneck pace, as my stomach was now loudly protested about how long it had been since it had been adaquately replenished. As it turned out, that "little run" before driving home, had been 18 miles long and covered about 3800feet of ascent, but I have to admit that it was worth it!

If I thought that I'd coped well with the hills, this was certainly put into perspective the weekend afterwards. I went down to the Lake District to assist on a speedy Bob Graham Round. A traditional BGR is a 66 mile, 27000 foot ascent of 42 of the highest Lake District peaks that mjst be completed within 24 hours. The fastest known time for a lady was just over 18 hours, and Jasmin Paris was aiming to run faster than this, possibly covering the distance in under 17 hours. I know that Jasmin is an amazing runner, and the fact that I was the only female crazy enough to be doing any running support should have given me a clue as to how fast she was going to go, but she outran everyone's expectations (including her own). I was going to run Leg 5 (Honister to the finish at the Moot Hall in Keswick) as it had the least amount of technical hill running and a road section to finish with. Jasmin started at 4am and I got updates at the end of every leg about how much time she had made up on her planned schedule. I worried that if she carried on gaining 30mins per leg, then I wouldn't keep up over the last 3 summits and actually have to do a road time trial at the end.

A chilly wait at Honister
Unsurprisingly, her pace steadied during the day (still blisteringly fast but not gaining as much as earlier) though I was still rather nervous about letting her down on the final few steep descents. We ended up with a good group of guys at Honister to support the "glory leg" so we agreed that I would set off just a couple of minutes ahead and they'd catch me up. As soon as I saw Jas heading down into the carpark, I was off up the other side as she hardly broke her stride coming acorss the pass. I made good pace up Dale Head but did keep turning back to see if they'd catch me before the summit (Jasmin could see me climbing ahead of her, so hopefully it spurred her on to keep pushing). I decided not to wait for them on the summit (as descents are not my forte and I was sure they'd fly down them) so I continued along the route, with regular checkbacks on her progress. I saw them all leaving the top of Hindsgarth (the penultimate peak) as I climbed up Robinson and thought that I might just survive the leg. I knew they were planning a short but very steep run off the ridge and so forced myself to take that option so that they didn't pass me. It felt like I was in a race (with the "fear of Jasmin" spurring me on) but surprisingly I got down to the valley bottom before seeing them crest the edge.
Having reached the track, I decided to hotfoot it along to where some other supporters were waiting at the end of the road to tell them that she was on her way (as it turned out I did this at 6:45 mileing!!). The final few miles are along the road back to Keswick - some people take the time to change into road shoes, but Jasmin wasn't stopping (and I don't think she actually owns any road shoes!!). The group of guys was quite large by this point, and so people naturally jogged off in little groups chatting to each other (as it's not often that you can catch up with that many fellow runners of a similar standard).
Leg 5 support team in full swing
However, myself and the two guys that had been down as "official leg support" (and Jasmin's fiancee) made sure that we stayed with her, running alongside to chat to her, look out for traffic, and supply her with whatever food or drink took her fancy (which was actually just pepsi by that point). Amazingly, despite her tiredness, she still looked strong and was able to smile and chat to me!!

As we came in to Keswick, severeal of us dropped back to allow Jasmin to run ahead to the Moot Hall, but the route appeared to be blocked by a huge throng of several hundred people. We (the support team) glanced at each other wondering if someone had arranged this to mark the end of such an amazing run.....but it turned out that it was just fortuitous timing. A charity walking group was having a briefing before they set off up a hill and so they all turned, cheered and created a path through for Jasmin to finish what was an epic day out!!
Jasmin's run into Keswick
She completed the round in 15 hours and 24 minutes - the 5th fastest time ever. That is a brilliant time for anyone whether male or female, and I can see that being the fastest known time for a lady for many years to come - it was amazing and humbling to have had the opportunity to have been just a tiny part of such an awesome run - respect!!! What a legend!!!

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