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The Lhairig Ghru

27/06/2017

The Lhairig Ghru is the best known hill-pass in Scotland, climbing to an altitude of 835m as it crosses through the central Cairngorms, one of the wildest areas in the country. 

For many years Deeside runners have hosted a race which starts at the police station in Braemar and uses the Lhairig Ghru to finish outside the police station in Aviemore.

As it is an isolated self-sufficient 43km point to point hill race, there are strict entry criteria of being able to run a sub-4 hour marathon and having hill experience, but this year saw a record-breaking number of participants (221) of which Jo Zakrzewski was one.

Jo was planning on treating it as a low-key enjoyable run in new part of the country, but as the first few miles were on tarmac and climbed steadily uphill along the Dee Valley towards Mar Lodge, they suited her and she found herself at the sharp end of the field. There was a cut-off at Derry Lodge (about 7-8miles in) just where the route narrowed to rougher single track and Jo reached this in 8th place overall.

It did not seem like it was going to be a day for fast times (though Murray Strain put paid to this notin by setting a new CR) as there was a stiff headwind, which is never the most encouraging thing as you start as point-to-point race. Despite recent dry weather in the Lowlands, the Highlands has its own climate, so when the runners still had to wade the Luibeg Burn. A short steep climb up from the burn then took them over a spur and down into the Lhairig Ghru valley itself, where the narrow singletrack became much rougher underfoot. Jo managed to avoid banging her toes on too mahy of the rocks strewn across the path but though she was going for a CR on the number of times you can roll your ankles while still running.

The weather deteriorated as the path steepend, but the roughness underfoot meant that it was impossible to let the concentration lapse for even a minute without risking a tumble. This, combined with the past pace of the race meant that taking on nutrition wasn't the easiest (as Jo discovered to her peril...as she actually ate most of her "hillfood" after crossing the finish line). She was surprised to find herself still climbing after more than 17 miles, but when she topped out at the Pools of Dee, she regretted longing for the summit. The Pools of Dee are really several boulderfields with no obvious paths across them...and Jo managed to time her stumbling across this area for the arrival of a painful hail storm - nice!!

It was still hailing as she started to descend - well, many speedy men descended past her while she tried to find any form of path through the rough rocky ground, but it dried up and the path improved after a mile or two. It appeared possible to run just to the side of the path on a grassier surface and so avoid having to pick up your feet all the time to avoid rocks, but taking this option caused Jo to take a tumble as her foot sank into a hole and her body carried on regardless - leading to a good faceplant and crack to the head. Slightly dazed, she picked herself up and carried on down towards Aviemore.

A couple of miles of pretty though rooty single track through the woods took the runners down onto a wider gravelly forest road which did seem to go for a very long time - Jo was lucky to be able to run with a friend for this section so they managed to chat away and before they knew it were out onto the main road at Coylumbridge.

The final couple of miles were fast running along roads and pavements under the trainline into Aviemore and then along the High Street (dodging both tourists and traffic) to the finish outside the police station. 

Jo was both surprised and very happy to take the win at a classic long distance Scottish hill race finishing in 20th place overall in a time of 3 hrs and 53 minutes (the winners' quaich stayed with the race organisers after presentation but at least she got to take home a nice swollen lip and developing black eye as well as some good memories)!

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