Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Dave Gaffney at Braemer (with the Queen) and Blairgowrie Games Hill Races

Dave's report from his weekend jaunt to take part in some Highland Games Hill Races:
Dad being watched by impressed kids after 4th place at Blairgowrie Games Hill Race
I’m not much of a royalist, but I do like a good Highland Games and they don’t come any bigger than the Braemar Gathering, partly due to its most famous patron. I’d set my sights on the hill race here a few months ago and set a reminder for the entries going live too, so that I wouldn’t miss out on a place, which I’d been told could be quite hard to secure. In the end, it was a lot easier than expected and much easier than the race itself, more of which later.  

The Queen and Phil at Braemar - not laughing at Dave I'm sure
In July, my wife and kids couldn’t even be persuaded to travel 800m or so from our house to watch the Lee Pen hill race, but there was new found enthusiasm for spectating when a weekend away to see the Queen was in prospect, so the full support crew travelled with me on Friday to our weekend base in Scone. The drive from the campsite to Braemar on Saturday morning wasn’t much more than an hour, so it broke up the journey nicely, although sleeping in a tent with two kids under the age of five isn’t the best race preparation I’ve ever had. And I use the word “sleeping" in its loosest possible sense. 
It’s a pretty slick operation at Braemar - although surprisingly light touch on security considering the guests of honour – so I was numbered and ready to race within 15 minutes of arriving on site. I waved the family away and set off for a quick recce of the lower half of the route. The weather was gorgeous - sunny and warm with a nice breeze - and perfect for queens and queer folk who find pleasure in running up hills. 

The hill in question is Morrone (or Morven), which lies to the south-west of the town. It’s pretty much straight up-and-down for 5.3km, with a path all the way, but runners are given the freedom to choose their own route should they wish. My recce hadn’t revealed any cunning race-winning shortcuts, so once we’d done the obligatory lap of the games track and headed up out of the field onto the hill, I simply relied on the wisdom or directional sense of those in front of me and settled in for a sweaty, steep ascent. 

The path cuts up through some trees and out into the open quite quickly, with the field soon thinning out on the main climb up a good single-track which cut through the heathery hillside. The race route doesn’t go quite to Morrone's summit, but turns at a line of five cairns on the shoulder of the hill. I reached the cairns in 23:30 and started to feel more confident of getting back into the games field within the 45-minute curfew we’d been set. The Gathering is run with military precision and the schedule yields to nobody, so if you want to avoid being crushed under a caber or pummelled by a pipe band you have to beat the prescribed time limit to earn your final lap of honour and a grandstand finish.

Descending first over thick heather, to cut the dog-leg corner formed by the path, I quickly regretted the false economy it offered and yearned for bare track under my feet instead of spongey, strength-sapping undergrowth. Once back on the path I retraced my steps and gained a few places, the roar of the crowd audible again as I flailed downwards. Concentrating all my efforts on avoiding a You’ve Been Framed fall as I ran round the track to the line, I managed to catch and overtake the thrid-placed woman in front of me on the line to finish 27th in 34m52s. The race was won by Peter Hodkinson (who also triumphed on Lee Pen in Innerleithen earlier this summer) in 25m20s, just 10 seconds ahead of Graeme Gristwood. Tessa Strain was first female in 32:01, making it a double for Hunters Bog Trotters. Full results here

I’d definitely recommend this one to folk. t’s a great day out and the biggest crowd I’ll ever run in front of, unless I finally fulfil that ambition of streaking at an international at Murrayfield one day. 
This report should end there (you wish) but as we returned south to the campsite I noticed a sign for the Blairgowrie & Rattray Highland Games, which were due to take place the following day. A quick google search later and I’d discovered that the games also have their own hill race, raising the prospect of a double-header and, with any luck, a much smaller and less competitive field! 

The promise of a bouncy castle was enough to gain support from the kids for another highland games outing, and my hill running widow was pleasantly relaxed about the proposition, so the following afternoon I dragged my sore legs round the 5km course, made hillier by means of a loop at the top of the course, which you are required to run round twice. 

I was joined on the start line by Alex Caracas, an Edinburgh Uni runner who was fifth at Braemar the previous day, and Colin Donnelly, a three-times British fell racing champion, so any hope of a lazy Sunday run ended there. I needn’t have worried as I didn’t see much of those two until the finish line, but the beauty of highland games is that there are often prizes galore and I picked up a tenner for fourth place in 23m49s, which didn’t quite cover the cost of the coffee, cakes, bouncing and face-painting that had happened in my brief absence. I also got back in time to see another Moorfoot, Craig Angus, and Dean Whiteford, also from Innerleithen, running well on the track, with Craig winning the Youth 1600m and coming second in the youth 800m. Dean did the triple to win the 800m, 1600m and 3200m - not a bad afternoon's work.  Track results here

A great weekend’s racing, and I’m now wondering if this accidental double-header might be of interest to people as a family-friendly club away trip next summer…  

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