Taking It for Granted

Spring.

Lambs gaily gambol about the fields, daffodils sedately sway in warming April breezes.

Lambs and daffodils are destroyed by four inches of snow and umpteen degrees of frost.

At the Lodge, spring means the arrival of a fresh batch of nightwatch and OTS, a new wave of aspiring outdoors instructors full of enthusiasm and hope, ready to have the twinkle beaten out of their eyes by twelve months of scrubbing pots, crushing rubbish and cleaning mini-buses.

As these misguided innocents scramble to establish a foothold on the north face of the lodge’s slippery, insular world, dinner table small talk inevitably lurches towards safe, common ground; climbing grades, kayaks and, in my case, Do you have any favourite runs around here?

My response is dry, ascerbic and, obviously, hilarious; Nah, I’m over it all.

Unfortunately, this top notch humour is lost on most, and there are mutterings of That’s a shame and But it’s such a lovely area as everyone’s attention turns back to their cream of quickdraw soup. I consider trying to rescue the situation, first impressions etc., but decide against it and skulk off back to the safety of the bar.

Because it is a shame. This really is a great place to be a runner. There are big hills, small hills, rocky trails, boggy trails, single track, fireroad. The wide open spaces of the plateau, the narrow, claustrophobic bike trails of the Burnside woods. You can do your flat and fast intervals on the road to Rothie Lodge, your uphill tempo runs on Meall a’ Bhauchaille or the Burma Road. The largest uninterrupted area of mountains in the country is right on your doorstep; pack a sleeping bag and enough freeze-dried lobster thermidor and you can bothy hop for days. And even if the weather isn’t playing along, there’s mile after mile of low level trails in every direction. You could leave the house and run a hundred miles with no repeats and next to no tarmac. It wouldn’t even be difficult.

But when I say I’m over it, I’m serious. Having lived in and around Aviemore for much of the last three years, I’ve been over all the best hills and trails countless times. When I said my Meall a’ Bhuachaille count was 150, I meant it.

For a year I ran on the Aviemore bike trails ten times a week. I can give specific directions to my favourite tree on the Speyside Way. I can tell you exactly where to find a burst Thomas the Tank Engine balloon by a deer fence west of the A9.

Even the means-to-and-end Forestry Commission fireroads, those majestic tours of gorse and sitka spruce, are now all too familiar.

But surely Ally, you’re not tired of the mountains?! Up on the plateau, with the wind in your hair, the sun on your face, at one with nature…

Nope, them too. Running laps of the Northern Corries is to me as lugging a massive chucky up a hill was to Sisyphus. There is a Dogleg of Ennui which extends from the Ciste in the east, over Cairngorm, Sneachda and Lochain to the Lairig Ghru in the west, and south to the summit of Ben Macdui.

If anyone is hiring graphic designers, just give me a shout.

Dogleg of Ennui

The best thing that can be said about Cairngorm is that it isn’t the Cairnwell; Macdui fits the profile of so many big hills, a great dull lump with much more interesting stuff nearby.

To clarify, I don’t spend my mornings weeping into my porridge at the prospect of yet another day as a runner in Strathspey. I still love and hate the physical aspects of running as much as I ever did, or would anywhere else. The initial wide eyed, labrador puppy style enthusiasm for my surroundings may have ebbed away, but in its place has formed a pragmatic appreciation of the convenience that this area provides.

If my regular hill sprints hill is stowed out with tourists, I know half a dozen others that will do the job. The Northern Corries may be a trudge, but their 1,200 metres’ worth of trudge, starting and finishing at work; zero extra driving, plus the convenience of the Lodge gym and the luxury of the North Wing disabled shower. With the time and terrain I have at my disposal I should really be a much, much better runner than I am.

As the magic of my immediate surroundings has been eroded, another, less immediate advantage of this area has grown in importance; it’s central. If someone in Kendal grew bored of the Lakes, it would be a three hour drive to North Wales or the most southerly of Scotland’s bigger hills. In that time I could be in Assynt, Skye, Torridon, Kintail, Lochaber, Glen Coe, Glen Orchy, the Black Mount… All those places are realistic day trips to anyone with a bit of determination. Many of them are realistic day trips on a work day for me. And despite this, so often I spend my weekends ploughing the same old furrow over the same old hills. Because the weather’s better in the east, or I resent paying for the petrol, or I just good old fashioned Can’t Be Arsed.

Growing jaded after three years of much the same scenery is probably understandable, it’s this listlessness which is surely inexcusable.

In a few weeks time I’m going to commit to doing none of my summer long runs in the northern Cairngorms. My tent will live in the boot of the car and all those big back to backs will be done in new, exciting places, regardless of the relative quality of the forecast or the mild inconvenience of throwing two or three days’ worth of food into a cardboard box. Who knows, maybe by the time summer is over I’ll be glad to get back to the convenience of Cairngorm and Ben Macdui.

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