This is a massive blog turnaround personal best for me. “The sooner this is written,” I thought, “the sooner I can forget all about it.”
Suddenly struck by the fear of being called back to work with nothing at all to show for my months as a man of leisure, I decided to run the Big 6.
One of Scotland’s more esoteric, topographically nonsensical hill running routes, the Big 6 (actually 7) adds Ben Avon and Beinn a’ Bhuird to the 4000s and was first done as a point to point ski tour, from Invercauld to Derry Lodge, by scientist and mountaineer Adam Watson in 1962.
I thought there might be a bit of meat on the bones of Mark Harris’ 2014 record, lack of hill fitness notwithstanding, and if there wasn’t then I’d still get a great big day out. I’d go out sensibly hard and see where that put me.
I cycled from Grantown to Glenmore Lodge past Ryvoan, faffed, and set off from the end of south wing after a couple of token lunges. Preparatory boulder hopping on the Allt Mor trail, then up the road and through the ski area. A minute up at the top. A minute I literally and figuratively pissed away as I fannied about and relieved myself in the crags on the way down to the Saddle.
It’s a loooong heathery drag up to the eastern tops whichever way you go. An eagle cruised overhead. I ate some dates.
Having stuck by the Avon for longer than Mark Harris did, I reversed his order of the summits, skirting Beinn a’ Bhuird to head out to Ben Avon first, dumping my bag for the out and back..
I’ve only been there twice, but Ben Avon always seems extra-terrestrial. As if William Shatner might jump out and club you at any second. I clambered up to the top of the tor, squinted across to Lochnager, then scooted back down.
Striking though the corries may be, the run across Beinn a’ Bhuird is a grind. From there to the Lairig an Laoigh is outright tedious. Loud swearing every time I rolled a rock into my ankle bones, quieter muttering and exasperated sighs as I stumbled through the heather and the bog.
Having messed with Mark’s route the Lairig an’ Laoigh was the first time for a few hours that I had a clear idea of where I was. A little over half an hour up, a big chunk of that coming from not taking Mark’s peculiar double pass to the north of Beinn a’ Chaorainn.
I went through a proper shit patch from there to Ben Macdui. The toys were tossed from the soggy, heather lined pram and I lost more height, and time, than I needed to heading round to the path by the Hutchie Hut. I felt flat, a bit sleepy, slightly nauseous. (I was in the huff.)
Looking up towards Macdui, the only bit of mist of the day blew in to add some atmosphere to a momentary glimpse of the reindeer, silhouetted on the skyline.
If I hadn’t still been the best part of 30 minutes ahead I may well have binned it. As it was, I hung a reluctant left and stumbled off down what I remembered as the least worst line to the Lairig Ghru. More rocks to the ankles, more heather, more swearing. I resisted the urge to kick every rock that tripped me, or to sit down and have a little cry, but only just.
I pulled my head out of my arse for the climb to Cairn Toul. Familiar territory, tough but simple; quadriceps and horsepower. I’d stretched the gap to 40 minutes by the top. For the first time I thought the record was safe. I skipped round the rim of Garbh Coire Mor pretty happily, not pushing too hard but feeling decent and knowing I wouldn’t be losing too much time.
Still 38 minutes in hand at the top of Braeriach, I was sensible on the run down to the Lairig Ghru, not wanting to ruin the whole thing by taking a dive in the boulders. I was strong enough to run much of the climb to the Chalamain Gap.
From there things got was confusing. I was gauging my progress by Mark’s finish time of 9:15. With that 38 minute gap in mind, getting under 9 hours should have been a cruise. It was a little vexing then to see 8:45 come and go with a good chunk of running remaining. Jesus christ, just how sensible was I coming off Braeriach? Had I given up over half my advantage in the last 90 minutes?
Ramping the pace up in the last couple of kilometres my legs felt fine. Why on earth didn’t I do this half an hour ago? 9 hours came and went as I passed into the Lodge grounds. I jogged sheepishly through the transceiver park and gave the end of south wing a half-hearted, flaccid slap.
9:00:34. I’d lost 24 minutes in an hour and a half. I rolled my eyes and staggered back to my bike.
It wasn’t til this morning that I looked at Mark’s splits and realised that he ran 9:30, not 9:15. I had a note of his times with me, so fuck knows where that idea came from. It’s frustrating to think that I could have pressed just a fraction harder from Braeriach and made it under 9 hours without too much bother, but not frustrating enough to make me think about going back and doing it again.
Honestly, the Big 6 isn’t much of a classic. If you want to run in the Cairngorms, run the 4000s. If you want a good long day out, run the round of Loch Mullardoch.
Regarding the lack of hill legs, it was funny. There’s only been one week in the last 12 that has had total elevation greater than yesterday’s run, but the climbing and descending was definitely less of a problem than the rough terrain. Some of the strength training I’ve been doing at home probably allowed me to blag the Quadriceps and Horsepower sections, but the funny, overstridey, slippy-slidey bog trotting gait plays havoc with your hips in ways that my recent trail based long runs really didn’t prepare me for. I suspect if I’d run the other way, hitting the soggy stuff already tired in the second half, I might have struggled.
But Ally, I thought you were going to run 100 miles around Speyside?
Oh, yeah, that. I was. It was going to be the weekend of the 12th of July, but then that was going to be the weekend where I’d help John Kelly run through the Cheviots, then he changed his start so I couldn’t go so I went and ran with Ian Stewart instead and didn’t get to bed til 5am and I was knackered for a week and and and… And, I was excited about that run while we were still discourage from going into the hills. That no longer being the case, the appeal did ebb somewhat. Who knows, it’s still on the maybe pile.