Cracking Cairngorms

Carrbridge’s Old Packhorse Bridge in autumn

Eight years ago, I remember driving up the A9 thinking that we might die.  At that time our car was this anti-aerodynamic Vauxhall Agila.  Our little silver box on wheels was getting blown about the road in crazy winds and it was hard to see through the sheets of sleet.  Massive lorries kept thundering past, their draft further throwing us around the road.  The A9 can offer white knuckle driving at the best of times, but this was special.  My wife and I had planned a spring trekking break in the Cairngorms, but the horrendous weather was making us think that our long weekend would be spent in the pub… if we made it to Avimore in the first place.  We eventually made it to the hotel in twice the amount of time it should have, checked in and fell asleep to the sound of rain hammering the window.

What a view to wake up to — Cairngorms in March, 2009

We woke to an odd light streaming through the curtains and a strange silence.  When I drew the curtains, I could see that everything was covered in a couple feet of lovely powdery snow, and it was still falling.  It seems the temperature had dropped just enough overnight for the rain to transform into snow.  We were treated to a winter wonderland at the tail end of March.  We weren’t prepared for the snow, so we just did some lower level walks rather than the Munros we had planned.

Loch Morlich, 2009

It was magical.  Ever since then, I’ve had a real love for the Cairngorms and keep returning.

Our most recent trip was about eight years on from that unexpected snowy break.  Big changes since then — we came up during the half-term holiday with two little people in tow.  We both took up running after we had the kids.

We were able to spend a good chunk of time running on some of the trails around the Cairngorms; many thanks to grandparents who were willing to watch the kids so we could indulge our hobby!  We haven’t spent much time running in the area before.  Turns out it’s a fantastic place to run.

We made a point of running the routes that we walked in the snow eight years ago.  The vistas were the same, but they were emblazoned in autumnal glory, rather than sparkly wintery whites.  Both equally stunning views and somehow now better given the contrast of seeing the same landscape transformed by the seasons.

We also ran some new-to-us trails.  We based ourselves in lovely Carrbridge.  The village has a nice network of trails through the local woodlands.  It makes for very enjoyable running on almost bouncy pine needle covered paths.  Quite similar to the trails that I remember walking on as a kid in California’s high sierra.  Wildlife everywhere!  We saw red deer, red squirrels, and bold songbirds.  Here’s a good map; we were able to run most of the marked trails.  The Carr Plantation Trail was a real highlight.

The Cairngorms aren’t really known as an autumn destination (though the National Park has published this article showing why it should be considered as such). The skiing takes a lot of attention as well as more serious long mountain treks.  But it’s fantastic this time of year.  The mix of deciduous and evergreen trees makes for some cracking views.  We did get a bit of rain, but the weather felt more ‘settled’ than it has on some of our summer trips to the area.  Another nice thing about running up there is that the trails are well defined and not terribly boggy.  Navigation feels pretty straightforward.

So if you have the chance, enjoy the Cairngorms in autumn for a run.  It has everything from nice groomed low level trails to serious big mountain ascents.  And while Aviemore is not going to win any awards for architecture, it’s a handy base with good infrastructure, outdoors shops, and food.  It’s a lovely place and I can’t wait to go back.



ATRX 2017 – race report


So much about running is gradual.  For me, just starting to actually enjoy it took a while. But on that journey runners take, there are usually some memorable moments that we look back on to mark our progress.  It might be a parkrun PB, meeting up with a club for the first time, or something like that.

For me, The Antonine Trial Race 10k (ATRX) was my first trail race and the event inspired me to get into running on the trails and hills.  So it was fun to return to the race, everything familiar and different at the same time.  In 2016 I didn’t know anybody, standing around like Nigel-no-mates, but still enjoying the craic.  On Wednesday, I knew so many people, a bunch from the Carron Valley Trail Runners crew as well as a handful Springburn parkrunners.  Oddly, the weather was almost the same as it was last year — that’s to say, perfect.  I don’t know how James and the race crew have managed this two years in a row — spooky.

Last year, the hills near killed me.  This year, they were tough but felt more runnable.  Last year, I was timid on the decent.  This year, I confidently stormed down the hills with my arms flailing like a total eejit.  I passed people on the downs, they passed me on the ups.  All in all, my strategy of recognising that I’m a slow climber but quick controlled-faller worked.  I leapfrogged competitors for the first 8k, but only got passed once on the final 2k.  Last year, I ran the course in 59:18, this year 53:06.  A course PB by over 6 minutes!

A profile of the elevation gain.  Hilly wee route!

The race itself has a great vibe, the marshals were all so encouraging (especially the team on the final hill!) and it’s a beautiful place to run with fascinating Roman ruins all over the place.  I’d say it’s an underappreciated bit of central Scotland and I’m pleased this race gives it the attention it deserves. There are so many great views — there’s a class panorama over the Campsies from the top of Croy Hill, but I really love the old gnarled trees and almost terraced grassy descent at the 7.5km point.

Sunset over Croy.

The race links up with local charities (this year, PALS) and everybody arrives with tins for the local foodbank.  In the goody bag there’s a garish pink buff. The medal is a rock with the ATRX logo.  Seriously, what’s not to love about this race?  It’s no surprise it sells out so quickly.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and the (honestly) unexpected PB was a bonus.  Looking forward to the full Antonine Trail Race half marathon+ come autumn.

Now, off to run 50k tomorrow morning!