Legs bloodied and chest pounding I descended tentatively into the Gathering Arena for one final lap in front of the spectators. The last 35 minutes had been a rare lesson in pain. This largely offset by the thrill of being able to race again for the first time since September 2019.
Saturday morning was spent manning the Braemar Highland Games Centre exhibition with my borrowed kilt blowing in the breeze. Approximately 850 visitors flocked to the Grampian Highland Games, held in Braemar as a replacement for the Braemar Gathering and other cancelled North-East games. Over a few hours spectators were treated to the usual traditional events – pipe bands, tossing the caber, tug of war ,and track & field events to name just a few.
Of particular interest to me was the Morrone Hill Race, a three mile scramble up and down to the Five Cairns. These stones sitting approximately 370 metres above the Gathering Arena on Morrone’s higher slopes. I only decided to enter 30 minutes before registration, following my colleagues’ encouragement.
Stood nearby the small field of 27 runners was Prince Charles, ready to start proceedings with his small plastic gun. I glanced over at him from my position on the outside of the track, willing him to postpone the start of the suffering for a little longer. He didn’t hang around, sending us off with some quick words of encouragement.
The first 500 metres was almost leisurely, amid a scramble for positioning as we lapped the Gathering Arena. Leaving the arena and hitting the slopes, I occupied fifth. I started to instantly get ideas above my station about sustaining this position.
In reality, I sustained it for about three minutes max. I could only watch as I was overtaken by three stronger and more sensible runners as the ascent continued to ramp up.
At the time I felt as if my insides were trying to escape and tasted blood as I continued to make gradually slower progress, hunched over with my hands on my knees. I twice pulled over to let other competitors past on sections of single track.
I needed to start showing more fight and it took seeing a fellow competitor suffering to ignite a spark within me. The gentleman in question had overtaken me near the start of the climb, but was also hunched over and walking. I gradually started to gain on him, my running not much quicker than his walking speed.
Mr Scatterbrain had forgotten to start his watch, so I had no idea how long I was ascending the bastard of a hill for when I tried to check. Time seemed to have come to an absolute halt on exiting the arena. Indeed, I felt 25 years older as I rounded the Five Cairns to begin the descent.
Not long after the Cairns, I used some rare racing intelligence to make my move. As my competitor followed the path to the left, I cut across the heather, bouncing clumsily while praying to the Hill Race Gods that they prevent me from breaking an ankle.
Re-joining the path, I finally relaxed into the race a bit more as I know the descent like the palm of my hand. Its technical twists and turns are the perfect distraction for sore legs as I concentrated on self-preservation.
Unfortunately, I totally switched off when the technical section came to an end. With legs like jelly, I landed hard on both my knees near the Indicator (a viewpoint near the bottom of Morrone), thus ensuring my left knee got the same treatment as my right for a change. The latter experiencing temporary stitches, infection and a recent fall in the woods with an over-excitable Cora dog.
Brushing myself off, I stumbled out into the open and across the grassy shortcut below. The fall seemingly having the effect of waking me up again to the danger of losing my position. I only realised afterwards that this would have dropped me outside the top 10.
I’m relatively pleased with my position, but not my time. I had entered with the hastily arranged goal of achieving a sub-35 minute run. Perhaps, if I had pushed that bit harder in the area this could have come true. My pathetic excuse is I felt ill and didn’t want to make a scene at the finish line.
Pictures did later appear on social media (above) of me on finishing, bloodied knees visible as I breathed out of my arse. These were accompanied by a caption, which could have easily read: “Finn Nixon is now back manning the exhibition after running up Morrone and throwing his weetabix up everywhere”.
Instead, it said I’d be returning to man the exhibition for the rest of the afternoon. Which I did, after a quick excursion home involving several baby wipes, some plasters, a cloud of deodorant and a quick change into my borrowed kilt again.
Overall, I’m really glad I participated and I’m thankful to the organisers of the Grampian Games. I also want to give special thanks to the Braemar Royal Highland Society Members who allowed me to take time of my work and to enter the hill race at the last minute.
Running up Morrone is like having a baby. You forget how painful it was and then do it all over again! Great article Finn. Hope your knee has recovered now
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Thanks Mum. That is definitely an effective analogy!
Great write up Finn. As a former fell runner, I felt your pain every step of the way.
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Thanks Granda. I find hill running a weird mixture of fun and suffering!