Pounding Aberdeen’s Pavements with Purpose

Bringing in the distant bells of 2021 atop Creag Choinnich, I felt truly hopeful. I didn’t know what the start of this year would bring, but I did have one definite purpose: To cycle, run and walk 300 miles between New Year’s Day and the 6th February.

It had all started with a message into a family group chat from my Dad. The old man suggested my brother and I join him in logging our miles for the Doddie Aid challenge. This challenge would run throughout January and up until Scotland’s Calcutta Cup clash with England.

He didn’t have to wait long for my reply and I promised to donate a tenth of the miles I completed to the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation. This is a charity inspired by Scotland rugby stalwart Doddie Weir following his diagnosis with Motor Neuron Disease a few years ago.

After we had negotiated the treacherous descent of Creag Choinnich, my Mum and I woke early the next morning, setting off to find the Secret Howff. The location of this secret bothy is meant to be kept secret and we battled through deep snow to find it hidden on an outcrop after a five mile walk in.

At several moments during this mini-adventure I felt the cold ease into my bones. Casually chatting with Mum and glancing at Cora dog’s frozen paws warmed me up pretty quickly though. I had barely seen Mum during 2020 due to the sporadic nature of the previous year. This 10 mile walk had been the perfect sociable beginning to Doddie Aid.

I left the natural beauty of Braemar, three furry companions and my mother behind two days later for Aberdeen, just before another lockdown was announced. I added another nine miles in Upper Deeside to my total and then hopped on a bus. I knew I had to try and keep this momentum going in the Granite City.

I walked everyday, trying to discover route variations between Leah’s flat and mine or wandering down to the beach often in the dark. My phone can’t handle GPS, so every mile was being logged manually with the help of Strava’s routes function. Although this process had a time consuming element to it, I love maps so it wasn’t too testing a task.

My running was steady, if not slightly scattered into intermittent blocks of activity. I had habitual routes, but quickly became obsessed with running along the River Don where it almost felt like I was venturing into the countryside again. If only for a short while, I was able to get away from Aberdeen’s cold grey granite and the unnatural right angles of the city streets.

On two successive Saturdays I jogged to the Bridge of Don from my King Street flat, running a 7.4 mile loop around the River Don and timing myself. When I would return around 90 minutes later I was cold, sweaty and clarted in mud. The air felt fresher by the riverside, the trails fun and the nature more…natural. Those two runs were tough and magical in equal measure.

A difficult aspect of the challenge was the weather, with the mercury often plummeting towards freezing for most of the five weeks. This all but put the kibosh on my plans to brush the cobwebs of my bike. I could have ridden it, but I was admittedly nervous to face a potentially sketchy time in the saddle. I hadn’t ridden my stead for nearly six months following a crash at speed in the summer. I didn’t want to dent my confidence and more importantly my body, more seriously.

My original target of 300 miles would have still been reachable, but I unashamedly let this target go. I just wanted to be on my feet and to continue moving. Figures outside my daily totals began to feel meaningless. I took reassurance in taking every day as it comes.

The walking continued and I began to enjoy this less laboured form of exercise more. Towards the end of January the snow was beginning to deepen in areas of Aberdeenshire, but the city remained predominantly icy and sleety. On the penultimate day of the month I ran to the top of Danestone and found some feeble snow underfoot. Sometimes getting that wee bit of altitude opens up the city for those of us who like to explore its many streets.

On Friday 5th February I ran four easy miles around the beach and went straight into the shower on my return, running late for placement. It was only later that I realised my Doddie Aid total was at 190.4 miles. I stared at this figure for a while, in the knowledge that the day after was the final day of the challenge. Surely I had to try and finish on 200 miles?

And so the next day I set off with a 10 mile route planned out. I plodded towards a ominous sky along the Spital, scrambling across the slippery cobblestones of Aberdeen University’s cobblestones. From there I powered up Gordon Brae, breathlessly ascending this longish hill, before joining Whitestripes Road. On the final day of this personal journey I was finally leaving the city by foot. With a dull football playlist on low volume in the background, I ran with purpose in an easterly direction before turning back towards Dyce.

The Raynaud’s in my gloveless hands kicked in without mercy and the pain of having to clasp my phone became slightly overwhelming as I ran on. Continuing back towards the city, I passed a raging River Don which made me feel colder every time I glanced it. For the first time I was able to inspect the paper mills on the other side of the river in more detail. Running is a brilliant medium for actually experiencing your surroundings.

Eventually I reached Aberdeen’s city limits again. Ascending Great Northern Road I was buoyed by the deafening weekend traffic and the pain in my hands. I felt privileged to be able to run and more pertinently, to be able to use my legs for my own enjoyment at this time in my life.

And so with just hours to spare until kick-off at Twickenham I finished the challenge on 200.4ish miles. As promised I donated £20.04 to My Name’s Doddie and I hope I managed to raise a wee bit of awareness through my activities. It was a good excuse to be out and about for a worthwhile cause.

On a more selfish note, as I sat with my hands buried in a towel trying to get some feeling into them again I felt a huge amount of satisfaction. For some 200 miles in five weeks on foot will be impressive, while for others it will be less so. For me, I was just glad I rediscovered a lost love for running and as it turned out, for walking as well. I had pounded Aberdeen’s pavements with a feeling of purpose for five weeks.

Dess Woods Night Race (26/01/18)

On a chilly Friday evening my Mother and I embarked on another adventure down the Deeside Valley to participate in our second race of the year respectively. This time we would be stopping just short of the village of Lumphanan, the destination being a sizable area of woodland two miles short of where we had ran the detox three weeks previously.

This had been a race which I had wanted to take part in for while, taking place in my old training grounds, Dess Woods. These woods were located on a sloping hill, about a mile outside Kincardine O’ Neil, the village which had spent the first 17 years of my life living in. With lots of different trails to explore alongside steep climbs and technical descents it played in major part in kick starting my running obsession. Many a moonlit night had been spent testing my legs in these woods so I was excited to be returning. I was also excited and partly nervous to see how my legs would fare in a full out trail race.

After the Lumphanan Detox at the start of the year, my training had gone into a slight decline again, before I had reversed this in the ten days or so before this next race. I had been doing a lot of trail running, but had struggled slightly as Braemar had been coated by a relatively thick layer of snow for the last couple of weeks. I knew that I wouldn’t be competing for the top places but had the target of perhaps finishing in the top 10. I had looked at the times from the two previous years and thought this was a realistic target if I decided to really push myself.

As I had often been free during the day in recent months I hadn’t done much night running, an activity which I used to love. The fact that this was a night race also added a tinge of excitement as I packed my head torch along with my ‘Garmin’ watch that I had finally got to work!

On arrival at Dess Woods we met my Auntie and her partner and went about picking up our race numbers and safety pins. With our numbers pinned to our clothing, we studied the race route…

The route would be completed by doing two loops, with the first of the loops being completed twice. At 8.7 kilometers it was as hilly as I expected it would be, starting with a tough climb up from the Deeside Activity Park at the bottom of the woods, up to the gate at right at the top of the woods. After this steep fire track climb lasting about 900 meters, there was a slight grassy descent before a left turn took you up through some undulating fields.

When I had trained here I had affectionately referred to these as being part of the ‘sheep fields’ due to the creatures of a wooly nature which usually habited these parts. Great views up and down the valley where gained from this high point, though in the darkness the lights of Kincardine O’Neil could still be viewed, lighting up the valley floor to the east.

After a short loop in these fields a technical bit of the route would have to be negotiated, with an off-piste jump over a wall and a fence to access Dess Woods again. This was followed by an easier section which completed the first loop, with a long-ish descent, in which the route crosses the climb which the runners will have started they’re race on. The route then returns to being undulating, passing a waterfall which is another place which I used to love past.

Following on from the waterfall, is a very steep climb taking competitors on a windy route between the trees before eventually coming to a forest break. This break in the woodland doesn’t last long however, as after a short descent there the route rejoins the first climb, returning runners to the first loop which they will have to complete again before a long descent to the finish line which they will hopefully reach in one piece.

Having completed a short warm-up and taken part in some pre-race chat, I lined up on the start line, hoping that I would be able to hurt enough to finish in a position or time I was happy with. With my trusty innovates I decided to just wear on layer, a long sleeved top knowing I would warm up quite fast. I was also wearing running leggings to try and keep my legs and their muscles warm. If you can’t tell I’m very scientific when it comes to these details.

Soon enough we were off, with 60 so running being unleashed like a frantic group of wild dogs. It took while to find my breath, but when I did I surprisingly felt good on the first climb, deciding to push myself harder than I probably should have and by the time I reached the gate at the top my legs were already shot. “Damn that was stupid!”, my legs shouted.

Making my way towards the ‘Sheep Fields”, it was good to get out into the open, as the lights in the valley below were joined by a starry night sky. This provided an atmospheric background to some tough running over muddy ground which was as equally hard in some places as it was soft in others. At least ice was minimal! The fields where lit up by runners weaving between the old walls and rocks which littered the grassy surface.

After some undulation, it was nice to then get a long descent, on slightly interrupted by the hurdle section over a wall and fence to get back into the woods. On arrival into the woods I felt that there was another runner close behind and I fell back a place on the latter half of the descent towards the waterfall. I attempted to keep her in sight for as long as possible, but lost sight of my fellow competitor on the hard ascent back through the trees.

I was annoyed at myself for letting this happen but was slightly more sympathetic when I found out later that she was the current Scottish Hill Racing Champion. However, I realised I had to carry on pushing on completion of the second loop, continued to push myself as hard as possible up the final ascent of the race, returning to the first loop including the difficult terrain of the fields.

At this point my legs felt like led and I was hurting physically, but still loving it mentally. Again the view of the stars reminded me why I loved running in the great outdoors and I savored every minute of the squidgy ground as my head torch picked up the eyes of deer, rabbits and other creatures acting as the race’s accidental spectators.

Crossing into the woods for the second time, I pounded the long descent hard, aiming to keep three as the maximum number of people that had managed to overtook me when I reached that finish line. Reaching this target, I crossed the line in 13th. It wasn’t a top 10 position but it would do.

That had been tough but I there was no doubt that I was glad that I had taken part. It had provided me with another boost in my confidence and I was realizing that I needed to stop being so hesitant to take part in events like this one. I had ran the hilly 8.7K in just over 41 minutes, so was happy with my overall pace and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. My Auntie wasn’t too far behind finishing in 18th place while my Mother came home well of last position, a placing which she had been convinced she would have finished in.