Aviemore is a very special place for me. Not only is it the place where I ran my first ever half marathon in October 2009 (in a time of 2:13:02) but it is also the place where Steve proposed. Yes, the night before my first ever half marathon! I remember being really nervous about the race as it seemed such a long way and I had never run as far as that before. A marriage proposal was certainly a novel way to distract me! I think I ran the whole race that time with my head full of wedding dresses and sparkle so had only the vaguest recollection of the route. I do, however, remember enjoying it and was rather disappointed last year when I entered months in advance then was unable to run due to an injury.
This year, Aviemore wasn’t actually on the agenda. I had a spring marathon (Lochaber) and autumn half marathon (Glasgow) to aim for, with what turned out to be months of injury in between! But after a great run in Glasgow I got a bit carried away and signed up for both The Big Fun Run and the half Kilomathon. Secretly, I also signed up for Aviemore. You see, the half marathon distance has been haunting me since May 2010 when I set my pb of 2:01:31 at Loch Leven. Sadly, I have never yet bettered this in a race and getting a sub-2 hour time has been a constantly carried-over target. My best time in 2011 was 2:04:43, but with 2012 starting well I felt sure I could do it this year. That goal was once more sidelined before Glasgow after months off running, then I surprised myself by running 2:01:38. So close to a pb! And that’s when the questions crept in: if I had a couple more weeks of training, could I do it? Should I enter another autumn half? I decided I had to give it a shot.
Although neither Steve nor I were able to run last year, Steve did in fact provide the warm up for the Aviemore half and in the days following the Great Scottish Run when I was mulling over whether or not to enter another race, the organisers once more approached him about the warm up. He was offered a free place if he agreed. That really helped finalise my decision and I signed up as well, but kept my entry quiet so as not to feel under any pressure to perform. I was sure that the reason I ran so well in Glasgow was that I had no goal other than taking part and enjoying myself. Aviemore had to be my last crack at sub-2 in 2012 and I wanted as little pressure as possible.
And so I picked up my training again, this time focussing on pace: hill reps and speed intervals. Tough sessions, but at least they’re over quickly! My race week preparations, however, were a little unconventional. Normally, the best advice would be to take it easy, get plenty of rest and maybe just have a couple of slow, easy jogs to keep the legs moving. Me? I went on a school trip to France and spent 6 days gallivanting about northern France (including my beloved Paris!) getting little sleep, spending all day on my feet and climbing almost 300 steps at both the Sacré Cœur and the Arc de Triomphe. Perhaps not the best way to get race ready!
I got home on Thursday evening, just as race weekend rolled around. Barely home from Paris, I had to quickly pack some things due to a last-minute offer of accommodation in Aviemore the night before the race (we had been planning to set off early on race day). The race is organised by the Speyside Trust to raise funds for the Badaguish Outdoor Centre which provides opportunities for those with disabilities to enjoy a holiday. We were offered a wigwam at the centre which, conveniently, is also where the half marathon begins.
We arrived at the wigwam after registering for the race and enjoying a couple of bowls of pasta at the pasta party. It turned out to be very cosy and comfortable. I’m not a big fan of camping, but my experience of “glamping” was definitely a positive one.
Race morning itself was crisp. There was a bit of low fog and the air was chilly, but most importantly it was dry. We got ourselves organised and had rather disgusting tubs of instant porridge for breakfast, then it was time for joining the toilet queue before Steve’s warm up as bus loads of competitors were starting to arrive. The last 45 minutes or so before the start were passed chatting to fellow runners and wondering why otherwise sane and well-adjusted adults were standing shivering at the top of a hill in Aviemore so early on an October Sunday morning! But soon enough, it was time to line up in the starting area ready for the gun. The race is chip timed and we had to line up based on our predicted finish time before a piper led us forward to the start line.
The first half of the race is up and down forest trails and there are stunning views of Loch Morlich which we eventually run alongside before emerging onto the road that leads back into Aviemore a little beyond the 7 mile mark. There were a few uphill sections in the first half (notably a killer hill around 3 miles in which reduced many to walking) and some of the trails were narrow and awash with puddles, all of which slowed me down and I knew I was off pace for a sub-2 time. I also knew that the last 5 miles or so would be largely downhill and I would have to go for the biggest negative split of my life to get there in 1:59! Despite the comedy emergence of Bananaman from the trees just after joining the road, I got my head down, ignored my tired legs and pushed up my pace with the downhill gradient helping.
At 10 miles I took my final gel, checked my watch and got on with the last 5k of the race. Every bit of me was screaming to stop but I just had to dig in and keep running. I was powering down the hill, trying not to lose momentum on the brief flat and uphill sections and furiously trying to do lots of mental maths to try and work out my finish time. At around 12.5 miles my legs were turning to jelly but I could see that I was about to leave the road for the path that led to the bunkhouses. After that I knew it was a short uphill blast to the main road through Aviemore, which I would briefly follow before being funnelled onto the lawn in front of the Four Seasons hotel and the welcome sight of the finish line.
I crossed that finish line grinning and pumping the air. Why? Because at long last I had done it – a sub-2 half. My aim had been 1:59, but I was thrilled when my Garmin (backed up by my official chip time) read 1:56:35. I had smashed it! Steve was waiting at the finish line and I was waving and giving him the thumbs up as I wound my way through the finishing funnel to collect my water, banana, shortbread and, most importantly, my medal!
For me, Aviemore will continue to be a very special place as it now represents yet another running milestone for me. It’s an enjoyable and well-organised event in aid of a good cause. I’m just left with one question: given the number of muddy puddles I ran through, how come my very “special” super-supportive running shoes (which have pounded out just under 200 miles) are still so clean?!?