It’s been a few years since I last ran this race, but those of you who have been reading this blog for a while may remember that this one holds a special place in my heart, not just because it was the first ever half marathon I ran (back in the pre-blog days of 2009) but it was also where Steve and I got engaged – that was quite a way to relieve my pre-race nerves! Further to that, in 2012 I ran a PB here which proved stubbornly difficult to beat for quite some time – all the way to early 2017 in fact! But for the last few years I haven’t been up there as I had different autumn priorities, and when Steve signed up back in the summer I initially wasn’t sure if I wanted to run the half or the 10k, eventually deciding that it would be worth capitalising on the training I was doing for the Disneyland Paris half and “properly” running a half marathon to round off my racing year.
In the past we have stayed in Aviemore the night before the race, but this time decided we would get up early and head up first thing in the morning. This meant leaving between 6 and 6:30am, times which seem increasingly reasonable the more I run!
It was still pretty dark as we set off on the 80ish mile drive north into the Highlands which meant we didn’t get much chance to appreciate the beautiful scenery. We had the latest episode of Marathon Talk playing in the car and had a pretty easy drive, arriving at the race HQ just before 8am.
The race itself starts at 10am, however the logistics are such that runners are taken by bus to the start (only about 10-15 minutes away) and the course returns us to the MacDonald hotel complex which is used as the race HQ and car park. The buses begin at 8am and the last one is at 9am so we wanted to make sure we had plenty of time to collect our race numbers, go to the loo and get in line for a bus.
We were up at the start at the Badaguish outdoor centre not long after 9am. It was pretty chilly, but the organisers have a good set up with teas and coffees available (with donation buckets out for those who have cash at the start line) and a sheltered area to gather in. I had a cosy top on that I was going to put in Steve’s bag (we usually do this since he will finish first and can collect the bag before I finish) but had chosen one I was happy to throw away if I just couldn’t bear to remove it soon enough!
We had a cup of tea then got in the queue for the toilets around 9:30, so by the time we emerged it was time to hand in our bag. I was shivering a bit, but didn’t have too long to wait until I got underway and I knew I would be absolutely fine once I got moving.
As runners line up there are markers with approximate times on them and I set myself up next to the “sub 2 hours” marker. Realistically I had no idea what I could do, but with a PB of 1:53 and previous long-standing PB (from this race) of 1:56 I was fairly certain I could squeak under 2 hours.
Before I knew it, we were being walked towards the start and past a piper. Steve took some photos as I couldn’t be bothered to pull my phone out and I was instructing him as to the photos to take!
There was a moment of confusion when we could see through a break in the trees that the runners at the front had started and, of course, those further back started to run even though we hadn’t reached the start line yet. I never understand this. Surely we’re going to run enough during the race? And the confusion was created by the fact that so many people were running and I could hear lots of folk asking if we had crossed the start line yet, but since we had race chips on our shoes I knew that even though there was no gantry, the start line would be when we crossed a timing mat slightly further on so stayed calm and started my watch as I hit the mat.
The first half of the race, which is net downhill overall, takes place on trails which can be a little narrow at points and thanks to the recent rainy weather there were quite a few puddles. I knew from previous experience that it wasn’t worth worrying about pace in the first half of the race as the chances are you will be way off, particularly with a steep hill at the start of the 4th mile, but will make up lots of time once the course emerges onto the road as it’s pretty much all downhill through the second half of the race. I actually set my watch to show me the average pace rather than the current pace and amused myself with some “runner maths” to try and work out if I was on track for a sub-2.
A fun moment came towards the end of the trail section as I became aware of runners backed up around a corner. It turned out that there was a puddle of such magnitude that there was absolutely no avoiding it and people were looking for the best way to approach it. Most were going around the edges (which were pretty squelchy) as there was clearly a deeper hole in one part of it and lots of people were falling down. Not wanting to hurt myself by stepping on something uneven that I couldn’t see (or have an impromptu ice bath), I also went around the outside, but still ended up in cold water up to my knees and with icy cold feet – a good incentive to run faster in the second half to warm up again!
Thanks to my choice of attire I was getting lots of shouts (everything I was wearing was actual running kit, I just thought I would have a bit of fun and embrace the feline theme of running for a cat charity!). Early in the race as we had a brief section on a road I heard a little girl say, “she’s dressed up as a cat!” and as we ran by Loch Morlich shortly before joining the road for the home stretch a spectator shouted, “well done pussy cat!” Most of the marshals also commented on my cat ears and gave me a big smile. It was really nice, if a little unusual!
Once out on the road around 7 miles in it was time to get myself moving a bit faster. My average pace had been showing about 9:27 and I knew that 9:09 would be 2 hour pace. With the slight downhill it felt easy to push on and although it crossed my mind to wonder if I could sustain a faster pace, I dismissed the thought and focused on running to feel. I was passing people and feeling good. I even managed to take my gels (I had one on the trail at mile 5 and planned a second at mile 10 with “a parkrun to go”) without choking myself!
I was noticing my average pace falling until it dipped under the 9:09 I was looking for and at that point I knew I could keep my legs turning over all the way to the end. An interesting thing about this race is that the mile markers are actually “miles to go” so they are counting you down to the finish. I had noticed in the second half of the race that the markers were a bit off compared to my Garmin and suspected the route was going to come up a little short. Thanks to my knowledge of the route, I decided to trust the markers and keep on pushing as my pace felt ok.
There’s a short, sharp hill to take us from the path we are on up onto the main road and back into the hotel complex, and as I came off the hill I glanced at my watch to see that it read 1:55. I knew my previous best time from this race was 1:56 something, but couldn’t remember what the seconds were. I tried my best to speed up as the finish line was in sight but the last 100m or so are over grass which was a bit soft and uneven so I couldn’t get quite the sprint finish I wanted.
I heard the announcer call my name as I crossed the line and headed through the chute to collect my water, shortbread (such a Scottish race haha!) and medal then return my chip.
I met Steve and we headed back inside to sort ourselves out and I took advantage of the opportunity to look up my previous time (1:56:35) and confirm that I had indeed beaten it. My chip time for this year was posted as 1:56:02. Those 2 seconds are a little irritating, but given I had only expected a squeak under 2 hours (and there were some slight holdups on the trail) I’ll take that. This now becomes my 2nd fastest half marathon time and only the 3rd time I have run sub-2. Pretty pleasing for someone who was certain she wasn’t in fantastic form! I suspect the lack of pressure or expectation meant that I ran well, felt comfortable and enjoyed the event. I felt really strong in the second half and looking at my splits that strength is confirmed so I definitely got my strategy right.
And so this remains one of my favourite races. It’s well organised, has a fun route and is very friendly. There are always people there that I know and the sections where there are spectators always have great support. It’s nice to run a race with a more local feel to it. I’ll try not to leave it another 5 years before I go back!