“Summer on the high plateau can be as delectable as honey; it can also be a roaring scourge.”
So begins Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain –– a love letter to the Scottish Cairngorms completed in 1945. She wasn’t wrong.
I, however, selected my scourge –– the 30-kilometer Dearg Up n’ Doon trail race in Blair Atholl. But first, a return to Edinburgh where I visited a few years earlier to film a little whisky-themed tribute to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting.
Except this time, I need to keep the legs fresh with a run around Holyrood Park in the eastern end of the city.
Onwards with ScotRail to Blair Atholl
From Calton Hill, it was onwards with ScotRail up to Blair Atholl just in time for the clouds to part and bestow upon us the first sunny, summer-like weekend of the year –– at least, that’s what every Vitamin-D-deprived Scot told us.
A casual affair, we waltz up to the starting line, grab our numbers, and wait for the countdown among a small crowd of runners. These are the kind of races I love most––local affairs where people are surprised to find out I’m not one of them.
From the starting line, we jog across the green camping fields surrounding Blair Atholl castle and onto forested pavement that slowly turned to dirt paths with tire tracks. The tree line thins out as we work our way up the Munro. But it’s a slow climb, so much so that that the traverse across the open Highland plains is manageable while running. It’s the kind of rugged, grassy landscape I associate with the Highlands. The only bit of incongruity is the sun. I never imagined such a powerful sun beaming down on the hills of Scotland. But the sweat dripping from my brow confirms that I am, indeed, melting.
Climbing Beinn Dearg
The true climb kicks off at the first aid station about 12.5 kilometers into the race. Everyone, at least as far as I can see, switches gears from a run to a brisk, uphill hike. The hike up the munro is deceiving. Looking around, the region seems flat and relatively bare with short green shrubbery sprinkled about. But my heavy breathing and tired legs are obvious reminders that this is anything but flat.
It’s around this point that I’m wishing for some bagpipes. I know it’s cliché and that the whole of Scotland would likely roll their eyes at such a request. But the scenery and location demand it. Get one of those dramatic war film composers from the late ’90s, early 2000s, like Hans Zimmer or Howard Shore. I bet I’d be moving a bit faster if I had some bagpipes blowing across the highlands.
Just shy of four kilometers since the aid station, the top of the munro is finally visible. The ground morphs into a collection of flat rocks that spread across the munro before culminating into a series of medium-sized boulders that surround the peak. With a quick lap around the peak, it’s time to sprint back down the munro for 15 or so kilometers to the finish line.
Visiting Cairngorms National Park
With the race behind us, we head up further into Cairngorms National Park, stopping in Aviemore where we drop our bags and get back out into the forests. I know it seems like we just freakin’ finished the race, but I assure you that through the magic of editing, I’m skipping some beers and a night’s sleep.
Besides, we didn’t schlep up to the Cairngorms to sit inside and twiddle our thumbs –– which is why we did it all again the next day as well with some friends to hike around the Glenmore Forest.
A popular quote from Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain goes, “Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”
If only we could all have friends like the Cairngorms.