High in the Highlands
Cairngorms National Park, Scotland
March 30, 2019
Bowls of porridge dotted the table, and the humming sound from the kettle on the wood burner signaled coffee was on the way. Shadows moved around the cabin prepping bags. Peering out of the small box window unveiled a greyish tone above the tree line. as it a cloud or just the dawn masking a fair sky?
The night before, we had studied a map detailing a trail that would drop us into Lairig Ghru, a chiseled mountain pass known as a ‘Glen’ in Scotland. We began the 22km loop at 8 am, leaving the road for a long and steady climb following an icy clear stream before traversing towards a boulder pass which would lead us into this iconic Glen. If the sky had been fair earlier, that had long gone as increasingly heavy snowfall blew straight into our faces -‘good Scottish weather’ I thought for my foreign running friends who’d joined the trip.
An eclectic group of guys from all over Europe came together for the spring edition of Lochran & Light’s running retreat. An enthusiastic and polite conversation had filled the van during the three-hour trip north of Edinburgh airport - race plans, origins, connections. It’s not until you’re 17km into a trail, legs heavy and salt crystals stickered to your face, when your new friend of just 12 hours offers you his last bite of Peanut Butter Clif Bar are bonds really formed.
Having traversed the open mountainside, we took the highline to avoid the slow going boulder pass just as the wind was blowing off the localised snow and opening up. Blue skies are always in Scotland, but it’s rare to meet them for long in a country known for delivering four seasons in one day.
Summiting and with the sun on our backs, we descended into the Lairig Ghru on a track a couple of feet wide. A mixture of mud and stone provided comfortable resistance, and we picked up the pace for the first time. The trail meandered for 4km until we intersected another route coming up the through Glen. Taking the opportunity to soak in the snow blasted rock faces, we took in fluids as we absorbed this awe-inspiring landscape.
Scotland’s landscape is breathtaking, it’s wild, harsh and beautiful. A friend once told me Norway is like Scotland on steroids, but somedays, I think it’s the other way around.
Regularly feeling small and humbled by nature serves to remind of us of the true pecking order and offers a healthy dose of insignificance, something our species should experience more often. With this thought, we turned and got the train going, this time in the direction of the pine forest.
With the increase in shelter came the increase in vegetation and warmth with the sun now in full flow. The loop varied from exposed mountainsides to narrow ‘Glen’ like arteries through the earth, to technical stone paths following water runoff and into forested cover circulating a Loch. I’d run this route once before after the friendly ranger had highlighted it to me a few days into a van trip based at the Cairngorm Ski Car Park. “Thanks for the tip”, I thought as we eased off approaching the van.
Returning to the cabin it was time for recovery, something the older I get, the more value I assign to it. Having lived in Scandinavia the past two years, I’ve adopted their passion for ‘Winter Bathing’, aka jumping into the freezing sea. In combination with a smoking hot sauna, I’ve found this to be an endorphin-fueled ritual that aids the recovery after a long run. Post-exercise ice baths are commonplace for elite athletes to help with inflammation and speed up recovery. It’s recently been shown that post-exercise sauna sessions increase the performance of endurance athletes.
To strike the balance of stress and repair is a fine line, but one to seek when pushing the body daily. We immersed our weary legs into an ice-cold whisky barrel before kicking back in a wood-fired hot tub recounting sections of the trail and discussing plans for tomorrow. A couple of repetitions of this and it was time for a well-earned meal by the fire. On the menu: delicious puy lentil fajitas.
I’ve never been one for stretching, yet through regular meditation, I’ve increasingly gravitated toward yoga. The sensation during and after a quality yoga session feels deeply nourishing. It feels very much complementary to the rock hard calves, tight hamstrings and a constant sense of “my body hurts” that plagues runners. I’m still very much a ‘kook’, but with good direction and a tailored Yoga For Runners practice, it’s an hour well spent.
So all that remained was to dig into the routes for day two before another tasty meal, far from the hum of civilisation.
Nic Arroyo, 32, originally from Santiago, Chile, now living in Copenhagen and leading the futures design studio Bespoke. He has completed 9 marathons and is a member of urban running crew NBRO
“Unbelievable and unforgettable running getaway: Three days of running mountains in the Scottish Highlands, doing yoga, chilling in hot tubs, eating great food for the soul, having meaningful conversations and good laughs with an amazing bunch of humans.”
Olly Sills, 28, is a London-based specialist private tutor and mentor. When he’s not cycling borough to borough teaching, he’s training for the IRONMAN and organising Somaliland’s first marathon raising money to provide scholarships for students to attend university in the country.
“Incredible! So awesome to be away from everything in the Highlands with like-minded people who I didn’t all know. The weather was amazing and I liked how the runs were tough but we weren’t nailing ourselves trying to complete them as quickly as we could. The rolling run downhill through the pines on the first day — it was dreamy! Ice bucket, hot tub and awesome cooking made a huge difference too!”
Words: Gregor Matthews
Photos: Karl Mackie