Route: From Grantown on Spey to Aviemore with a circular loop visiting Loch an Eilein, 26.33 miles
The day of our final marathon had arrived and we were excited and relieved. The constant pressure of marathon after marathon had left us little time to relax during the last 27 days and we were looking forward to a rest! After much discussion about the forecast for high winds and little to no visibility at 900m, a last minute decision had been made to change the route in the Cairngorms National Park to a low level option. Although we both like to get up high, we see no point when walking conditions are near impossible and you cannot make out each other’s faces!
The new route required us to get a bus out to Grantown-on-Spey in the morning. With the weather due to worsen during the day, we had agreed to get the first bus out in the morning. By 6:40am we were ready and hastily made our way to the nearby bus stop. Unfortunately, our haste resulted in Pam going over on her ankle and she winced in pain as she made the last few steps to the stop. Pam quickly shrugged off her discomfort and assured me that all was ok. Once again, we marvelled at another red sky that lit up the Cairngorm plateau as the sun rose to the East of it as the bus took us to our start point. We both wished that we could stop and get some proper pictures but instead committed to freezing the images in our minds.
By 7:25am we had reached our destination and piled off the bus to start our last and final run. Our route followed the Speyside Way, a disused railway line, consisting of gentle grassy paths and gravelled tracks in excellent condition. The track was fun to run on and we had to reign ourselves in as we completed the first couple of kilometres in record time. Bouncing along with our poles tapping the ground, sheep, cows and even a couple of red deer looked on in interest. We were clearly a strange sight made stranger by the tapping noise that we were making and vibrations that passed through the ground.
Passing through Nethy Bridge, a small group that was congregated on the forest track in front of us, shouted “Welcome!” as we passed; clapping and cheering us on our way. We had no idea who they were and were quite embarrassed by the reaction we got. We hurriedly went on our way, only later wishing that we had engaged them in conversation. They looked like they had a clear purpose in mind and we would have loved to have known what they were up to. With my left leg getting very tired and weary once more, I was relieved when Pam suggested that we stopped at the next village for a reviving cup of tea.
We entered Boat of Garten, a small village with excellent views of the River Spey and Cairngorm hills beyond. Feeling somewhat underdressed, we entered a very smart hotel to seek refuge from the weather and to purchase a hot drink. The receptionist kindly took pity on us and ushered us into a very stylish bar area. We did not want to sit down for fear of messing up the leather seats and were cautious not to leave muddy footprints on the wooden floor! We need not have worried as all the staff remained remarkably friendly to us throughout our visit; even giving us some quality fudge to go with our pots of tea.
Over to Pam…….
Finding it hard to pull ourselves away from the warmth of the hotel bar but realising that we were getting too comfortable, we rain-jacketed up and stepped out into the rain. Although the weather was forecast to be OK until mid-afternoon, the rain and wind were coming in fits and starts; all slightly frustrating with the whole jacket on, jacket off situation. Still the end of this challenge was so close by now that the remaining 15 miles would hopefully seem to be simply a walk in the park (or rather a run in the park!).
The beauty of following a well-established route such as the Speyside way is that navigation is far easier, allowing us more time to relax and enjoy the whole experience; which we did. The short road section soon turned back into gravel tracks as the wood enveloped us for a second time. The moving on of the seasons was really apparent here in the changing colours of the silver birches, as was the growing carpet of fallen leaves and cones. Only the Douglas firs were fully retaining their foliage.
It was not long before the forest opened up into large expanses of heathland, the bilberry bushes being swapped for swathes of heather. The wind has dropped slightly too and there seemed to be almost a brief amnesty from the dark grey clouds over the distant Cairngorms Plateau, as the sun temporarily broke through to afford us stunning and atmospheric views across to the mountains. It was at this point that it hit us how beautiful this glen walk was. Like in the Lake District when we did the lower-level Coniston Marathon route, we were pleasantly surprised and impressed with the level of enjoyment that we were feeling. Both marathons have reminded us to explore all of the areas that these special National Parks have to offer, not just those up high. There are amazing views all over and for times of bad weather or simply on days set aside for rest, routes like the Speyside Way are fantastic opportunities to see these parks from a different perspective.
The bad weather reprieve over too soon as the strong winds up high forced the dark storm clouds to swallow up the mountains again. Congratulating ourselves a second time on the wise decision to change our route, we strode out, thoroughly relishing the fast, comfortable trail under our feet. The appearance of a golf course ahead of us indicated that we must be getting close to Aviemore, our next refuelling stop.
Choosing to run the Aviemore Orbital track to maximise on the off-road paths, instead of traipsing along the main road, we dropped into town just a few hundred metres from the amazing Mountain Café. Unfortunately we had not realised that it was closed on Wednesdays. Slightly disappointed, we continued on in search of a suitable replacement, promising to return the next day for coffee and a slice of one of their fabulous cakes.
Successfully finding a great substitute in Ashers Bakery, just a short distance down the road, we piled into its warmth, the wonderful smells making us start to salivate. With so much choice, we found it hard to narrow our decision down to only one savoury and one sweet option each. The friendly ladies behind the counter were curious and surprised at the amount of food that we had ordered. Trying to explain our efforts so far that day and hence the source of our hunger seemed to leave them only more confused.
“What are they doing?!” one whispered to another, when she thought that we were out of earshot!
Oh well, obviously a few more in the ‘think we’re crazy’ camp then!
Fed and watered, with a quick stop back at the van to swap a water bottle for our filled hip flasks and we were back on our way to finish off the final seven miles. Trying to keep to the low-level route theme, we had decided on a circular loop from Aviemore, via Loch an Eilein, to complete this 15th marathon. This time we swapped the Speyside Way for the Old Loggers Way, along to Coylumbridge and down through another wooded section to the Loch. Our plan was to take this last section gently since by this stage Claire’s knee and my ankle that I had so stupidly rolled at the start of the day were beginning to play up. The shear fatigue in our legs meaning that our muscles were no longer able to protect our joints as well and the repeated battering and bruising that they were experiencing was starting to make itself known to us continuously now.
Again, the beautiful scenery provided sufficient distraction to keep us pushing through. That and an interesting conversation with a local guy, called Neil McGuiness who was out walking his trusty terrier Becky. Very much keen to spend a minute or two chatting, he inquisitively asked after our day and of our reasons for running along one of his favourite dog-walking routes. This time our explanations seemed to make sense, especially as we mentioned that one of the science focuses for this National Park was to incorporate the physics behind whisky distilling. It turned out that Neil had worked as a truck driver for Chivas Regal, travelling all over the country to deliver this much desired liquid. He was also quick to point out some of the practicalities involved that we had not even thought about. For example, the difficulty in transporting a semi-full tank compared to transporting a full one and its effect on stopping distances and cornering. A full tank allows the tank and whiskey to act as one since there is no room for the whisky to bounce and reflect off the sides of the tank; the centre of mass of each acting together from one point so returning to a stable position quickly. This means that if the tank quickly comes to a standstill, so does the whisky. However, with a semi-full tank, the whisky has room to slosh around, reflecting off the sides of the tank causing a large additional and delayed force on the sides of the tank. The momentum of the liquid slows down the motion of the tank as it rights itself to be stable again, resulting in much slower braking or turning to maintain stability.
With a friendly goodbye, we continued on, hampered more and more by our aches and pains and increasingly grateful for the easy access of the path. The National Park have put a lot of thought into the accessibility of their trails, most suitable for wheelchairs, pushchairs and exhausted, limping runners! Eventually, the loch came into sight, a beautiful place to walk and cycle around, or simply to sit and take in the views. The availability of another cup of tea from the small visitor centre was much welcomed, along with a wee sip or two from our hip flasks; part of our pact to celebrate our final effort. With only three miles to go, we felt that we could indulge in this small treat.
Completing those final miles was more a case of relief rather than pleasure since my ankle had started to balloon impressively and the pain in Claire’s leg was severely limiting her ability to bend her knee. Between our injuries, we finished this whole challenge resembling more like lame zombies than sprite runners, but at least we finished!! What an adventure it has been and a delight to finish it off in this stunning National Park. We have had so many fun (and tough) experiences that we will definitely look back very fondly on this in years to come.
Our final ‘mission’ was to shower and drag ourselves down to the Cairngorm Hotel for a celebratory glass or two of prosecco, with a tasty Mexican dinner to follow!
One last mention must go to Brian McCormack, a retired teacher who we met in said pub and who regaled us with funny tales of his time teaching and his past adventures in the amazing Cairngorms. Hopefully, he will successfully navigate his way through the complexities of the internet, without the aid of his beloved Maureen, to read this blog. We sincerely hope so.