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Athletics: Strong field assembles for Bennachie Hill Race

Kyle Greig. Picture by Jim Irvine.
Kyle Greig. Picture by Jim Irvine.

A firm favourite in the hill racing calendar will be contested by more than 150 runners on Sunday as the Bennachie Hill Race returns once again for both youngsters and seniors alike.

First run in the early 1990s, the Bennachie Hill Race now forms one of three races in the Aberdeenshire Hill Race Series, sandwiched between Cairn William Hill Race, which took place last Saturday, and the Morven Hill Race, which is due to take place next Saturday.

Fresh from his victory in the first race of the series will be Kyle Greig, who is one of about 160 adults entered for Sunday’s event.

The Aberdeen Metro runner has racked up four victories at Bennachie over the years, and may even look to challenge the long-standing course record of 53:51, set by Chris Smith in 2009. Last year’s winner, Highland Hill Runners’ Robin Howie, will be looking to defend his title.

Last year’s Bennachie Hill Race.

In the absence of last year’s winner, Meryl Cooper, the women’s category looks likely to be fought out between Rachel Little, Veronique Oldham, and Ruth Mackenzie – though the nature of hill running suggests there is, as always, plenty of room for upsets.

With the course record for the women’s category having been set as far back as 2002, Clare Whitehead’s long-standing time of 1:01:25 could well survive into its 31st year.

The route, which is eight miles long and sees runners climb about 1,600ft, had been disrupted by the damage caused by Storm Arwen in November last year.

But Christine Appel, who has been involved in organising Bennachie Hill Race since 2007, has said volunteers have put in extensive efforts to ensure the course is still safe and competitive for entrants.

She said: “We had a bit of a scare this year with Storm Arwen, and there was a lot of storm damage.

“Our club members were out there with strimmers and clippers and chainsaws trying to make sure everything was clear . We’ve really done our beast to restore the classic route and it will be fine for race day.”

Appel added the continued popularity of the race owes much to how well-run it has been in previous years, with word getting round the hill running community that it is a competition well worth showing up for.

“People have experience (of the race) and they bring their friends the following year – that’s what we see a lot,” Appel said.

“As running has grown in the local area with the growth of clubs like Insch coming on board, Jog Scotland, Meldrum, and Kintore, there’s word of mouth (contributing to the race’s popularity). One or two people in the club may do it and then they take some of their club mates next year.

“It isn’t just the same 20 hardcore people that run every year. It’s seeing people new to hill running, people who have newly joined a club. It’s the people that keep it fresh for us. Having a lot of first timers coming through really makes it exciting. But it is still nice when you see someone like Kyle Greig, who has won about four times, enter the race – he knows exactly what he’s doing so (it is interesting to see if) he can improve his time.”

Winners enjoy more than the glow of having come out of top in the face of a sea of competitors, however. Black Diamond and Craigdon Mountain Sports have donated rechargeable headtorches, each worth £75, for the first, second, and third male and female overall. It is hoped that participants will be happy to make a small donation to the race’s nominated charity, Aberdeen Mountain Rescue Team, on the day.

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Although only one edition of the Bennachie Hill Race was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Appel explained the timetabling of hill running events across the season is only now returning to its original format. Despite this, the appeal of the event – which lies in the fact it is both welcoming to novices and a favourite amongst returning competitors – remains strong.

“It’s a club-based event, so we are out in force on the day supporting people,” she said.

“We are more than happy to welcome people who haven’t done a hill race before – it isn’t just for specialists. We’re very keen to have people try for the first time, and if it takes you three times as long as the winner, it’s OK – it doesn’t matter. We’re there for everyone. We’re here to share something that we love with other people.

“We’re pleased to see so many kids this year – it’s pretty much double what we had last year, so that’s a great sign too. People bringing their friends, bringing their partners – that is what we love to see.”