Meet the athlete - Ross Brannigan
I love Scotland, mostly for the excellent people but also for the awe-inspiring views, rugged terrain and long summer days. It was a pleasure to ask Ross about his running and adventures in Scotland. It certainly has inspired me to get back into the hills and book a trip north of the border.
Ross's new book - Running Adventures Scotland - is available to order now from Vertebrate Publishing (www.v-publishing.co.uk). If you want to support independent book shops you can purchase your book from your local store or from bookshop.org.
I am a Scottish runner, cyclist, writer, and environmentalist, currently living in the Lake District. I grew up in Scotland and lived there until mid-2020, when I moved down to the Lake District with my partner (now fiancée). We now live in Kendal with our cocker spaniel Togo. I work in the conservation sector as an events and engagement coordinator, which involves me going to mountain festivals and hosting unique events online or in-person, telling people about how amazing our wild places are and how to protect them.
With my other hat on, I write relatively regularly for my blog (rossrunswild.com) and pitch articles to magazines and other outlets. Recently, of course, I finished writing my first book Running Adventures Scotland which will be officially released on 5 May! It contains 25 routes across Scotland, taking in more wild and mountainous terrain than other guidebooks focused on trail running have before, with a real focus on landscape and wild places.
I am currently not coached, though it is something I have explored. Due to an ongoing set of foot injuries, running has been relatively sporadic since the start of 2021. If I can get a bit of momentum going and have a clear goal in mind, I’d like to return to some structure and consistency - especially the latter! I am a member of Helm Hill and, once injury allows, I will definitely be back along to our regular training nights. Growing up, I was very fortunate in that my parents were very into walking. I believe they took me up the Whangie when I was a toddler and, when we moved to Clackmannanshire, was quickly taken up the Ochil Hills. By 10 I had done my first two Munros - Càrn Aosda and the Cairnwell - and that became the focus of most of our holidays. As time went on, I took up running in school and raced (rather mediocrely) in school XC races.
At some point my uncle took up hill running, and I became more aware of it. I got more into running on the trails, but I ended up becoming quite obsessed with it around 17 years old, which spiralled into an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise. After a few years recovery, turning to powerlifting (of all things) and cycling during university, I eventually returned to running in 2018 and really got into combining my lifelong passion for hill walking with running. My favourite distance to run? This is an interesting question. I am at a stage in my running life when I have a few interests and it’s hard deciding what I enjoy most. However, the main thing I find myself daydreaming about isn't getting a faster time or placing higher in a certain race; it's often devising new multi-day fastpacking trips in the hills or random linkups. I have raced a few Scottish Long Classics, but I do have a tendency to perform better in shorter, punchy races. If I had to choose a favourite race distance, it would probably be between 15-20km; a mix of speed and endurance. However, the longer races are just great adventures!
My usual week of running would be 50-60km, usually with one day of intervals and a 3-5hr run at the weekend. I try to maintain a couple strength sessions a week, with a mix of bodyweight and barbell work. My take on intervals is that it is better to do something than nothing, so I will usually go off how I feel that day and what I am motivated to do.
Right now, I would still have to say my favourite place to run is in Scotland. The variety in the landscape and the connection I have with it makes running there incredibly special. In particular, the Cairngorms and West Highlands offer so much for a runner looking for adventures and are such contrasting landscapes. The first ultra-distance challenge I did was the Abraham’s Tea Round, which I completed in 2020 in 8 hours 23 minutes. I had it on my radar for a while. Eventually, I had a few weeks of steady training at a high volume; I checked the weather one day and decided to go for it that weekend. I was so incredibly nervous but got through it feeling good (bar a lull in the middle) and then had a superb run back to Keswick. It really got me interested in more challenges like that for the future! Running is a passion of mine, and I have had so many amazing running adventures that it is hard to choose a favourite! Each has its own merits. Most recently, a friend and I hiked to Ben Alder Cottage after work. After sleeping there, we left our bags at the bothy and switched to running gear and headed off on an incredible full-day adventure in the hills surrounding Ben Alder. The weather was a constant challenge (it being January), and while we did have to bail on the final peak, we got back and had a great time sat by the fire with a beer. Another example is my fiancée and I went to Mallorca last autumn and ran the GR221, which was fantastic. I love those multi-day adventures with everything on your back and just getting to explore somewhere. A race close to my heart is the Dumyat Hill Race in Stirling. I went to university there, so it was a race I took part in before I really got into hill running. I still want to break the 40-minute barrier! One race that was more of an ‘experience’ than a race was the Ring of Steall Skyrace. It was such an epic day out with some serious challenges, all of which I am happy to have overcome and managed to get around. The Half Ben Nevis race is part of the Lochaber AC Triple Hirple series in the summer. In 2019, I managed to come 10th in the race, having had a really strong uphill time and then feeling excellent on the descent. I remember a kid at the bottom yelling ‘You’re in the top 10!’, which really spurred me on. Sadly, I lost 9th place after a hard battle with another runner on the final road section, but it is a race I felt I really gave my all in and could flop down happy at the finish! I once took part in the Lairig Ghru marathon. It was an absolutely sizzling hot year that year, and I prepared rather poorly. I hadn’t done enough running on trails, and I foolishly borrowed my mate’s running vest that I hadn’t tried before AND I wore TwinSkin socks on a 30-degree day. Not ideal. I got blisters on my feet within 10K, horrendous chafing on my chest from the pack, ran out of steam by the Pools of Dee and just couldn’t deal with the heat. I am amazed I got through it. I didn’t finish too badly in 4 hours 20 minutes, but it was not pleasant!!
Something I need to listen to more often is that life is like surfing. This sounds very groovy, but it’s about acknowledging that sometimes you are riding the wave and other times you are falling off. Both are inevitable. No good thing lasts forever, nor does a bad thing. You have to recognise when times are good or bad and be aware that they will change again. It is sometimes hard to accept that, especially if you are injured or have a bad performance but shift your attention elsewhere and know it will pass.
In a similar vein, I like the phrase “You don’t need to be the person you were 5 minutes ago”. You can choose what defines you, so be ready to adapt when challenges come. What motivates me changes from time to time. Most of the time, all I need are some hills and that is enough to motivate me to get out. Sometimes it’s when I am looking for ‘flow’ - a state where a challenge absorbs your attention at the edge of your abilities - and that rhythm is something I love to seek out. One of my most trusted bits of kit is my Salomon S/Lab Advance 12L pack. It is now a good few years old, but has never failed me, and has always been comfortable. After that, it’s hard to fault my Inov-8 X-Talon 260 V2s, which are comfortable and grippy on so many bits of terrain.
Many of my worst injuries have been in my ankles. I have pathetically floppy ankles that I have rolled countless times. An especially bad one was when I was on a remote mountain in Glen Etive and I had to walk three hours back to the car and drive two hours to the A&E department. It turned out I had also fractured my tibia at some point without realising! In January 2021, I tore my posterior tibial tendon in my right foot that took 4 months to heal, so I switched my attention to cycling for a while. I have had to rest it again this past month after it started to flare up again, so hopefully that will settle soon!
I have a history of competitive powerlifting, so strength work is something I have tried to maintain as a runner. I am getting more into it again, trying to combine my strength work with more specific balance, single-leg movements to help improve my stability and those floppy ankles!
For 2022, I want to return to consistent training after some time yo-yo’ing between foot injuries. Some specific goals I have are just to enjoy some more multi-day adventures; I have a plan to do a Lakes Traverse later in April, a trip in the Jura Mountains in May/June and potentially a DIY coast-to-coast trip later in the year (I will say no more lest I jinx it!) Hopefully, with some good miles and consistency in the legs, I will be in good shape for a multi-week trip planned for 2023 on my honeymoon!
The book came about in a rather surprising way (for me, anyway). I have been a writer for many years as a journalist, freelancer or blogger. Vertebrate Publishing got in contact with me asking if I would like to write a book. Given my experience writing about Scotland and having explored the country since I was very young, the concept of Running Adventures Scotland really grabbed my attention. I threw myself at the opportunity and I am so glad I did.