Wrong turnings and winning margins: Prasad Prasad on Stuc a’Chroin

Prasad Prasad heading for a fast time in the 2010 Ben Lomond race Picture: Chris Upson
Prasad Prasad heading for a fast time in the 2010 Ben Lomond race Picture: Chris Upson

Asked about his prospects for last Saturday’s Stuc a’Chroin hill race, Callander-based runner Prasad Prasad said he was aiming for a time of “somewhere around two hours 15 minutes” and would simply “start fast and hope that nobody else gets in front of me before the finishing line”.

Well, it worked well. Prasad started fast, ran the middle part fast and finished fast, completing the course in two hours 10 minutes 34 seconds – not just winning but beating the second-placed runner, Craig Mattocks of Edinburgh club Hunters Bog Trotters, by 13 minutes 41 seconds. It was a remarkable run, and a remarkable winning margin.

The nearest Prasad came to having a problem was in the trees soon after the start. “Almost took a wrong turn as we met the fire road as I was heading off for the single track path after the bridge,” he said. “Luckily there were a couple of guys not too far back at that point who shouted me back on course. The rest of the course was impossible to get lost.”

A telling incident, highlighting the sportsmanship and looking-after-each-other aspects that mark out hill running from various mainstream sports. It can hardly have been in the competitive interests of the runners who shouted after Prasad to put him right, but they did, and would doubtless do so again. It’s hard to imagine such a thing happening in top-flight football, for instance, or even in the fame-fest that is the modern Olympics.

After that glitch, Prasad went on to lead what became a very stretched-out procession. On the rest of the well-marshalled course it was “impossible to get lost”, he said, and pre-race worries about injury never materialised: “Ran nice and steady as I was a bit worried about blowing up before the last big climb out of Glen Ample, but in the end I had loads left and was well clear – and more importantly I didn’t break!”

Matthew Shelley – who occasionally writes on heritage-related matters for these pages – was one of the other 167 finishers. He came 60th, over 52 minutes behind Prasad, whom he met “hurtling down as I was still panting to the summit”. To see such a strong athlete in full elegant flow is something he won’t forget in a hurry. “The best athletes make running look beautiful, and he does that,” Shelley said.

“What’s particularly impressive is that the incredibly tough ascent saps most runners, limiting their ability to really speed up on the way back. However, Prasad was a couple of minutes in front of several other competitors when I saw him, but he stretched that out more and more on the return leg – that’s classy stuff.”

Sportsmanship was again in evidence as Prasad ran the return section of the race. He was “five minutes at least in front of the chasers at the Bealach an Cabar,” said Gordon Binnie (who finished 121st in 3:32:29) on Facebook. “He wasn’t even out of breath and shouting encouragement at us lesser mortals. Amazing.”

Also on Facebook, Stewart Whitlie – who won this race each year from 2004 to 2007 and who finished third on Saturday – described it as a “top run” by Prasad. “I’m sure he would have done a faster time had he been racing against somebody!”

That prompts an interesting question, as for all Prasad’s massive winning margin, he was still 11 minutes outside the course record set by Ian Holmes in 1997. Might he have come close to this given a rival or two to race against in the latter stages last Saturday, rather than being a couple of miles clear?

“Ian’s record of one hour 59 would take some beating,” Prasad said. “With a few fast guys running too, the pace would have been higher and not just a fast but controlled pace.” He was typically modest, however, in assessing his chances had this happened: “Who’s to say running harder wouldn’t have cracked me and I might have lost any time gain on the last climb and subsequent track to the finish?”

Hill-race routes don’t always stay the same from year to year, due to path alterations, forest track realignments etc, and seemingly the Stuc race is roughly three minutes longer – in fast-runner terms – than when Holmes set his record time. “So that would only be about eight minutes to make up,” said Prasad. “I’m pretty sure that a record by Ian Holmes set at a race with a high-quality field is a record that would be pretty hard to beat. Given the right conditions and a good field it would be interesting to see how close someone could get.”

The hugely accomplished Holmes also features in another question relating to last Saturday’s race: when did a Scottish event last see a winning margin as wide as 13 minutes? Chris Upson, of the Scottish Hill Racing website, recalled Rob Jebb winning on Jura in 2008 by seven minutes (ahead of his Bingley Harriers team-mate Holmes), while “the other race that has had sizeable winning margins the past three years is Ben Rinnes”, with victories by five, eight and eight minutes respectively.

Overall, since the middle part of the last decade (when Scottish Hill Racing began keeping detailed records of race results), “Prasad’s winning margin sits at no.4,” said Upson. “The only greater margins were recorded at Jura (2006 – Ian Holmes) and Lairig Ghru (2006 – Don Naylor and 2007 Paul Raistrick – both new course records). However both of these are much longer races, and Lairig Ghru is not really a proper hill race, since it doesn’t actually go to the top of any hills. It’s more of a trail race with a fair bit of road thrown in.

“In terms of proper hill races, the only greater winning margin was Ian Holmes’ victory at Jura in 2006, where he won by 20 minutes.”

There might well have been one or two wide winning margins with regard to women’s results during the same period. These are more awkward to determine, as the results are embedded within those of the wider field, but Angela Mudge of Carnethy – and a training partner of Prasad – has finished well clear of the second woman quite a few times. “At Birnam this year,” Upson noted, “Sarah O’Neil became the first woman to beat Angela Mudge in a Scottish hill race since my records began in 2005.”

As for Prasad himself, normal life carried on after his win on the hills above Strathyre. “Legs next day were no worse than after an hour run to work really,” he said. “Managed a run up and down Ben A’an before work on Sunday.” And the next chance to add to his ever more impressive race CV? “The inter-counties fell race on 19 May and probably Durisdeer after that.”