It’s May, and the Scottish hill race season is about to hit its stride. The next two Saturdays see two of the key early season races – Stuc a’Chroin tomorrow, Ben Lomond seven days later – with the evening “sprint” of Dumyat sandwiched between.
The Stuc race is something of a monster: 1,500 metres of ascent, 22km of distance and some very rough ground. It doesn’t just take in the popular Munro of the name, but also the Corbett Beinn Each, the knobbly connecting ridge and a non-trivial double crossing of the shoulder between Glen Ample and Strathyre. That the course record – set in 1997 by the accomplished Bingley Harrier Ian Holmes – stands at only seconds under two hours says a lot about the arduous nature of the event.
This year’s race – which starts at 1pm in Strathyre – also sees a curiosity, in that one of the country’s best hill runners will be competing for the first time, despite having lived just along the road for much of his life.
Prasad Prasad is a seriously strong hill athlete – the obvious joke is that he’s so good, they named him twice. Born in Hampstead and brought up in Hertfordshire, he moved to Callander aged 12. “I’d like to do Stuc,” he says, “as it’s local and everyone thinks I’ve won it when I haven’t even entered it yet.”
The reason everyone thinks he’s won it is because his hill racing CV comprises a long string of first places and podium finishes, including a remarkable effort on Ben Lomond in 2010 – the only time he has run that race. Since the path alterations, the all-time Ben Lomond record (62 minutes 16 seconds by John Wild in 1983) hasn’t been threatened, but Prasad’s 65 minutes 51 seconds for the out-and-back from Rowardennan was not just the best by over two minutes on the day but also the fastest time in recent years.
“Ben Lomond was a bit of a surprise,” he says. “I’m very fortunate not to seem to need a lot of training to be pretty fit. I’d been suffering with shin splints and working on my feet all the time means that they take ages to clear up. I’d run only five times in the seven weeks before Ben Lomond, with the shin splints flaring up each time – my feet had even gone back to being soft-skinned and so I got some lovely blisters on the descent which never normally happens. I just went out hard from the start and hoped for the best – and it turned out OK.”
The 36-year-old works in a restaurant in the Trossachs and trains on both Ben A’an and Ben Ledi. Running over the latter en route to work is a world away from the frustrations of the standard morning commute. The guidebook walking time for Ben Ledi by the main path is two hours 20 minutes. Not if you’re a leading hill runner, however. “Ben Ledi is usually about 30 minutes up,” Prasad says, “timed from the wooden barrier at the bottom up to the trig point, although I’ve been just under 28 minutes. Equally it can take 34 minutes on a slow day!
“It’s close to home and good running, so I tend to run up there a lot. That said, no two days are the same up there, so I really don’t mind going up and down the same hill a lot. Also, we do a sport where there’s a lot of travelling for pretty short runs, so to drive a one-hour round trip to run Ben Vorlich in under an hour seems bit of a waste just to train.”
Prasad came to the sport late, initially via cycling. “As a kid I had really bad asthma,” he recalls. “As it got better during high school I liked a bit of hillwalking, but didn’t really think of it as exercise. I started cycling when at university aged about 19 and raced from about 20 – I seemed to be OK at climbing pretty early on but wasn’t a very successful cyclist for about four years – then got steadily stronger and better. I probably realised that I was actually OK at it in 2000.”
For such an accomplished athlete, he doesn’t train much. “I don’t tend to run many miles,” he says, “injury is never far away. I typically run two to four hours a week, although I do more now and then. I still do a bit of hillwalking and I’ve been out on the bike for a few two-hour rides to get a bit more endurance for Stuc, plus a few slightly longer runs at a steady pace. Training is largely dictated by the weather and who wants to come out – generally I’ll run hard on my own and then just run with whoever is about midweek.”
For all that he is unlikely to be far off the pace on Stuc a’Chroin, Prasad doesn’t necessarily see himself as a winner. Modesty plays its part, but the longer distances aren’t his favoured hunting grounds. “I’m better at short races,” he says. “I’m terrible at navigation and I run pretty much flat out in races, so don’t tend to pace longer stuff very well – but I like the feeling of running hard.
“I was a much more dedicated cyclist than runner. I had training plans, a coach, watched my diet and fluid intake, did intervals and all the rest – but tactically I wasn’t that good. I like working hard and suffering, so would work twice as hard as most folk in a bike race while they would sit in the shelter behind and pop out in the last few miles as I was tiring and beat me.
“Luckily running doesn’t work like that. If you’re strongest then at least in a short race you normally win and that definitely suits my racing style. So I’d say I took bike racing a lot more seriously but I have better running results – and I’m glad, as I don’t think I want to go back to 20-hour training weeks.”
As might be expected, Prasad has on occasion combined cycling and running to good effect. “I have done some off-road duathlons,” he says, “especially the Glentress winter ones, and I quite like them. I can run faster than most bikers and bike faster than most runners, so I do OK.” The third prong doesn’t appeal, however: “No triathlons, as my swimming is on par with my navigation skills!”
For footwear, he “gets on well” with the Salomon SpeedCross 2, while in club terms he’s a member of Squadra Porcini, “a Callander-based club originally cycling but now multisport. I used to bike-race for them – a nice friendly lot with no aspirations for anything but enjoying getting out, and a coffee at Dun Whinny’s after!”
Don’t expect to see him on all the high-profile race days. “I’m not bothered about chasing round to do lots of races this year,” he says. “Durisdeer looks like a nice route and as it’s a championships year should be a decent field, so I should give it a bash.” The Dollar hill race at the end of June is one of his favourites (he came second in both 2009 and 2010), while he represented Team GB at the 2010 world mountain running championships in Slovenia – placed 61st out of 149 finishers – and says he “might try for that again”.
He has never been up Ben Nevis, let alone run the race, neither has he run any of the Lakeland classics. “I wouldn’t mind trying Grasmere,” he says, “but it might be worth recceing a bit. Working most weekends, it’s pretty hard to get the time off to go down for the English races – a lot of the time I race and then go in to work after.”
All in all it sounds a well-balanced existence – keen and committed without letting the training become too life-consuming, and performing at a high level while retaining a strong sense that it’s meant to be fun. “No one in my family is particularly sporty and most of them think it unlikely that I am,” Prasad says. “Fortunately I have a sporty wife and so free time is usually a nice walk in the hills or a bike ride – usually to a cafe!”
When winter conditions interrupt the training routines, he simply switches to a different discipline: “I like getting up the hills if it’s snowy and so tend not to run as much when it’s proper winter stuff – running round a forest track seems like a waste. Hills are where I’m happiest.” The shin splints wouldn’t allow much road running anyway – “plus I find it really boring” – but as might be expected he’s no slouch on the roads when he does give it a go. Asked about his victory in last year’s Crieff 10K, Prasad jokes that 10K racing is his speciality: “I’ve done three and am undefeated so far – although that might be due to the fact that no one fast has been at any of those!”
Quite what tomorrow’s race above Strathyre will bring remains to be seen. The Glen Rosa Horseshoe is the longest race Prasad has run thus far – much the same ascent as the Stuc race, and a couple of kilometres shorter. He entered in 2010 and finished third. Tomorrow he is aiming for “somewhere around two hours 15 minutes”, but says he’ll be “happy to finish uninjured, so the time won’t matter”.
As for tactics, it will be like any other race: “I’ll start fast and hope that nobody else gets in front of me before the finishing line”.
● Results from Stuc a’Chroin here. Prasad won in two hours 10 minutes 34 seconds – which was 13 minutes 41 seconds clear of runner-up Craig Mattocks. Remarkable.
Race report from Duncan Ball of Penicuik Harriers.