Over 5000 runners of all ages will be heading to Royal Deeside this weekend for Run Balmoral.
The two-day festival of running now boasts a programme of eight races, including a duathlon and the ‘Devil of Deeside’ Challenge: completing the 5k, the 10k, the 15 mile trail race and the duathlon.
The ConocoPhillips 5K is likely to be one of the highlights of the weekend, with Scotland international Kenny Wilson under no illusions about just how hard it will be for him to retain his title – and his course record – in Saturday’s race.
The Moray athlete has dominated the event for the past three years, winning in fine style on each occasion. Last year he set a record time of 14.42, cutting four seconds off the previous best set by future Olympian Andrew Butchart (Central AC) in 2013.
The field is arguably the best assembled for many years with Wilson facing a strong challenge from fellow Scotland internationals Ali Hay (Central AC), Cameron Strachan (Metro Aberdeen) and Hamish Hickey (Ross County AC).
Wilson said: "It's going to be tough. I could break my own course record and not win the race. I'm sure one of us will get the record if conditions are decent.This is always one of the highlights of my year and I'm looking forward to the challenge again. There's not much between us so it should be an exciting battle."
The women's race also promises to be a classy affair with Scotland internationals Morag Millar (Central AC) and Jenny Bannerman (Inverness Harriers) expected to battle for top spot.
Bannerman has won twice over the past three years, her only defeat coming in 2017 when Millar finished four seconds ahead of the Highland athlete. Both have shown fine form when setting personal best 10km times in recent weeks. Millar clocked an impressive 33.44 when winning the East of Scotland title at Grangemouth while Bannerman recorded 34.52 to win the Moray race at Miltonduff.
Whether either athlete can get close to the record 15.55 set by Banchory Stonehaven AC's Rhona Auckland in 2014 remains to be seen.
As far as Saturday’s Stena Drilling 10K is concerned, GB mountain running international Andy Douglas, from Caithness, is clear favourite to come on top of a field that has attracted more than 2000 runners.The Edinburgh-based athlete is bidding for a third win, having taken the title in 2012 and again last year when he completed a Balmoral double: winning the 15 mile trail race too.
Douglas's 10K rivals include Fraserburgh teenager Max Abernethy, who has been making good progress on the north east road racing scene over the past year. James Kirk (Garioch Road Runners), Rankin Lascelles (Metro Aberdeen) and Jack Trevelyan (Highland Hill Runners) are among the others chasing podium positions.
Claire Bruce (Metro Aberdeen) is to defend her title in the women's race in which her opponents include clubmate Ali Matthews. Scotland international Nicola Gauld, the 2013 and 2017 winner, is unlikely to compete because of illness.
On the Sunday, GB internationals from two different endurance sports will go head-to-head in the Bristow 15 mile trail race. Orienteering specialist Alexander Chepelin (Edinburgh University) and ultra-distance trail running athlete Kyle Greig (Metro Aberdeen) are expected to battle for pole position in a contest which takes competitors over a scenic but challenging route around the royal estate.
Chepelin will be competing at Balmoral for the first time. Although orienteering is his main sport, he has shown outstanding form on the hill racing scene in recent weeks. Greig, who was runner-up behind Andy Douglas at Balmoral last year, hopes to have recovered from finishing third in last month's British 100km road race championships at Perth. Greig said: "I was planning to do the Scottish marathon championships at Stirling this weekend but I didn't feel I'd be ready for 26 miles. Actually, I'm not sure if I'm ready for 15 miles, but we'll see."
Veteran Veronique Oldham (Cosmic Hillbashers) is one of the favourites to regain the women's title but faces a challenge from 2017 Devil of Deeside champion Kerry Prise (Aberdeen), Marie Baxter (JS Kintore), Charlotte Black (Shetland) and Eilish McKechanie (Hunters Bog Trotters).