I have been running for almost 22 hours. Running is probably the wrong word. I have been moving – insistently moving over the summits of the 23 Munros that form the wild, high loop of Ramsay’s Round, Scotland’s classic 24-hour mountain running challenge.
I am running down the rubble of the tourist track on Ben Nevis, the final peak of an anticlockwise round. I am going to make it. Exhaustion, nausea, stifling May heat, the chilling darkness of a Highland night, some 8,500 metres of ascent, some 60 miles of largely pathless hillside – they contrived, but I am going to make it. I will be number 101 in a list of immortals.
I catch the eye of an ascending walker. He is encumbered by bag, boots and poles. He shakes his head as I run by. The words are uttered to my back, but they are unmistakable.
Perhaps we are – by we I mean the hill, the fell, the mountain runners. But, for us, there is no other way. Running and mountains are indivisible; there cannot be one without the other. To go to the hills by any means is prose. But to run among them? This is poetry.
‘Out of place?’
Hill running is hard, so hard it can seem preposterous, so hard that it seems absurd to do such a thing in an environment that surely demands its visitors to pause and really look.
Alfred Wainwright, one of the greatest hillwalkers of them all, would agree. ‘Fell runners will complete the whole round in less than two hours without seeing anything other than the track before them,’ he wrote of the Fairfield Horseshoe race in the Lake District. ‘I admire those who can perform such feats. I envy their fitness but not their achievements; racers and record breakers seem to me to be out of place on the high fells. Mountains are there to be enjoyed, and enjoyed leisurely.’
Wainwright seems to assume that we should all go to hills and mountains for the same purpose.
It is not that simple.
It is perhaps Leslie Shadbolt’s retort that best characterises why hill runners are called to high places. Reflecting on his continuous traverse of the 11 Munros of the Cuillin ridge on Skye in 1911, Shadbolt wrote: ‘The true appreciation (of mountains) is… only reached in conjunction with sustained physical effort to the limit of one’s powers.’
There lies the brilliance of hill running: the thrill of being among mountains is elevated by the application required to work harder. As I run up a hill, I am reminded of the thing I most take for granted: the beating of my heart.
"We feel them beneath our feet, on our hands as we reach out to rock and heather. We are a part of them, and they are a part of us. We could not be more present."
Nicky Spinks is more Shadbolt than Wainwright. The Yorkshire sheep farmer, who ran a double Bob Graham Round of 84 Lakeland summits in 45 hours, declared: ‘I’m probably going to push my body to a stage where it just goes enough is enough, and I sit down on the floor. I just want to know what I can do.’
Don’t we all? Where better than mountains to find out what exactly that is. Such aspiration is what has made running challenges as new as the Glen Coe Skyline or as traditional as Ramsay’s Round so appealing. The runner can go to places that no hillwalker could fathom, physically and emotionally. The outcome is like a drug: an astonishing juxtaposition of beautiful madness.
But what about the ‘view’? Surely hill runners’ eyes are necessarily locked to the ground, unable to appreciate the glories of all that surrounds – if the clouds permit, of course. As such, hill runners can be portrayed as shallow participants in the mountains, as if our presence is of less value, like we are watching a football match from behind the screen of an executive box, not standing with the rest in a draughty terrace. Maybe we are ‘show offs’? Superficial ones at that.
Reverend Herbert T. Coles saw hill-going as a religious experience. In hills – from the Nilgiri of southern India to the sublime Cuillin – he did not so much see the presence of God, he felt it. You do not need to be religious to understand such a notion. Coles’ The Cuillins of Skye is a sermon and a metaphor: nowhere did Coles feel closer to God than the ‘vast temple’ of the Cuillin. Coles lambasts those who do not ‘really see the hills’ – those, for instance, who step off a boat at Loch Coruisk and remark: ‘There I have seen them. Oh yes, lovely.’
Night-time in the Pentlands
I am running in the Pentlands, the group of hills that abut Edinburgh’s southern fringes. The slopes are draped in snow, illuminated by torch light. On this February night, we descend the rough bog and tussock of Hare Hill, while grey, swelling outlines seem shuffled about in the confusion of darkness. We do not see the hills – not ‘really’ anyway – but we are among them. We feel them beneath our feet, on our hands as we reach out to rock and heather. We are a part of them, and they are a part of us.
We could not be more present.
I reach the summit of Capelaw first, then turn to see three circles of yellow pierce the night-time. I imagine someone looking up from all the way down there, spotting our beams, wondering who we are. I tell you what we are. We are untouchable. As we descend Caerketton, above a sleeping Edinburgh, we feel like the first people in the world.
The Mountains are Calling: running in the high places of Scotland, by Jonny Muir, is published by Sandstone Press on May 17.