Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The piper plays his tune so you must follow.....

A cool, slightly overcast November afternoon. Hints of sunshine on the Morvern peaks, it's orange light throwing shadows across the snowy wonderland. The ground underfoot is sodden from the recent wet weather, and yet a crispness to the grass belies the coming of colder weather.

I'd almost decided not to come out on the hill today. The legs are tired from a couple of days of tougher efforts, the warmth of the house is cajoling me into settling down with a book and some background music and the head is not quite there today. But when you get a "weather window" in Lochaber, you're best to take it. There'll be rain along soon enough and the urge to head out will plummet on a dreich early December day, when the only promise is of cloudy summits with no views and freezing, wet feet within minutes of being on the hill.

Anyway, Sam needs it. As soon as he sees me come into the room with a pair of Walshes, he's up out of his bed, tail wagging and he's smothering me in licks and hugs whilst I try to tie the laces. If ever I needed a pick-me-up, he is it. The simple life I aspire to is perfectly encapsulated in Sam. A good run on the hills, a walk or two on the beach to forage and explore, some good food to top it all off and then a nice, warm bed - what more do you need?

I close the gate, only half-wrapping the string (we'll be back here to do that properly in a wee while) and "release" Sam so that he can enjoy the freedom of the hill. I look at the track heading up steeply towards the woods which shield the lower slopes of the hill, I adjust the buff to allow me to breathe easily and off I head, a slow trot, feeling my way into a rhythm.

A cold, slightly icy December Sunday, 1994 in Telford Town Park. I've been running for a few years now, times getting better, PBs at plenty of races and, since starting interval sessions with the Telford Harriers/AC speedy group, the pace has noticeably increased.

Now it's time to see if I can reach the holy grail - a sub-40 minute 10k. A real barrier, a test of the "decent" club runner. I've been close in the past, but not close enough. This race is known as a flat PB course. There's a feeling of "now or never" about today. The nerves are there, the heart's racing a little as I warm-up. There are greetings with fellow runners, but my mind is trying to get "in the zone".

Soon enough, we're off. A mad dash for the first corners, a slippy section or two to negotiate, and then settling down into some kind of rhythm, a steady pace which I can keep up for the next 6 miles. The first mile flies by in 6 minutes and I'm aware that I'm not going to keep that up. I slow a bit and try to hold a steadier pace. Before long, we reach the turn-around point at halfway and I glance down to see 19 minutes on the watch. It's do-able, but I'm starting to tire.

We head back along the flat tarmac of the railway track, desperately trying to keep my mind focused on maintaining the pace, conscious of the fatigue building in my legs and mind. And trying to ignore the fact that this is a really boring courses. Back the way you came, along the flat, harsh, unforgiving tarmac track, hemmed in on either side by steep banks.

As I pass the 5 mile marker, I realise I can definitely do it. Head down and concentrate. A last, strong mile and then I'm into those last couple of hundred yards to the finish as my watch ticks over the 39 minute mark. Through the finish line and I've got 38 seconds in hand. Of course, I'm elated. I've entered the realms of "decent club runner". And yet, it's not something I could say I "enjoyed".......

We turn up the last slope to the deer fence, Sam concentrating fully on the sheep just off to the left of the path. Through gasping breath, I shout "Come Sam" to drag him away. Just a few more steps and.....done it, ran the whole way up to the deer fence despite the lethargy.

Through we go, turning immediately right and off path, to head up through boggy, marshy terrain, in a direct line for the summit. Some bits are run, at other times I back off and walk, content to be out in this magnificent place with stunning views in every direction. Out west, the Glenfinnan peaks sport new snow, above about 1500ft. To the north, the Loch Lochy munros tower above the Great Glen. To the east, the Ben looms over us, it's intimidating north face a mixture of bare rock and snow filling every crevice. The zig-zags are visible, but very much above the snow line, and the relief which the snow provides to the landscape makes you acutely aware that there is a significant drop just below the main path.

As we start the steep climb, we spot a herd of deer on slopes just to the west of us. Sam sees them and is on high alert, lips sucked in, nose twitching and eyes focused. A large stag stands sentinel for the group, and eyes us with a mixture of fear and surprise that humans should be found on these slopes. As we continue, they remain unmoved until we are close enough to see the film of breath escaping from their nostrils. Then, all of a sudden, the deer at the head of the herd makes a break for it, followed by his companions, a mad stampede across the hillside, which Sam views with a mixture of excitement and nervousness (well he is a Collie!).

We watch them head up onto the skyline, the silhouette of antlers against a grey sky, before they disappear over the ridge and we are left to continue our climb, lost in our own thoughts about the wonderful spectacle we've just witnessed.

September 2005. I've just returned from an incredible week in my beloved Highlands. First off, my first Ben race. Having done the Snowdon race and enjoyed it, I thought it would be a good idea to try the Ben. I'd started to do a fair bit of fellrunning, encouraged by the lads at Newport, and had done enough races to qualify.

I'd last been up Ben Nevis over 30 years previously, so I'm not sure what I expected. But what I got was a full-on assault on the senses, a rocky, brutal race that was far removed from anything I'd done up to that point. But I survived, I had an ok time and I'd then headed north to enjoy a wonderful week in Sutherland, walking up remote hills and experiencing all sorts of weather.

But I travelled back on the Saturday so that I could head out to Lake Vyrnwy on the Sunday for the annual half-marathon, a race known for its PB potential. I'd already achieved sub 1-30 and had been slowly taking the time down. Now was the chance to see just how low I could go.

The first few miles saw me trying to settle in, but feeling the tiredness in my legs from a tough week. When I passed Noel at around 5 miles, he asked me how I was. "Fucked" was the reply, and I couldn't imagine another 8 miles of this.

But, spurred on by 2 clubmates, Michelle and Paul, not far ahead, I dug in, turned my mind off to the monotony of the run and slowly, but surely, reeled them in. I passed Michelle around 8 miles and then, a mile later, caught up with Paul. We worked together for the next couple of miles, putting in a 6 minute mile on a slightly downhill section, before I left him and pushed on, focused 100% on the watch on my wrist, working out what I had to do to get a PB.

A slight rise in the last half mile found me wanting, as the legs refused to cooperate, meaning I couldn't catch Phil from the club. But as I turned the corner and spotted the finish line, I realised I was in for a sub 1.26 finish and upped the pace as much as I could to collapse in a heap on the other side of the finish line. 

Again, I was absolutely delighted with my time. I enjoyed the congratulations of friends as they finished and as I relaxed later, I reflected on a job well done. And yet, even in those moments, I couldn't help but notice the contrast between long days out on the hills, where the beauty was in being out there, and road races, where I consciously shut out the surroundings and my world revolved around a watch on my wrist.

We finally reach the summit ridge, only a few hundred yards and a small rise from the cairn. I decide to make an effort, legs kicking into gear, my brain reading the uneven terrain and my lungs sucking in the necessary oxygen. Up to the top, and the view south is revealed, down Loch Linnhe, past the Corran narrows (where the ferry is just pulling out), along past Beinn a Bheithir and out towards Oban and the western Isles.

Closer at hand, I peer down to the loch far below me and across to the relative metropolis of Fort William, lights flashing, vehicles buzzing around, a small boat sending ripples across the water as it heads towards Loch Eil. Only 1600ft up, but a million miles away from all that.

The sun is glowing away to the south-west, sliding lower in the sky as it heads below the far-off peaks. Dusk will be here soon, and I realise it's time to get off the hill. I didn't put a headtorch in today. A mistake perhaps, but the plan was to take in the last of the light and arrive back at the track before darkness enveloped us.

I made one more attempt at a road PB. Buoyed by my success at Vrynwy, I headed off with friends to the Amsterdam Half Marathon in 2006. Another flat race, somewhere different to visit, and a real go at sub-1.25.  

Only it didn't turn out like that. 

Runners packed into caged pens like sardines. Crowded streets where you had to zig zag across to try and pass selfish people who had set off way ahead of their predicted time. Dull, lifeless streets with nothing to take the mind off the dreariness of it all.

And, as time slipped away in that race, I resolved to leave behind the roads and clock-watching and immerse myself in the fellrunning scene. I'd just read a new book, Feet in the Clouds,  that had turned my mind and got me dreaming. Who knows where it would take me!

We descend steeply off the top, past the newly-discovered erratic on the southern slopes and then down past the fence-posts to the boggy bealach. The light is fading, but there's no rush. At times, I descend quickly. At others, I take it nice and steady, enjoying the feeling of being out here where no other humans tread.

Again, we disturb a herd of deer. This time they move away more quickly, rushing for the safety of the ridgeline to the west, where they stand on ceremony looking imperious against the fading glow in the western sky.

Sam watches with curiosity, an innocent, puppy-like sense of wonder. I watch with admiration and a feeling of immense privilege that I am allowed into their sanctuary for these brief moments, so that I return to "real life" feeling renewed.

Up here, away from modern life, a calmness and serenity flows over me.I feel at one with my surroundings.  More importantly, I feel at one with myself. Doubts drop away, expectations wither and self-criticism which gnaws away at me daily vanishes over the horizon. Life is taken at a pace which suits me, hard effort at times, easing off at others, but always moving forward.

Here is where I belong, here is where I've always belonged.


  1. Beautiful Rich, really beautiful, I could almost see it in my minds eye with your wonderful, WHERE ARE THE PICCIES??!!

  2. Amen to that. The sooner I move north to the hills the better.

  3. Em - your wish is my command! Photos added above.
    Flanker - you know it makes sense! Life is too short, do it now!