I wasn’t planning to do many more races. I’ve mentioned this several times recently. The excitement had gone. With the passing of time and the achievement of feats which I hardly imagined myself capable of, my thoughts and deeds were turning back to what took me out into the hills in the first place – a love of being out there and appreciating the surroundings.
And yet, here I am, on a freezing cold Sunday morning in December, lined up with nearly 60 other runners at the start of the latest Lochaber AC Winter League race at Sutherlands Grove, Barcaldine.
I’d ducked the long Lairig Mor race last weekend because I admitted to myself that I was doing it to go through the motions rather than for any particular desire or want to run it. And it had been a good decision. A flattish, wide landrover track running 13 miles is not my idea of fun.
I thought of ducking this one as well. It’s cold, I’m tired from a long week of running and perhaps, just perhaps, part of my dislike of racing these days is the pressure that I put on myself to perform (which intensifies as I glance around and spot a couple of my “rivals”).
But here I am, too late now.......
Easter in the mid-1970s. A long drive north, bound for Skye and another of those incredible adventures which have shaped who I am and for which I’m so grateful, at the time approached with boyish excitement at spending a week away in the mountains with my Dad.
Travelling past landmarks that would become so familiar to me over the years.... Gretna and the Scottish border, up and up from Moffat before the long descent down towards Glasgow, Loch Lomond-side and a feeling that you’re almost there, Crianlarich and Tyndrum, where memorable mountains enclose you (mountains with evocative names that I’d commit to long-term memory and spend boyhood hours poring over photos in Mr Poucher’s books – climbers in Ben Lui’s central gully, the great dome of Ben More, the sharp profile of Beinn Dorain), before reaching the bleakness of the Rannoch Moor and the final descent down THE glen as we headed north.
It’s indicative of the times that Skye wasn’t to be reached in a day, rather we would find lodgings in Onich, before heading further north the next day. Unfortunately, our “usual” place was full but they suggested a forester’s b&b around the corner and that’s where we ended up on a cool night, sharing dinner at their table (lamb, veg and potatoes no less!) before retiring to our twin-bedded room, wrapped up in sheets and woollen throws, Chopin playing on an old cassette recorder as I drifted off to a contented sleep.
Safe wrapped in the warm cloak of paternal love with the promise of great adventures together.
As usual, it’s a madly quick start, accentuated by the fact that the first climb is single file, by the side of a tremendous steep-sided gorge. Luckily there’s a fence to our right, where the crags plunge into icy depths.
I resolve not to go too fast (plenty of time to catch folks later) but this does mean I’m stuck behind runners who can’t climb and resort to walking before the track levels off. I’m already worried that I’m not amongst my contemporaries and this might be one of those days when I have a bit of a stinker. The legs are aching, the lungs are wheezing, and I can only hope I settle down....
Late May 2000. A life which felt like it was leading nowhere, a life full of frustrations at not knowing exactly what I wanted or how to get it, only I knew it wasn’t this.
The mountains were calling me, I sensed a real need to get out there and find some direction. I ended up booking a trip to the Atlas Mountains with the promise of summiting Mount Toubkbal at the end of the second week. Sitting here now, I can’t honestly say what prompted me to go there, but it was a good, life-changing decision.
The first nights in Marrakesh were an assault on the system for a 30-something who’d been living a cosy, suburban life, concentrating on career and family. But there was soon a realisation, that I was surrounded by others who were living the sort of life I desired.
After a couple of days, we headed off to the mountains and, on that first night, lying in my sleeping bag on a cold, stone roof, gazing up at a million stars, with towering peaks above the village disappearing into the silent void, I looked either side of me to see people of a like mind. And I knew my life would head in a different direction from that moment on. And I drifted off to sleep feeling safe.
Safe in the knowledge that there was a way forward towards the life I dreamed of.
As the race unfolds, the climb continues through rougher forest terrain, and I relish it. As usual, I’m stronger on the climbs than those around me and I start to pick up places and, not far ahead of me, I can see those who usually finish around the same time.
I run the whole climb, making up more ground on those who are reduced to a walk and, as we start to emerge from the trees with one final push to the level forestry track, I come up behind my “nemesis” and I’m boosted by the knowledge that I am having a decent run after all.
The outdoors started to dominate my life from that holiday in Morocco onwards. My trips out were more frequent, my love for it grew, and the possibilities opened up as I met more people whose lives I aspired to.
A few years later, armed with my new tent and large rucksack, I took off on my first backpacking trip (inspired by a route in Trail magazine!) to the wild Rhinogydd. I took the train from Barmouth to Talsarnau, where I was deposited at the station and stood, alone, excited and yet with some trepidation at what would follow.
That first day I learned a few important lessons about backpacking, not least of which was that you should pack as light as possible because, by the end of an 8 hour day, your shoulders are going to be very sore!
I had a camp site in mind, from the map, which involved descending from Rhinog Fawr into Bwlch Drws Ardudwy. However, as I summitted Rhinog Fawr, the cloud rolled in. Suddenly, the steep descent on a very feint path took on a new seriousness.
And here was lesson number two – tricky manoeuvres are much more difficult when you’ve got a large, weighty pack on your back. I realised later that I’d actually descended down the wrong gully! As it was, it was ok at first but, having descended several hundred feet, the gully dramatically narrowed and dropped over a 15 foot crag to reach the scree, which would see me down into the Bwlch. The prospect of dragging my tired body back up was not one I wished to contemplate so I determined to scramble carefully down.
Only I couldn’t. The pack got stuck in the narrow defile and I was wedged above the drop. Slowly but surely, I pulled myself back up and decided there was only one thing for it – remove the pack and chuck it over the crag and down onto the scree. It landed with a crash of pots and cups but stayed where it was rather than disappearing down the slope. I carefully scrambled down, retrieved it and set off, with heart still racing, for my camp spot.
As steady rain fell, I got the tent up within minutes, unfolded the sleep mat and sleeping bag and lit the stove to cook much-needed food.
Safe in the security of my shelter, safe from the clutches of the hill, safe and warm, basking in the glow of satisfaction from a thrilling day.
We hit the undulating forestry road and, as has become customary now, I play cat and mouse with a couple of other Lochaber runners, overtaking them on every uphill, losing ground again on the flat and downhill.
I can sense that my “nemesis” in particular is tiring and perhaps this is the day I’ll beat him. It certainly feels that way as I go past him again on a short climb. But sure enough, he’s back at me as soon as it flattens out, accompanied by another runner.
We seem to have been going for miles....and yet it’s only a 4.8 mile race! This isn’t terrain I know and the mind plays tricks. I know it’s a loop, and I’m sure that I can see where we headed out, not too far away through the trees. But, not being certain, I daren’t kick for home just yet, there’s not that much left in the tank.
July 2010. My Bob Graham. A whole host of fellrunning legends turning out for me. Spending 23 hours on the hill with these fantastic people, who do it not for the glory (for there is none!) or the thanks (of which there are plenty) but because they want YOU to feel as good as they did on their big day.
Mark came all the way from Cheshire to impart his not inconsiderable wisdom, advice and humour. Yiannis navigated me around 2 miserable, wet legs with little visibility and then boosted my energy levels back up at Honister by telling me how superbly I’d done. Darren, a real hero of the fells, posed for a photo with me at the end, all smiles, absolutely chuffed with my success. Morgan congratulated me at Newlands, having accompanied me all the way from Dunmail. Ian Roberts came all the way up Robinson just to see me down the rock steps,
For those who don’t aspire to do a BG, I can only say that it is such an affirmation of everything that is wonderful about the fellrunning and mountain “community”. Through all the pain and suffering, which you undoubtedly have to endure, I can honestly say it felt nothing compared to the uplifting energy of being out on the hills for a day with these tremendous people. The pride I felt at the finish was not so much at my achievement, but at the fact that these people had all come out for me, had all wanted to be there to see me round.
Lifelong friendships are forged, reputations are enhanced, dreams are realised. It was, without doubt, one of the greatest days of my life.
Safe within the supportive bond of unconditional help, assistance and encouragement from people whose achievements and adventures over the years I can only gaze at in admiration and awe. Thank you, each and every one of you.
All too soon, we’re back in the lower woods, descending down the track and I recognise where we are (from my little pre-race warm-up). I’ve left my kick too late and, with no more significant uphills, I can only dig in, try to maintain position and see what else I can do.
As it happens, I round the next corner to find the person in front of me reduced to a walk on a slight uphill. “Are you ok?” I ask as I approach. “Nothing left”, he gasps, “but I’m ok”. That’s all the encouragement I need to surge past, up the pace, and not look back!
A flat section gives me a chance to really push and gain as much advantage before the steps. I cross the slippy bridge (carefully!) and manage to run the (awkward) steps. Just the downhill to go....
That journey, from a young boy fascinated by the mountains, mind fed and nourished by the adventures I was exposed to, to who I am now, contented, happy, and joyfully immersed in the beauty of the wild hills, was one that was always going to happen.
It’s certainly not always been an easy one, wrestling with other’s expectations of me as against who I really was. It’s been shaped by various people along the way, all of whom had a part to play.
As I opened up my heart and my mind towards the possibilities for the future, fate played its hidden, unexpected card. Out of the blue, I met someone who identified completely with who I am and where I wanted my life to lead.
Not only that, but my life has been greatly enhanced by the ideas, attitudes and general enthusiasm for life that she’s brought to me. New avenues have opened up, simple joys have been (and continue to be) explored and I’m even more optimistic about the future.
Safe, in the knowledge of unconditional love, both given and received,safe to be the person I want to be. Safe in the knowledge I will receive support and understanding whatever I try to do.
I charge down the last descent as best I can, catching the runner in front, but not quite enough. The path flattens out as I dodge the tree routes and see the gathered crowd and the finish line just ahead of me. A quick glance back confirms I’m ok and I run through the finish to shouts of “well done”.
Hands on knees for a moment, gasping for breath, feeling the fatigue start to creep over me immediately. Handshakes are exchanged with fellow runners, including with my “nemesis”, who’s finished just a few seconds ahead of me (he’ll later tell me, with a smile on his face, “keep trying, you’ll get there one day!” as we left the cafe).
There’s a buzz and excitement around the finish line which I have missed. Stories are exchanged of falls suffered, wrong routes taken, races not paced correctly. It doesn’t matter where you finished, fellrunning is not about that. Everyone will chat to you and your run is as important as theirs.
As Kirsten finishes and we get ready to head for the car to wrap up in warm clothes, I pop over to the race organiser and thank him for a cracking route and a smashing morning. Without people like him, we wouldn’t be able to do this.
And, as I look around at these like-minded people, all with smiles on their faces, I realise that I do still like racing sometimes. There’s a familiarity that comes from racing, a chance to focus your mind and body, an opportunity to see if you can push yourself to your limits and beyond, and a camaraderie that comes from being part of the event. It feels safe.
There’s no doubt that I have an undeniable feeling that I’ve come “home”, so many miles from where I was born. Up here’ there’s an attitude to life that is more in tune with my own. Hardy people whose daily lives are an adventure and yet they make no odds about it. People having preposterous adventures as though they were commonplace, people living tough, “ordinary” lives, which hark back to the old days and which put the whinges and moans of those “better off” to shame.
Sunday afternoon, on our way back from the race, we stop off to walk the dogs in the beautiful Cona Glen. A real chill hangs in the air and, post-race, it seeps inside our bodies, leaving us shivering. And yet we can think of no place we would rather be in this moment than here, amongst the unspoilt, quiet hills of Ardgour, our special dogs trotting along the path with us, bringing smiles to our faces.
At the new gate, we turn for home and head back down the track. As we near the farmhouse, there’s activity and we call Sam close. We’re all apt to pre-judge and, in our minds, we suspect the farmer may not take kindly to a collie off-lead amongst all the sheep.
And yet, as so many times in life, we’re proved wrong.
As we approach, and a car is waved off down the track, the farmer greets us with a cheery “hello” and is keen to meet Sam and Rufus and talk about his dogs. And, before we know it, after a quick chat about the hills surrounding us, we’re invited in for tea, where we sit in a proper farmhouse kitchen (no ikea “farmhouse” tables and chairs here! Simple furniture, cluttered, basic, but all you need, books on baking and dishes of food for the dogs!). Steaming cups of tea are served and biscuits are laid out on a plate, and we chat to two lovely people who have lived across here all their lives and clearly have so many stories to relate.
And, as we walk back down the last part of the path, having said our goodbyes, we look at each other and smile.
Safe in a place we call home. Safe amongst people we can relate to and who aren’t “chasing the dream” but who realise the dream is right here, right now. Indeed, it’s anywhere you want it to be, if you just stop and look.