Iain Whiteside was running. What was Whiteside thinking about when he was running? Strava, of course. ‘I realised I had spent the previous 30 minutes thinking about what I was going to name this run,’ he admitted. Whiteside stopped running. He was on Braid Hill in Edinburgh. Inspiration came to him: ‘At a standstill on Braid Hill,’ he would later write on his Strava feed. Literally.
For Whiteside, the Braid Hill moment was the second part of an epiphany. The first half came in a Keswick café after an attempt on a winter Bob Graham round had floundered in deep snow at the Back o’Skiddaw. A couple on a neighbouring table were consumed by their phones, talking sporadically, their focus on small screens, not the human beings or the real life thronging around them. They had been running. Who or what were they running for, Whiteside wondered.
After the Braid Hill ‘standstill’, Whiteside made a vow: he would divorce Strava. It had become an inconvenience, an obsession, a poison. He went back to basics, asking himself the deepest philosophical question a runner can pose: why do I run? Or, for the hill runner: why do I run in the hills?
I have no gripe with Strava. I have posted almost every mile of running I have accomplished in the last two years or so on the site. Transferring run from watch to Strava is often the first thing I do when I return home from running. I hate myself for it. What have I become? But Strava is no worse than Facebook or Twitter or Instagram – platforms that answer our apparent craving for the approval of others – mostly strangers. Like sugary drinks, the craving is, of course, a manmade affliction.
Imagine a world without social media, a utopia in which humans (again) did things for the sake of doing them, a place in which we lived for ourselves, not for the approval of others.
Growing up in the 1970s, Martin Stone was inspired by the adventurers of the time: the yachtsman Robin Knox-Johnston and the climbers Peter Habeler and Reinhold Messner. Messner’s later ascent of Everest – solo and without oxygen – bewitched Stone. He developed a ‘fascination for minimalism’. Speaking to an audience at the second of three Carnethy HRC winter talks, Stone said: ‘It must have left something in my psyche which came out in the following years.’
Indeed. For Stone’s ‘following years’ were extraordinary: summer and winter Bob Graham rounds, summer and winter Paddy Buckley rounds, a summer Charlie Ramsay round (adding two Munros to Ramsay’s original 24), and a record-breaking run on the Scottish 4000s route. Almost everything – the recces (typically commuting from London) and the runs – were solo and unsupported. Stone even met a kilted Prince Charles on Lochnagar shortly after his marriage to Diana. On this occasion, Stone was walking with his 12-year-old brother and had wandered ahead of his sibling. When Charles came across Stone’s brother several minutes later, he remarked: ‘I see your beastly brother has left you behind.’ Imagine the re-tweets for that anecdote.
And what was it all for? ‘These things were totally for my own satisfaction,’ said Stone. No selfie on Robinson. No Instagram shot of a near-suicidal climb of Fairfield during his winter Bob Graham. No Strava segments on his Charlie Ramsay. He went on: ‘You did not need people lauding you for something you wanted to do yourself.’
Fourteen hours was Stone’s tipping point. Then he would typically feel weak and tired. Motivation – without a buddy to chivvy him along or perhaps a tweet to lift his spirits – would ebb. But, as he explained about his ‘greatest achievement,’ the winter Bob Graham: ‘It would have been so easy to stop, but what kept me going was the confidence that it was going to be better further on.’ Even if it was not.
Stone is a man of his generation, a representative of a golden era of running and mountaineering in which men and women redefined what was possible in the Scottish hills. We will never see his like again. When Jez Bragg broke Adrian Belton’s 26-year-old record for the Charlie Ramsay in 2015, his movements were recorded every 90 seconds by a tracker. Theoretically, anyone in the world could have viewed the whereabouts of Bragg.
Whiteside – a rapidly-improving hill runner who preceded Stone on the Carnethy stage – can detach himself from Strava, but he cannot detach himself from the 21st century. If only we could; if only we could be imbued with the spirit of Stone: to not be selfless but – for once in a while, or maybe all the while – simply do something for the sake of doing, for the sake of being in the moment, and, once we have done it, not require the reassurance of others. If anyone has a chance of accomplishing such a feat, it is us – those who go to the hills.