WHAT TO READ WHEN YOU READ ABOUT HILL RUNNING
Writing and running are activities connected by extended metaphor: while running is prose, hill (or fell) running is poetry. This sport, therefore, demands writing of the highest ilk. In the course of research for my own book on hill running, The Mountains Are Calling, I have read and re-read reams of literature: some of it great, some of it simply informative, some of it that does not always do justice to the sport.
The breadth (and arguably quality) does not yet match the genres of road cycling or mountaineering, for instance. Perhaps the ethos of hill running and the modesty of its participants – with self-promotion seen as something to be avoided – stymies the genre? Nonetheless, the sport has been and continues to be celebrated in words. Below is a list of the best books we have.
CELEBRATING THE SPORT
Feet in the Clouds (2003), Richard Askwith
It has become a cliché to cite Feet in the Clouds as inspiration: the reason why you started hill running or became embroiled in the romance of the Bob Graham Round. I am a cliché too. But why Feet in the Clouds continues to matter is its seminal role in demonstrating that hill running is poetry. Essentially, the sport deserved this book – a book that showed writing on hill running can be literary.
The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps (2015), Steve Chilton
Steve Chilton has been busy over the past five years, producing three books on hill running, largely focused on the English scene. Of the trilogy, it is The Round I find myself coming back to. Ultimately, it is the people that make fell running interesting – and that is when The Round is at its best, when we hear the voices of Billy Bland, Nicky Spinks, Jim Mann and others.
Race You to the Top (1986), Suse Coon
Out of print and hard to lay your hands on, Race You to the Top is an unassuming overview of Scottish hill running as it was in the 1980s. Outlining the history and reviewing the races, and featuring interviews with a range of runners, the book also ventures into the philosophy of the sport, with Suse Coon dwelling on that age-old question: ‘What is it about grassy knolls, viewpoints, or even Munros that makes people instantly want to get to the top of them?’
The Munro Phenomenon (1995), Andrew Dempster
Despite being primarily pitched at hillwalkers, a chapter entitled The Fell-Running Phenomenon recounts the development of Munro round running records, starting with Phillip Tranter, and progressing to Charlie Ramsay and Jon Broxap, who both extended the number of Munros climbed in 24 hours. Dempster’s focus is records, but he ultimately celebrates the record breakers and the ‘true devotion’ that drives them to the ‘inspirational spark’ of the hills.
Run Wild (2013), Boff Whalley
Although not exclusively a book about hill running, Run Wild nonetheless captures the spirit of the sport and a desire to engage with the natural world. Boff Whalley sees the ability to ‘run wild’ as a gift: that the thrill of mountaintops, glens and riversides elevates the running experience. We can all empathise with that.
CELEBRATING THE HEROES
Running High (1991), Hugh Symonds
Hugh Symonds is synonymous with mountain-running legend. Over 97 days in 1990, Symonds climbed the 303 mountains of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland that rise above 3,000 feet in a continuous, 2,000-mile journey. That no-one has repeated the feat is evidence of its toughness. ‘The run had never been a rush,’ he concludes, with ‘running being just a natural way of moving through mountains’.
No Map in Hell (2017), Steve Birkinshaw
At the centre of No Map in Hell is a literal map – a map that, as my old geography teacher would have said, tells a thousand words. And much more. Birkinshaw’s feat is astonishing: 214 Wainwrights in seven days, a distance of some 300 miles; the map of his chaotic route is like a cruel joke. The narrative is matter-of-fact and there is little poetry here, but Birkinshaw has other things to worry about, not least a scarcely imaginable exhaustion and the wretched state of his feet.
Millennial Munros (2017), Charlie Campbell
In 2000, Charlie Campbell, a Glasgow postman, completed a continuous round of the Munros in 48 days and 12 hours, travelling by bicycle and on foot, and kayaking the Sounds of Mull and Sleat. Millennial Munros is the story of that remarkable journey, spanning Scotland from Ben More to Ben Hope, and marked with celebratory ‘packets of crisps and nuts’ in the Tongue Hotel.
The Corbett Round (2013), Manny Gorman
Inspired by Charlie Campbell, Manny Gorman set himself an undoubtedly harder proposition: a self-propelled tour of the 219 Corbetts. The prose might be a little rough around the edges, but the narrative is unremittingly honest. Some writers on the outdoors feel the need to hyperbolise, be it relative hardness or conditions. Not Manny. He is as tough and determined as they come – a 69-day, 2,000-mile journey is testament to that.
Mud, Sweat and Tears (2011), Moire O’Sullivan
Male voices, male protagonists – that, sadly, is the feature of this list. Thanks goodness then for Moire O’Sullivan and her self-published book on the Wicklow Round in the eponymous mountains of Ireland – a round that O’Sullivan would be the first to complete in 2008. At the end, she captures the feelings we all have in finishing a 24-hour round: ‘Everything’s beautiful.’
Joss Naylor MBE Was Here (1992), Joss Naylor
At the culmination of the account of his 214-Wainwright, seven-day run, Joss Naylor says that he is ‘not a great one for words’. I would say that Joss Naylor MBE Was Here is just about perfect: a pithy, real account of unfathomable scale. To borrow the title of his introduction, this is ‘Something Special’. And that could be the epitaph of this sport.
CELEBRATING THE RACES
Classic Hill Runs and Races in Scotland (2009), Steven Fallon
If a reminder is needed that hill running is a national sport in Scotland, look no further than Steven Fallon’s pocket book. He describes the routes of races and runs that span the breadth of Scotland, from the Borders and the Grampians, to the rugged heights of the far north and the faraway Hebrides. The book lacks the obsessional detail of some guidebooks, but is all the better for it. Fallon’s job here as much to guide as it is to motivate.
The Ben Race (1994), Hugh Dan MacLennan
Ever since William Swan ran to the summit of Ben Nevis (and back) from Fort William in 1895, the notion of racing up and down the UK’s highest mountain has captured the imagination. Human nature has changed little – what inspired a Victorian tobacconist continues to impel runners today. The Ben Race is a celebration of just that.
They Come… and They Go (2013), Donald Booth
A history of the Isle of Jura Fell Race, They Come… and They Go reflects on a golden era of hill running, documenting the emergence of the race in 1973, its rebirth in 1983 and subsequent races to 1992. Donald Booth is a worthy storyteller. When Jimmy Jardine was seemingly missing in the inaugural race, Booth heard him ‘blethering over a garden gate’ with a Diurach. ‘I found this aeroplane on the second Pap,’ Jardine explained. ‘Couldnie leave it alone. Tried tae get it startit but I couldnie.’