It is 5am in the Scottish Highlands. The darkness is total; the temperature a few degrees above freezing. On this late-November morning, it will be three hours before dawn breaks. The silence is vast, only interrupted by the clacking of studded shoes on a single-track road. Suddenly, the clack is no more. The runner has vanished.
He steps through a black forest, branches snapping under his feet, before he gains the ramparts of a mountain. Trudging through snow, he reaches the 939-metre summit of Mullach nan Coirean two hours after setting out. Two hours? He has only just begun. Ahead of Glyn Jones are another 23 mountains. Together, they make up a 60-mile loop of rough, pathless wildness. This is Ramsay’s Round, Scotland’s classic 24-hour mountain circuit, that makes its English equivalent, the Bob Graham, blush.
At this point in time, 30 people had completed, in the allotted time, Ramsay’s Round in the 24 years of its existence. No-one had achieved the feat in winter. To do so seemed tantamount to lunacy. Success had always been achieved in the narrow window of a Highland summer. In winter, these hills become ferocious giants assailed by violent winds and swamped by chaotic whiteouts.
But Glyn was no masochist; he certainly was not an ‘adventurer’ by the modern definition. He had no desire for fame and fortune. He was simply a man who sought adventure – and what greater adventure is there to be had than going for a run?
This run, however, was different. It took 13 hours to cover the first 11 summits. The snow was alternately soft, then frozen and dangerous. He rested for an hour in a glen, then forged on towards Chno Dearg, the mountain that marks the eastern limit of the round. In the early hours of the morning, under a fire of stars, the concave approach of Chno Dearg was ‘white-tiles-and-steel’ hard.
Exhausted and immersed in fearful night, Glyn would take an astonishing seven hours to cover around two miles. He would later describe his experience as being ‘ambushed’ – ‘ambushed’ by a mountain.
Somehow, alone and unmarked, he perseveres, carrying on into a third night, resting occasionally and ramming an ice axe into the ground to break his fall if he slipped, plunging through deep snow, haunted by mysterious sounds from the sky, moving onwards to the summit of Ben Nevis, his final mountain. By then, he has been ‘running’ for 52 hours.
Glyn reaches the road at Glen Nevis, his starting point some 54 hours earlier, and reappears. The police want to talk to him. Glyn, who is in his early 50s, tells them he was not carrying a mobile phone and therefore had no way of alerting mountain rescue. His outing is ‘implicitly vetoed’ by the questioning officer. He reads the woman’s mind: Stupid old man.
Glyn, who would thereafter quietly return to his semi-reclusive life on a smallholding in south-west Scotland, did not try to explain. The officer was not a kindred soul. She saw only risk and madness. The runner saw what was his human right: ‘That we can still find adventure, when we want it, in this soft underbelly of the rich world, is a right that we should not give up without a fight.’
Alan McKenna is not Glyn Jones. The chemistry teacher is a housemaster at a school in Croydon, some 600 miles south of the snowy mountains of Lochaber. But, almost every day, the teacher does a figurative Glyn Jones: he disappears. Alone, he runs along a road that bypasses playing fields, then turns right onto a rolling grassy path that soon becomes a track through woods. He disturbs a deer, notices a minute change in the colour of the bracken, places the first steps on virgin snow. Most importantly, he can hear himself think.
‘Living on the site of a school, in this job I could potentially not leave for four or five days,’ Alan (pictured below) says. Running is the excuse he needs to escape. ‘Nobody knows where I’ve gone.’
The truth is this: there is a part of Glyn Jones in us all, for running – be it in the mountains of Scotland or the quiet places of London’s busiest boroughs – is the ultimate adventure. For a few moments, the runner can step into another world – a world you rule. A world that is not dictated by family, or your wealth, or your social status, or your commitments and worries, or your job and career. As the ruler, you are invincible, untouchable.
Can you recreate those feelings in other sports: team games like rugby or cricket, or individual activities such as cycling or swimming? Yes, of course; that is the brilliance of sport. But none of them are as immediate or as accessible or as simple as the act of running. Alan has tried everything, but: ‘I get so much more out of running. There’s always a pair of running shoes at my door.’
And those shoes have taken Alan to places he never thought possible: numerous marathons, ultramarathons, and one day, he hopes, a continuous 100 miles.
Call it what you will: adventure, liberation, green therapy, escape…
For Alan, running is the opportunity to go to a ‘different place’ – and he does not only mean literally.
In the white noise of commercialism, social media, kit, and the muddle of our expectations, we need to see running for what it is: adventure.
This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of Men’s Running.