I am running down a hill. I am running down a hill in Scotland. I am running down a hill while holding the hand of my squealing, skipping two-year-old daughter. I am running down a hill while wincing from a dull, groaning pain in my right ankle. I am running down a hill in jeans and a jumper. I am running down a hill nonetheless. From high on the Pentland Hills, Edinburgh is at my feet.
I live here. I live in Scotland.
And I can breathe.
I am occasionally asked what my ‘favourite’ race is. I assume the questioner means hill race because I am not likely to say the Croydon 10k, or the Inverness Santa Run, or that school cross country I did in Bourton-on-the-Water and came last.
Generally, I muddle through an answer because I think I should have a favourite hill race, but – in truth – I do not. However, a most important race, a symbolic race, a race that means the most? That is easy. It can only be the Pentland Skyline.
I look to the Pentlands every day. They are a fixed, reassuring part of my existence. And when I see them, typically the northern line of Caerketton, Allermuir and Capelaw, I think back to when I ran downhill with my then two-year-old daughter – and try to always remember the Pentlands as the place of perfection they seemed that day.
The Pentlands are a blip in Scotland’s mountain geography. There are no Munros or Corbetts here; one can go no higher than 600 metres. They lack the scale of the Cairngorms, the defiant posture of the Cuillin, the wildness of Assynt.
No matter. These are the ‘hills of home’, the place we always come back to – in winter, when the snow lies deep and the shadows long; in spring, when the gorse sparks yellow; in summer, when the grass blows in a million shades of green and rugs of purple heather unfurl; in autumn, when thistle seeds are thrown into the air and those greens became countless browns.
To race the Pentland Skyline then is to go on a tour of experience: the time when you lost your way in darkness on the Kips; the time when the mud was so thick on Black Hill you could hardly lift your legs; the time when you watched the sky set itself on fire from Capelaw; the time when you broke trail on pristine snow encasing Carnethy and realised you could be on any mountain in the world.
We are nothing to these 400-million-year-old hills; yet they mean so much to us. I will try to always remember that – and that I can breathe.
The Pentland Skyline, starting and finishing at Hillend, takes place this weekend.