There are things I know and things, from time to time, I need to remember I know. Speaking about my book, The Mountains are Calling, at the Kendal Mountain Literature Festival, I was reminded of the latter: those precious things I must remember I know.
There are far more important things than running up and down hills. I am a full-time English teacher, I had told the audience. Teaching is a grounding profession. Any sense of self-importance is rapidly extinguished when a class of 25 teenagers wilfully choose to ignore you. At the end of the talk, an older man approached me. ‘I don’t want a book,’ he informed me. ‘I wanted to tell you that I was Jim Mann’s teacher at school.’ John Ackroyd helped initiate Jim Mann to cross-country. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history: by the time Jim was 18, he was doing 20-mile training runs in the mountains; this year, he ran the three classic 24-hour rounds across an unprecedented 30-day period – in winter. John and Jim had met recently for the first time since school; Jim, John said, had expressed his gratitude. The gesture was heartily reciprocated. An hour later, I saw John in Kendal’s Pizza Express. As he left, he handed me a ripped page of the festival brochure. ‘As a teacher,’ he had written, ‘you never know what influence you may have had. If you’re lucky you may find out – even if it is years later.’
I am very proud to have run Ramsay’s Round. In The Mountains are Calling, I noted how, after finishing Ramsay’s Round, I was unaware that I would recall the previous 22 hours of my life forever. That is true thus far. ‘You are 101 on the list of completions,’ I was told in the question and answer session. ‘And I am number 102.’ Jim Loudon (sitting in the audience and pictured below) and Matt Beresford set off on Ramsay’s Round nine hours after I had finished, climbing onto a dark, claggy Ben Nevis. They would make it round in 23 hours and 10 minutes. To run Ramsay’s Round, for Jim and me, is to fulfil the dreams of a mortal. Only another 127 people on this planet know what that feels like.
We are very lucky – lucky to be able to run in high places. To run in the mountains is a calling. I have never met a half-hearted hill runner; you cannot be half-hearted about running in these environments and landscapes. By answering the call, we are the lucky ones. Someone told me in the days before Kendal that they had never seen an unhappy hill runner. And I agreed: we sometimes groan and complain and wonder what on earth we are doing, but unhappy? Never. Running up hills is really hard, but to run up a hill is a metaphor for life; this sport is a metaphor for life. Time in the hills is so, so precious, and for us, each encounter is heightened by running. It is, I think, a beautiful madness.
Listen to my talk here.