What Deirdrie (and her friends) teach us about hill running


Three years ago today, on another winter solstice, I was running on Dun Rig, the highest point of a moorland horseshoe above Peebles. The summit was buried in swirling mist, cuffed by an enraged wind. Meagrely dressed, I rapidly became very cold. Disorientated and shaking on unfamiliar hills, I looked around anxiously, peering into the gloomy froth. Which way now?

It is wonderful to be in the hills; sometimes, it is wonderful to be off them.

I was fine that day – as I have been every day when things might have gone wrong. Ultimately, hill running is a game of luck. I hold, therefore, Martin Moran’s words close: ‘A trip, a slide, a tumble – how slender is our attachment to life, but how precious its gift when we are in the mountains.’

I have been involved in two races this year to have been curtailed by bad weather: the Glen Coe Skyline in September and the Tour de Helvellyn last weekend.

The former was understandable. To cross Aonach Eagach in 60mph winds is plain silly. The organiser of the Tour de Helvellyn faced a similar dilemma. But when the word ‘ferocious’ appears in a forecast, a -22C wind chill is expected, and a named storm – even one known as benignly as ‘Deirdrie’ – is scheduled to strike, what is an organiser meant to do?

Like the Glen Coe Skyline: abbreviate but don’t cancel. So, a half-marathon into the Tour de Helvellyn, we turned at Swart Bridge, a mile or so short of Sticks Pass, and started running back the way we had come.

The weather, in spite of the hype, was not ‘ferocious’. It nipped about us: always cold, always blowy – enough to deter eating and drinking, enough to chip away at morale and energy. It is the cumulative effect of such conditions that are so tiring: the need to concentrate a little harder, the need to try a little harder.

I crossed Askham Fell at around midday. It already seemed like darkness was minutes away. My gait had been reduced to a shambolic shuffle. The ground was bone-hard and painted in a sheen of invisible ice. I was lucky to be nearly back. Many others would cross here in literal darkness.

It was marvellous to fall through the doors of the finish line, to be indoors and not out there anymore. Fell runners may be a tough breed, but we are not stupid. We know we are nothing to the landscapes and environments that call us. Now again, though, it does us good to be reminded.

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