It was a colleague at school, hence the formal ‘Mr’ as pupils loitered nearby. ‘I’ve been reading your book,’ she said ominously, and then, her tone rising: ‘You’re mad.’
Another colleague chipped in: ‘You know he’s mad.’
‘Running down hills at night?’ the first went on, shaking her head.
I stumbled into a defence of a sport that made little sense. I had not preempted this conversation, and just then, standing in the school office wearing shirt and tie, having spent much of the day sat down marking prelim exam papers, the idea of being transported to a high, dark place in shorts and studded shoes seemed alien even to me.
Two hours later, I was in that high, dark place, running up the ramp of Allermuir in the Pentland Hills, a beam of torch light giving me away. It was vile. The wind blew hard, funnelling around the hillside, carrying a spitty rain. I leaned into the tumult, my eyes fixed on the groove of footpath moving upward. The dusting of glistening ice that had decorated the hills the previous day was gone; brown and green was back in fashion. I climbed higher, into clouds and smirr, torch light fighting an impossible battle against a cloying mist.
I glanced up for a moment, noticing the sprawling arc of light that marks out Edinburgh, as if I could have forgotten the existence of half a million people. And then I was back in the hills, head bowed, thinking only of the moment and then the moment after that.
The summit was besieged by a cruel wind. There was nothing to see tonight, but sometimes, in the hills, we see more when we see nothing. Touch the cold metal of the toposcope, reach for the catch on the kissing gate, follow the fence line, dash through the muddy puddle that only dries up in summer, turn a sharp left, straight down. The routine is engrained, as if walking down a school corridor.
From the pass, I climbed another slope of grass, out of the wind for a few seconds, to reach the exposed plateau of Capelaw. I used to be frightened of these hills at night, I remembered. I feared the sounds I could not explain, the flashing eyes of disturbed sheep, the intangible sense of something being out there. There was nothing out there tonight – just a hill runner and the hills, and joy.
Mad? Because it is unconventional? Because it is night time and I might fall over? Because there is no one else here? I thought of those other hill runners – those out there, somewhere, right now, perhaps on Skiddaw or Ben Ledi or Pen y Fan, or perhaps their local hill or fell, peering into the darkness, living only for the next joyful moment.
This is not madness. This is priceless fortune. We are the lucky ones.