Last month I interviewed Finlay Wild for the Autumn edition of Fellrunner, the magazine of the Fell Runners Association. Although it has not been published, this is not meant to be a spoiler.
The interview preceded the Ben Nevis Race. Finlay, on the day before his 35th birthday, was victorious. In fact, he has won the race up and down the UK’s highest mountain every year since 2010.
I asked Finlay about his motivation. After all, to stay at the top of any sport for a significant period of time – let alone a decade – takes discipline and commitment, desire and a little bit of luck. It requires the consistent application of those attributes – something that most of us are simply incapable of maintaining. And it is not like other runners do not want to beat him. It just seems, that in the case of Ben Nevis, they cannot.
So, his motivation? Finlay had broken the course record at a fast and frenetic race at Creag Dhubh in early August, a short hill race held as part of the Newtonmore Highland Games and that was this year a Scottish and British championship race. He described a ‘recovery day’ soon after, a walk-cum-jog on the almost-Munro of Beinn Dearg, the mountain that is encircled by more illustrious Torridon neighbours.
‘It was a memorable day,’ Finlay said. ‘It was a new Corbett for me, but the experience intertwines and overlaps with all my other memories of Torridon over the years. I love how memories build up in layers related to particular mountain places. If I am lucky enough to walk up there again as an old man, then maybe I will remember that previous time on that beautiful hill a few days after breaking the Creag Dhubh record. It’s all connected by a love of these wild places.’
Layers of memories.
The next run I did was a Pentland Skyline – not the race; that’s next month – but a run over the exact course. The 17-mile route climbs into the northerly Pentlands from close to the Hillend ski centre and follows the range’s undulating eastern ridge to a former drove road, then picks up the rougher western ridge before eventually returning to Hillend.
I have run in these hills many, many times.
I remembered the shrieking storm of a February night as I blundered off West Kip in deep snow. I remembered the moon over Black Hill haloed by billions of ice crystals. I remembered the swaying grass on Capelaw on one of those never-ending summer evenings. I remembered waking up from a wild camp on Warklaw Hill, stiff and cold. I remembered the wind like a palm to my chest on the stony summit of Scald Law. I remembered running down Allermuir for the first time, watching Edinburgh unfurl before me.
I remembered the deep shadows of winter, the purple carpets of August, the popping gorse, the recumbent cows, the twisted ankle, the fallen child, the rescued lamb, the clacking gate, the skittering scree, the thirst, the bob and glow of a head torch, the calm before the storm, the storm before the calm, the countless hues of green and brown, the trying, the first snowflakes, the darkness, the light, the mist, the rain, the pain, the rainbows, the joy, the glory. Layers and layers of memories.
But memory is not confined to snapshots of isolated glimpses and sensations. These moments in high places are intrinsically hooked to our lives down there. Escapism may come in physical form, but emotions follow you to the top of the mountain.
As I ran that Pentland Skyline, I thought of what was to come: my son, my third child, was to be born the next day.
As it turned out, my son was not born the next day. He emerged the day after, a crying, red, perplexed bundle.
I ran again three days later. I probably should not have. I felt groggy, as if hungover; my legs and head were heavy. I stayed close to home, running a loop of the four nearest Edinburgh summits. Like the Pentlands, these hills – Easter and Wester Craiglockhart, the Braid Hills and Blackford Hill – are old friends. There are layers of memories here too, but they are softer than the Pentlands. The highs are lower; the lows less defined. The wind blows less hard here. But as I jogged up the grassy ramp of Blackford Hill, a swathe of central Edinburgh with its spires and castle and cranes and lovely hills suddenly rising ahead, I thought of the lines written by Scots makar Jackie Kay in describing Mateo, her son, in Gap Year: ‘I have a son out in the big wide world.’
I teach Gap Year to National 5 pupils. I have explained how the meaning of this line is buried in the tone. Kay is incredulous and awestruck. I can scarcely believe the thriving existence of my son, Kay explains. There is fear there, too. Each year, I say these things; the pupils write them down. For the first time, however, I really got it. I do not recall the weather that day on the low summits of southern Edinburgh. I can only describe the view because it is so familiar. But a layer of memory had been set down – like the sweetest buttercream in a towering Victoria sponge, as solid as a century-old drystone wall that curves around a hillside: ‘I have a son out in the big wide world.’