Researching a book some years ago I spent several months asking people why they run – or, more specifically, why they choose to take running to hills and mountains, why they find joy in high places rather than the pavements, roads and parks favoured by the mainstream running community.
The responses rarely deviated from cliché, but then it is not easy to translate the sharpness of sensation and coherence of thought that running triggers once the moment has passed and the fury of adrenaline is becalmed. The shortest and simplest response, however, seemed to carry most meaning. I was pausing on the summit of Allermuir, a 493-metre protuberance in the Pentland Hills above Edinburgh, shrouded in one of the oppressive haar fogs that roll over the land from the North Sea. I heard feet first, a light slap-slap on wet grass. A woman, steadily moving uphill to where I stood, loomed out of the mist. Instinctively, I blurted out the question that had been on my lips for months: why? Looking perplexed, she responded with a shrug, but after a moment’s pause she offered a retort: ‘Why wouldn’t I?’ With that, she left, a ghost disappearing into the gloom of a November afternoon.
And that is always the reason: why wouldn’t I?
Running out of a city is like leaving a place by train: corridors inside fences, an identikit housing estate, swathes of graffiti, ugly corners of wind-blown litter. For now, the hills are hidden, buried behind the walls of a long alleyway. Quite suddenly, as I cross a road, they mushroom ahead, much closer now, the northern slopes plunged in shadow. They are not lofty Cuillin-esque spires; they are not the boulder-strewn wastes of the Cairngorms. They are, I suppose, merely hills. But there is no such thing as a mere hill. And so, as I look up, I slip into another realm.
My feet chew reassuringly on a stony track that dissolves into a rutted path and then onto a wedge of grass, angled like the steep, straight climb of a rollercoaster track. As I crest the rise, the wind roars in my ears, dulling my thoughts, like the blur of white noise calming a crying baby. The hills are brown and grey, the purple, heathery rugs of summer heather having long been rolled up. Edinburgh, now under my feet, teems, oblivious to the solitary runner moving uphill. I drop into a dip. A momentary lull. Slap-slap-slap-slap. Once over a false summit the wind returns, harder now, clutching at my throat, and as if I have swallowed an ice cube, I inhale the sharp tang of winter.
Hill runners do not run for the view. The woman whose uttered ‘why wouldn’t I?’ was not here that day for the vista. Hill running is not about what you see, it is what you feel. And hills make me feel. I feel as I always feel on a hill or mountaintop: as if in love, suspended in disbelief, incredulous that I had been all the way down there not very long ago and now I was up here. I have been here before – many, many times. I have stood here in the dazzle of sunshine, in the eye of a storm, in the fearful blackness of a winter’s night when my headtorch glowed like a star in the sky, and having placed the first marks in virgin snow. Every time is different – a different type of perfection.
I can see today. The clarity is exceptional. Winter snow has fallen to the far north and west, and the high summits – tens of miles away – are haloed. Allermuir stands at the centre of the universe: a vision of hill, moor, sea, firth and city. Robert Louis Stevenson, the Edinburgh-born author of Kidnapped and Treasure Island, described the sensation of being in these hills as ‘dreaming’. He was right: to run in high places is to dream.
Make no mistake though, this is not a comfortable dream. As I descend Allermuir, the wind fights my every step, numbing my jaw. I drop to a pass and follow a path that is little more than a sheep trod: intermittent, cambering to the left and waterlogged. I move awkwardly, concentrating on where my feet strike the ground. I feel a wave of tiredness and for a few minutes I think about being somewhere other than here. But that is normal, for I am no less happy. I would not come to the hills if running among them was easy. Nothing easy is worth doing.
As I turn, like a hand on my back, a benevolent south-westerly propels me up the snaking track to Capelaw, Allermuir’s lower, boggier, less conspicuous neighbour. I imagine myself from above, the lone hill runner, gradually edging closer to the sky, engulfed by the enormity of this 400-million-year-old landscape that what was once the sludge of an ocean floor. I am a speck, literally and metaphorically. A metal post marks the zenith of Capelaw. It is beautifully desolate here – a place that reminds me of rainbows, deep snow and darkness. Today the low grass stands to attention like the grey stubble of an old man.
I pass over the ridge of Capelaw, kicking mud up my legs, and descend to a gloomy pass. I climb again, a three-and-a half minute ascent on a good day, nearer five minutes on this occasion, to regain Allermuir. A pair of sheep stare morosely as I pass, hands on thighs. Over my left shoulder, the sun skims the horizon, setting the western sky on fire. When I run alone in the Pentlands, I rarely pause – and I do not today. A glance at the flecks of flame suffices. It really is not about the view, and if I stop, I might break the reverie.
I descend. If there is something primeval about hill running, then to run downhill is simply to answer instinct. For early man, running equated to survival – running to escape, running to eat, running to live and not die. We are destined to run – and perhaps it is running downhill that allies us most closely to our distant ancestors. After the suffocation of moving uphill, my legs are stung into frantic action. Flashing by the heather and grass, I lose height rapidly, first in a succession of leaps, lunges and slides, then in a seemingly uncontrollable set of bounds, arms flailing above my head, embroiled in euphoric terror. It is the closest a human can come to flight.
Such moments can only be fleeting. One cannot descend a hill forever. Sooner or later we find ourselves in a flat place again, that plain – as Annie Proulx put it – of ‘ordinary affairs’. I have burst out of that other realm. I am down there again among the metal fences, paint scrawls and pockets of rubbish.
I take a final glance behind as I turn left to home. The hills stare back, impassive and resolute. I – the speck – turn my back on them. A minute later, I turn my key in the lock. I am home.
For now, it is over, but there will be a tomorrow and the hills will still be there – and part of me is there too.
This article was originally published in Runner’s World.