The weather did not seem so bad. I suppose that is how this sort of story tends to begin – from a place of complacency. I had been cold for much of the morning, but as I scouted the lower slopes of Carnethy Hill, a little over an hour before the first racers would be swinging left through Charlie’s Loup at the end of the Carnethy 5, I felt that comforting warmth that stamping uphill through calf-deep gorse heralds.
That was enough to convince me that I would be fine. Close to the start line, hunkering under a gorse bush, I removed every item of clothing until all that was left was a base layer, a thin-as-rice-paper club vest, shorts, socks and a buff. Anything actually waterproof I would carry. I noticed Sasha Chepelin, the eventual race winner, on the start line in almost identical attire and congratulated myself on getting it right.
O the Carnethy 5. O the wild charge we made: from frigid bog to tussocks, a gushing burn to a snowy ramp of rampant heather. The easy bit, it turned out. As we reached the eastern flank of Scald Law, bearing right to follow a snaking line of slime across and up the hillside, the wind came at us, livid and insatiable. The higher we stepped, the more enraged it became, snapping at our haunches as we swayed as if on board a storm-driven ship.
These hills, my local hills, are so familiar. I see them when I close my eyes. Scald Law, South Black Hill, East Kip, West Kip. And when I close my eyes, these hills are not bathed in sunshine or fanned with gentle breezes. They are brown and green and defiant. Today was bad, but I had seen worse. The 2016 Carnethy 5 was colder; the 2019 Carnethy 5 was windier; when I traversed these hills in the opposite direction one wild February night, everything was worse.
But every run is different and every race is different, defined by a peculiar set of unknowable circumstances. Today? It was as oxymoronic as it could be, brilliantly awful – for a while at least. Frenetic, tumultuous, ridiculous, but underpinning it all the grim satisfaction that only a hill runner would really understand.
I can not pinpoint where it started to go wrong. Perhaps when it began to rain – icy bullets carried by a wind hurtling towards us at the speed of cars on a dual-carriageway. But it might have been raining the whole time; I can’t remember. Like any difficulty, the rain and the incessant charge of the wind seemed to gradually become more difficult to overcome.
I was cold. Too cold? There was something different about this cold, for so distracting were the conditions that the cold had overtaken me before I was really conscious of it. And yet it seemed nonsense. Cold? After what? Twelve or thirteen minutes of being blown about on a ridge of familiar hills. Twelve or thirteen hours on the hills have not led me to be too cold. Impossible.
West Kip is the east ridge terminus for the Carnethy 5. By the quirk of geography, presumably, the wind always blows hardest here. Two marshals in ski goggles were clinging to the summit rocks, shouting unheard words into the chaos, directing us down a grassy bank. Clumsily, I moved into descent, skidding and sliding as if I was wearing slippers.
Looking back now, it seems so obvious. The world that seemed too dark, the clawed hands, the clumsiness, the feeling that, despite everything, I was no longer cold, the sense that I was fine even as scores of blurry runners slipped by, the dullness of thought where – in hill running – there is usually sharpness. Too cold.
I finished the race. One hour and 12 minutes. I mean, what is one hour and 12 minutes in the grand scheme of things? Nothing, I tell myself now. The safe and indoors and warm now. The purity of the moment cannot be underestimated – and once the race has ended that purity cannot be reclaimed. It is over.
I was conscious of the idea of abandoning but only in the abstract. ‘It was fun,’ a fellow racer would say to me a few days later. I nodded. Actually, on this occasion, it was not. Where the ground flattens after the descent from West Kip, I had dragged my waterproof jacket from my bag, and held it like a kite while I pulled it over wet limbs and clothes. As I climbed the grassy gully on Carnethy Hill, I had rammed fists into gloves, then one by one forced fingers into their respective holes, pulling on the sleeves with my teeth because the grip on my opposite hand was too feeble. Further up, my legs had tangled with another runner and I pathetically fell forward to the ground. I lay there for a couple of seconds until he dragged me up. Near the summit, I had recognised a club mate. ‘I’m cold,’ I shouted. What was he meant to do? He could not solve the problem that I had triggered an hour earlier as I stripped off under a gorse bush.
What I feel now is the prickle of embarrassment. This sort of thing does not happen to me. I am not the person who needs another runner to pull on his leggings for him. I am not the person who needs to be hugged by another runner while standing shrouded in a survival blanket. I am not the person who needs to be cajoled into drinking a styrofoam, sugary coffee. I am not the the person who receives messages after a race asking if I am ‘alright’. I am not the person who would allow myself to even be in the position to succumb to the ‘h’ word.
But, it seems, I am that person – that person who is still capable of complacency, of underestimating the hills, of making poor decisions, of exposing myself to hypothermia, however mildly. You do not become incapable overnight, however; I know that much. Fine lines. That is what the sport of hill running thrives on; as runners, we revel in flirting with those lines. After all, who races in the hills because it is easy? Who races the Carnethy 5 in mid-February because it is easy. It is meant to be hard; if it was not, what would be the point?
A waterproof, gloves on my hands not in a pocket, something warmer and thicker on my head – that was my fine line. It is not much, but it was enough for me. Over the years, the hills have chastened and humbled and taught me in ways I could not have imagined. There is nothing else to do but move on. As for the Carnethy 5 2020, I will add it to the list.