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The call of the mountains

It is 7am on Sunday. A furious wind tries to stop me opening the car door. The forecast is for 50mph gales. I have scheduled a four-hour run in the Pentlands, the green and brown hills that back on to Edinburgh’s southern fringe. From the car park, the ascent of my first hill – 478-metre Caerketton – starts immediately, and I am exhausted immediately. My limbs are hopelessly weary. Every step is an effort of diabolic proportion.

What am I doing here, I think, running up this hill? It is a question I have been asking throughout 2016. Continue reading

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Glen Coe Skyline: the enormity in numbers

With time and energy lacking today, this is the best I can muster: a personal story of the wonderful enormity of the Glen Coe Skyline in numbers. A longer article will be published in the Scotsman in due course.

5896 calories burnt (so says Strava)

4800 metres of ascent

4800 metres of descent

1150-metre highest point at Bidean nam Bian

870 metres of vertical climb between Glen Coe and Sgorr nam Fiannaidh

596 metres of vertical gain in mile 22 Continue reading

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Defining the hill race: ‘I had neither time to think nor breath to speak with.’

Robert Louis Stevenson was no hill runner. Not that such a pursuit would have occurred to the Edinburgh novelist. In Stevenson’s lifetime, running up hills was not a thing, certainly not in the recreational sense. It was not until 1895 – a year after his death – that a man decided to time himself to run from Fort William to the summit of Ben Nevis and back.

But Stevenson was a visionary: he defined a sport that had not even been invented. Kidnapped is set in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising in the 18th century. Believed to be accomplices Continue reading

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Why we go to the hills… and how to join us

Some years ago I was running in the Eastern Fells of the Lake District. As I descended a mountain called High Street, I passed a walker. He shook his head. ‘I don’t know how you do it,’ he shouted incredulously into the breeze. I smiled. Encumbered by boots and bag, I wondered the same: How do you do it?

I know what you might be thinking: you are with the walker on this one. Running is hard enough. Why increase the struggle by adding hills and mountains? The prospect is absurd. Nonetheless, hear me out.

I was a walker once. When I first started going to high places, Continue reading

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Not another kit review: an appreciation of the OMM Ultra 15 rucksack

This is just a note to say thank you.

I have never told you how much you mean to me. Until now.

I did not want you at first. All those years ago, when I first saw you – in the flesh, not just in those glossy pictures on the web that I couldn’t stop gazing at – I was not sure. I didn’t know then that I needed you. I went away. I left you. But I never stopped thinking about you. I was young and indecisive. I came back. I realised you were worth it.

You were now mine, and, together, we grew. Continue reading

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Running on the edge: on foot on Scotland’s west coast

A British expat living in Thailand was visiting a tourist centre on Koh Chang when a photograph, purportedly of the island’s Kai Bae beach, engaged his attention. To the casual observer, nothing was amiss. Here was an illustration of the unerring beauty of the Koh Chang coastline: a white-sand beach, a cobalt sea, a shimmering sky. It was unquestionably a Thai paradise.

Or not, for something was indeed amiss. This was no Thai beach, the expat realised. It was a beach on Berneray, a Hebridean island pitched off the west coast of Scotland, some 6,000 miles from south-east Asia. The hills in the Continue reading

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Running. What’s the point? Strava, of course.

Iain Whiteside was running. What was Whiteside thinking about when he was running? Strava, of course. ‘I realised I had spent the previous 30 minutes thinking about what I was going to name this run,’ he admitted. Whiteside stopped running. He was on Braid Hill in Edinburgh. Inspiration came to him: ‘At a standstill on Braid Hill,’ he would later write on his Strava feed. Literally.

For Whiteside, the Braid Hill moment was the second part of an epiphany. The first half came in a Keswick café after an attempt on a winter Bob Graham round had floundered in deep snow at the Back o’Skiddaw. Continue reading

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Scottish Sports Hall of Fame: No place for hill running?

In the course of researching for my next book I came across the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame. Established in 2002, the hall of fame ‘celebrates and pays tribute to Scotland’s iconic sports men and women from the past 100 years, and inspires future generations’. The aims are noble and – as it led by sportscotland, ‘the national agency for sport’ – it has credibility. In total, 26 sports are represented, from the more obvious Scottish pursuits of football, golf and rugby to the minority sports of shooting, table tennis and water polo.

Furthermore, the list recognises the sports that define what it is to be Scottish Continue reading

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Hill running: the ultimate sporting juxtaposition?

I was planning a break from running today. But then I had cause to go to IKEA. And the panorama of the snow-capped Pentlands from the car park of aforementioned Swedish emporium was like gazing up at a hill runners’ nirvana. And my running stuff happened to be in the car just in case. So I drove to Flotterstone and ran uphill. Now at home and poised in front of a laptop, I am searching for an appropriate adjective to describe what I saw. Lots come to mind: scintillating, breathtaking, inspiring, beautiful… They all sound cliché, though. You know what, I can’t grasp the right word, the word I really want. But it was scintillating, breathtaking, Continue reading

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Carnethy 5: a humbling lesson in hill running

Having only lived in Scotland for five months, snow still excites me. ‘It’s snowing!’ I announce to the household whenever the stuff starts falling from the sky. ‘It’s snowing,’ I tell my daughter, frogmarching her to the window. ‘Look at the snow,’ I point. ‘Look at it!’ She shrugs and walks off.

Snow comes and goes in the promiscuous Pentlands. The hills can be clad in white one day, only to be stripped under the cover of darkness. On Friday, 24 hours before the annual Carnethy 5 hill race, the Pentlands were brazenly green and brown; by Saturday morning, modesty had intervened: they were clothed like a virginal bride. Continue reading

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A love letter to the hills from the hill runner

I am running down a hill. I am running down a hill in Scotland. I am running down a hill while holding the hand of my shrieking two-year-old daughter. I am running down a hill while wincing from a dull, groaning pain in an ankle. I am running down a hill in jeans and a jumper. I am running down a hill, nonetheless. From high on the Pentland Hills, Edinburgh is at my feet.

I live here. I live in Scotland.

I can breath.

The Pentlands today are a green and brown cluster of hills stretching 20 miles from Biggar to Edinburgh; some 430 Continue reading