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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. 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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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

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The OMM: the king of all mountain marathons

Sitting at home, dry and warm and for the first time in almost 36 hours, I re-read the Original Mountain Marathon (OMM) blurb: ‘Held in some of most remote locations and at a time of year when conditions can be extremely challenging, the OMM is meant to be hard.’

Soon after finishing my first OMM, I was asked for three words to define the experience – the experience of slogging for 13 hours across tussock mazes, calf-deep heather and frigid bog, covering some 40 miles while ascending and descending around 3,000 metres. It was too soon to rationally coordinate my thoughts. It is only now that a single word to describe the Continue reading

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Alpinism meets mountain running: the inaugural Glen Coe Skyline

Midges clung to the perspiring face of Emilie Forsberg as she caught her breath. Forsberg – an extraordinarily talented Swedish ultrarunner and girlfriend of the equally extraordinarily talented Kilian Jornet – had spent the previous eight hours running across towering summits and precipitous ridges in the Highlands as skyrunning came to Scotland for the first time.

‘How was it?’ I asked. ‘It’ being the inaugural Glen Coe Skyline race, the Scottish leg of the 2015 Skyrunning UK National Series.

She smiled. ‘I am so happy,’ she said. ‘That was so cool. Pure mountains.’ Forsberg Continue reading

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The ‘Tough’ Mudder myth

Lots of obstacle races claim to be the toughest thing out there. Do you think that’s true?

There is a place for obstacles races. Tough Mudder, for instance, laudably promotes teamwork over the individual, and raises millions of pounds for charity. It is the rhetoric that is laughable. At the south west Tough Mudder, ‘you will soon think you’ve stumbled into hell’. Tough Mudder, apparently, tests ‘physical strength and mental grit’. And the clichéd ‘hardcore’ is the umbrella term for Tough Mudder events. It is perspective, of course, but obstacle races are contrived. They are the natural off-shoot of a society dominated by social media. They are not real. Continue reading

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Running with the horses: Man v Horse 2014

Humans have been running for centuries, devising a variety of odd and generally painful forms of leg-moving activity to keep us active and amused. When running was no longer a necessity for survival, it became a sport. Cross country evolved. We started to run around tracks. On roads. Up mountains. Over fells. Along trails. We got bored. We needed a new challenge. Obstacle racing? Don’t be daft. That’ll never catch on. Let’s race animals! Our Stone Age forefathers chased and hunted animals. Let’s conquer them again – only this time we will outrun them. But what animal? Had this conversation been happening in June 2014 and not June 1980, the landlord of the Neuadd Arms Hotel in Llanwrytd Wells would have pulled out his iPhone, checked he had 3G, and found the Speed of Animals website.

He would have scrolled down the alphabetical list.

‘African bush elephant?’

‘Black mamba?’

‘Coyote?’

‘Galapagos tortoise?’

‘Anything that we’re likely to find in mid-Wales, landlord?’

‘How about a horse? Plenty of those knocking about. Top speed of 54.7mph. Let’s see a runner beat Dobbin. It’s that or sheep…’

And then they all had a good laugh and ordered another round. Yet what could have been a we-were-so-drunk-last-night-we-talked-about-humans-racing-horses drinking story became the birth of the Man v Horse race.

(Or that’s the way I like to think it might have happened).

Fast forward 35 years and the 35th annual running of Man V Horse, the horses should have been quaking in their hooves. The top-end of the running race was strong. There was the great Huw Lobb, one of only two men to beat the horse in the 35 years of Man v Horse. Next to him was John Macfarlane, a runner who was around 30 seconds from beating the winning horse in 2008. Further back stood Jon Albon, the UK’s foremost obstacle racer who was fresh from winning the Welsh 1000m Peaks Race. And then there was probably the most famous athlete to grace the streets of this little Welsh town: four times Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington.

The runners departed first; the horses some 15 minutes later. Events were entirely predictable: Lobb led the way, Macfarlane was in pursuit, Albon was working his way through the pack. Wellington had probably been hoping she could have warmed up with a swim and a 100-mile bicycle ride. The course was a marvel, alternating between moorland trods and sweeping forestry tracks, but always going up or down. It demanded the poise of a fell runner, the speed of a road racer and the endurance of a marathoner. I was happily running in about seventh place (including relay runners, presumably), having overtaken Macfarlane, and was chasing down an athlete in a Blackheath and Bromley vest. (The race was awash with London-based club runners). It was not until about nine miles into the run, high on the moors, that a horse swept past, then another a couple of minutes later.

For miles I saw no other competitor. I had left the Blackheath vest behind. No horses came by. No other runners. I ran as hard as I could, revelling in the blissful tunnel vision that comes with racing. My race burst into life again at 16 miles. Looking up, at the top of a winding track, were two runners, the first I’d seen in an hour. One wore blue; one wore black and white. Behind me were two horses, the same two that had already passed and had presumably been held up by vets. The horses would catch me long before I would catch the runners. We congregated on a steep section of rough forestry track. I passed the runner in the black and white Pontypridd vest first; he had started to walk. Seconds later, I drifted by the runner in blue. I glanced to my left. It was Huw Lobb. The last time Lobb and I had been in the same race, unbeknown to both of us, he had beaten me by five minutes in a 10k road race.

I did not hang around to chat or dwell on this turn of events. Working hard to the top of the hill, then flying down a smoother section of track, I gazed back to see I had already taken out at least 300 metres on Lobb. Running is not a sport you can fluke. Events within a race may transpire to be fortunate, but a runner is not lucky. The best will out. That is why only a runner will appreciate the significance of overtaking Lobb – or someone like Lobb – and the burden it then carries. I am a good club runner who was having a good race; I am not Huw Lobb with a marathon best of 2.14.

The race thereafter resumed its oddly lonely feel. No-one in front. No-one behind. No horses. This wasn’t a bad thing. It was not until mile 22 – when the route awfully climbs through a sloping field of long grass – that any further horses would overtake. I saw runners too, but they were stick men several minutes back. The objective now was to break three hours – albeit not a marathon three hours, but a 23.6 miles three hours. Once back on road, I assumed I’d stay on road, only to be directed down a track to another river crossing, the widest and deepest of the race. I was touching the far bank when I slipped backwards into the water, and then laboured, dripping wet, up a rise to meet the road again. I could hear the finish, smell the finish, but I could not see it. At last, with seconds fading and legs flailing, I was directed onto a field and very quickly across a grassy finish line, half a minute better than three hours.

Horse power had won for the 33rd time in 35 years, with Jeff Allen’s Leo (2.23) overcoming Jon Albon’s legs (2.42). It wasn’t even close. The results take some puzzling over. I was 14th. Remove nine horses and one relay team, and I was fourth, ahead of 30 horses. Even so, the combined efforts of Albon, Lobb (whose shoe fell apart some miles from the finish to add to his misery), Macfarlane, Wellington (who finished in 3.07) and the rest of us could not vanquish the best of the horses. If I can be profound after my earlier sarcasm, I would venture that it will not hurt for humans to be put in their place and reminded – in the literal and metaphorical form of the horse – of the raw power wielded by nature. We are meant to lose.

Results here.

@MuirJonny

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Started

Horse

Jonny Rick