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


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

Re-visiting Great Rhos (and an explanation to Summits on the Air)

Day 28 of Heights of Madness was spent on Great Rhos, the 660-metre high point of the mid-Welsh county of Radnorshire. On the summit, I spoke to an aficionado – Tupperware man, I called him – of a group called Summits on the Air. I mention this now as I can see from this discussion that Tupperware man has been traced. Tupperware man is Peter. In hindsight, I was harsh on Peter, harsher on Summits on the Air. Your pursuit is no more odd than a man cycling and walking between the highest points of the UK’s 92 counties. The contents of the conversation Peter and I had were accurate. My poetic licence may have ran away a little. And I regret using the word ‘drool’. Here is what I wrote:

Rising three miles to the northwest of the tenth-century village of New Radnor is Great Rhos, the green dome summit of Radnorshire. A multitude of signs warn the walker about a great swathe of land on the mountain’s southern slopes, which is used as an ammunition testing area. Walkers must not stray onto the land when red flags are hoisted, the signs instruct. Today, the red flags were flying, but presumably the hundreds of sheep grazing in the ‘danger area’ were not at risk of being struck by a flying bullet. Still, I wasn’t going to take the chance and followed a grassy track that led around the perimeter of the firing zone.

On the Black Mountain look-a-like summit, I came across a middle-aged man in a flat cap and raincoat, who was in the process of lowering an aerial and packing up radio equipment. Each item was carefully ordered into individual Tupperware containers before he put them all into one large Tupperware box. Then he pulled out yet another item of Tupperware containing what resembled a beetroot sandwich. As he didn’t look like he was going to tell me what he was up to, I asked.

‘I thought you’d want to know,’ Tupperware man laughed smugly. ‘People always do.’

I instantly wished I had not let curiosity get the better of me.

‘I use the radio to talk to people on other mountains. It’s called Summits on the Air,’ he explained. ‘You must have heard of it?’

‘Um… no.’

Summits on the Air sounds like it could be the next extreme-sport craze. In reality, it involves a group of walkers who communicate with one another from specific high points across the globe. ‘It combines my two interests,’ he said, ‘walking and radios.’

Each qualifying mountain is designated a score. Ben Nevis, for instance, earns ten because of its height, while the lower Aran Fawddwy gets eight and Great Rhos just four. However, the scoring system appears somewhat biased in the favour of British hills and mountains. While a walker can earn ten points for climbing Scafell Pike or Ben Nevis, ten points in Switzerland is harder to come by. You have to climb the 3,970-metre Eiger to earn that. Why does this matter you ask? Well, there are prestigious prizes on offer. Top mountain chasers are presented with the Mountain Goat award and the losers get the Shack Sloth plaque.

Tupperware man said he’d been on the summit for 90 minutes and in that time had spoken to Ben Nevis. ‘I mean someone on Ben Nevis,’ he quickly corrected himself.

I wondered what they could possibly talk about.

‘Hello, Great Rhos here, anybody there?’

‘This is Ben Nevis. What’s the view like?’

‘Wonderful. Yours?’


‘What’s the weather like?’


‘Windy here too.’

‘Better go – I’ve got the Matterhorn on the other line.’

‘I’m doing the county tops,’ I said.

‘Oh right,’ Tupperware man acknowledged without a shred of excitement.

‘On my own, continuous journey, just cycling and walking – in 92 days.’

‘I think I’ll head over to Gwaunceste Hill. Only three points though.’

Having failed to impress Tupperware man, I left him alone on the summit to drool over his next hill and descended to New Radnor.

Heights map

Running in London: where are the hills?

The run from Keswick town centre to the summit of Skiddaw sees the runner gain around 900 metres in altitude. The only time I have set my watch to this run was during my Bob Graham Round in 2012; Skiddaw was hill number one and not the place – or the time (1am) – for unnecessary heroism. I summited in 77 minutes – a quick time, given the circumstances. Incidentally, the record for the Skiddaw fell race, which climbs up and down the mountain, is Kenny Stuart’s breathtaking 62 minutes. I digress, however. Back to my run: 900 metres of height gain in 77 minutes (and about four miles).

Unless you commence an effort from the banks of the Thames, it is very difficult to find a single climb of 100 metres – a ninth of Skiddaw – in south London. This weekend, to gain a cumulative 900 metres in height, I had to run for nearly four hours (split over two runs) and cover 29 miles, ascending around 30 individual inclines that I would describe as significant (for London). Say what you will about the north/south divide when it comes to running, but with the comparison of 900 metres, four miles and one hill, to 900 metres, 29 miles, 30 hills, I know who has the better deal.




Ward’s Stone: the problem of finding the top

I’ve been running in the hills of the Forest of Bowland for about 45 minutes. I’m nearing the highest point of these hills, Ward’s Stone. Mist has swept in. Drizzle has turned to hail. The ground is sodden, sticky, sludgy. I touch the pillar on the western summit of Ward’s Stone, then huddle behind a nearby weather station to check the map.

This isn’t the summit. There’s another, higher-placed trig pillar some 700 metres to the east. I can see it, a lonely object amid a desert of mud and bog, despite the ever-intensifying mist. I run to it, following a weaving path past peat hags. As I run, I know this second pillar isn’t higher. I don’t need a scientific test to tell me; it’s so obvious I even feel like I’m running downhill. So where is the top? It could be a huge lump of rock, close to pillar two; it could be a wave in the peat, topped by a little cairn, in the opposite direction. I visit both, discovering later the latter is the higher – at 563 metres, a clear two metres taller than anything marked on my OS map.

The top of Ward’s Stone – the easternmost trig pillar and the wave of peat hag beyond that marks the zenith

As I descend Ward’s Stone, the mist has lifted. Lancaster appears, as does the Lancashire coast and the early hills of the Lake District. It is a remarkable view, even more so once I’ve reached Clougha Pike. I descend sharply, almost to Quernmore, then trudge up the road to the car park by the Jubilee Tower, a Victorian folly. The finish line is glorious – the top of the tower at the top of the pass – albeit seconds after nearly knocking out my teeth after tripping on the third step.

Walking across the car park, I sniff the same stench of tobacco that I’d smelt as I’d left some 90 minutes earlier. The same couple who were parked when I arrived are still there; they are still smoking. What a waste of time, I thought. But then I looked west to the view they were regarding – sea, coast, hills, a deep red sunset – and think there are worse places to be alive on a Monday afternoon in late-October.


Heights of Madness: mapped, for the first time

I never got round to creating a map illustrating the route I travelled for Heights of Madness. The publisher didn’t require one; nor did I fancy the daunting task. Besides, I am no artist. Six years on, someone has done it for me. It is a work of art, I think. The yellow clouds are the summits. The red, wiggly line – the arrows showing direction – is my convuluted route. That line crosses twice: once in Gloucestershire, once in Ross and Cromarty. Even my overnight stops have been recorded. My old geography teacher used to regularly repeat that a picture (or a map) paints a thousand words; this picture paints the 77,000-odd words of Heights of Madness. I hope it might even inspire others who are keen to pursue a similar venture.

Box Hill fell race 2012

Today was my third Box Hill fell race. I clocked 62.52 in 2008, 57.23 in 2011. I was quicker still today, breaking the line in 55,45. With this rate of progress, I’ll break the course record in about 2017. Every runner wants to develop, to be faster, but it doesn’t get any easier.

I strode up the initial incline vying for 3rd place; two runners at the front had already detached themselves from the field. By the top of the hill, I had drifted to 5th. Seconds later – upon reaching the bottom of the first descent – I was battling to stay in the top-10: a cautious plunge the cause of my downfall.

We contoured the southern slopes of Box Hill, then were sent on a steep downhill section again. Having reeled in all the runners who had spilled in front of me during the first coming down, the same vests repeated the trick on this one. It was a pattern that continued race-long.

Each time, it was harder to catch those in front. Eventually, after another series of thigh-battering descents, they were too far away to catch. By the time I found myself descending steps (dog-hurdling required here) to Headley Common Road for the second time, it was those behind me that had became a more pressing concern.

The ups weren’t much easier. After the skywards Box Hill blast, followed by two sharp descents, along with lots of fast, flat terrain in between, the second major ascent on the course – through an avenue of trees – was the hardest of the race. It is every year.

I was soon walking, musing how in 30 miles of running six days earlier I hadn’t walked a step on a hill, yet 15 minutes into the Box Hill fell race I had already succumbed to that insatiable desire to stop running. There, I suppose, lies the irony of running and racing. Sometimes it’s a battle; sometimes you’ve got to just ‘hang in there’. That was today.

UPDATE – 25.1.12: Results online here.

How do you follow a man like Cameron McNeish?

Many ‘adventurers’ include the words ‘motivational speaker’ in their ‘job’ description. I am not a ‘motivational speaker’. Perhaps I lack essential ‘motivational’ qualities? Nevertheless, I’m making a rare foray into the world of public speaking next week. I will be at The Outdoors Show at Excel London on Saturday, January 14, when my subject will be The UK’s County Tops. The timetable, above, reveals the delights that the show’s visitors can expect.

There I will be appearing – and I’m rather daunted by it – on the ‘Motorola main stage’ (which ‘will feature a great line up of the UK’s top outdoor experts, photographers and celebrities’, according to the blurb). The ‘celebrities’ bit made me laugh. Seriously? A raft of Cicerone luminaries will be there – Paddy Dillon, Pete Hawkins and Kev Reynolds among them, as well as Colin Prior, Andy Rouse and Joe Cornish. And the man I’ve got to follow in my 45-minute late-afternoon slot? Cameron McNeish, a writer who has given more lectures and talks, and produced more books, than I’ve had hot dinners. No pressure then.

North Berwick Law

Twice in the last few years I’ve cycled past North Berwick Law and resisted the temptation of what must be one Scotland’s most stupendous little hills, topped with a whale jawbone. It was a splendid day for it. A furious wind on the summit. Bass Rock as clear as a button across the sea. The whale bone remains, more than 300 years since one was first placed here, although it isn’t the original and nor is it a genuine jawbone. Fake or not, is there another summit in the world that sports such an adornment?






The underrated hills of Bowland



My Christmas mini-tour of Britain took me to Lancashire for the height of the festive season. I was on the Fylde coast, more famous for its illuminations and fairground attractions than its ranges of hills and mountains.

Immediately east of the M6 is the Forest of Bowland, however, a wild jumble of hills rising, in parts, above the 500-metre contour. I had been here only once before. That was to cycle. I remember passing through Longridge and crossing the Trough of Bowland, but that was about it. Even in the nine months I spent on a journalism course in Preston, I ignored these hills. The Lake District was a far more attractive proposition.

Fair Snape Fell was the objective on Christmas Eve, reached via a track that contoured Parlick, before an easy climb on a wide, muddy path, rising into mist, to a windswept plateau adorned by a trig pillar and cairn. ‘Beautiful,’ my companion remarked a couple of times. It was. This was wild, high country offering resplendent views of Lancashire. Years of preconceptions and underrating these hills had been smashed in minutes.

The half-mile tromp to the true summit of Fair Snape from the lower 510-metre top was a far greater navigational challenge than any I had faced in the Lakes the day before, following bearings in thick mist, crossing a terrain pockmarked by waves of peat hags. The highest point, close to a falling down fence demarcating Wolf Fell, was lonely and anonymous. The mist prevented any view.

We ran downhill, returning over Parlick, Fair Snape’s lower but shapely neighbour. There was a magnificent, very runnable descent from here. Grassy steep (but not dangerously steep) slopes bring the runner back to the road very quickly indeed.

Boxing Day was a more sedate affair, venturing over Longridge Fell. It was a family affair and we turned back before reaching the summit. The ground was saturated. I’d have happily continued. The others didn’t share my penchant for cold, wet feet, unfortunately.

The world’s most beautiful silouette?

With a Bob Graham recce – utterly weather dependent, of course – scheduled for Friday, a yomp (with 500 metres of overall height gain) over Worcestershire Beacon was a sensible preparatory exercise. I ran from Malvern itself, climbing North Hill via a zigzagging path to a wind-blasted summit.

It was beautiful. A retreating sun was illuminating Herefordshire. Fragments of snow lay in hollows. Worcestershire Beacon, larger than I recalled when viewed from here, was magnificent. A dog walker ambled onto the summit, spoiling my reverie.

On the downs and ups to reach what I’d call the ‘lower upper’ slopes of the beacon, I mused over my relationship with the giant of Worcestershire. I’d been up here countless times, for Heights of Madness, for the UK’s County Tops, as a child, as a school pupil, as an adult, in sun, in snow, in the dry, in the wet, in the mist, running, walking and everything in between. Hills and mountains are mere lumps of earth and rock; only as humans do we arbitrarily decide to attach emotions to these high, regularly miserable places, and there is perhaps no other hill that I have developed such an emotional attachment.

I felt good. I clapped my hands on the toposcope and plummeted down, turning at Upper Wyche and retracing my steps to the zenith of Worcestershire Beacon again. The sun had now disappeared. I ran down grassy ramps towards North Hill, reflecting, romanticising on the view of the Malverns from afar. Just as Stanley Baldwin said, I imagined, the world’s most beautiful silhouette.

Preparing to meet Bob

I am taking Askwithian advice when it comes to training for my Bob Graham round (pencilled in for spring 2012): ‘The only regimes that work are those that you can accommodate in your life.’ The question is, how much can I physically (and emotionally) accommodate? It is a gruelling undertaking training for a 70-mile run that involves thousands of metres of ascent wherever one lives; in the relative flatlands of south London, it is near-impossible. This was my week (or, essentially, my attempt at accommodating Bob – and everything else).

MONDAY: A 7.5-mile ‘recovery’ run – recovery from a 12-hour day at school, recovery from a 15-mile run the day before. The 60-metre or so ascent of South Norwood Hill? Imagine the climb’s equivalent, the height gain between Broad End and Ill Crag, I told myself. It is very hard to imagine, admittedly; the contrast could not have been greater. A final 15-metre climb to home? Well, that’s like Great Dodd to Watson Dodd three times. Home, food, another two hours of report-writing. Bed at 11pm. Tired. And it is only Monday.

TUESDAY: To the track. Warm-up, a classic session – six repetitions of 800 metres, broken by 200-metre recovery jogs. There is that word again. A succession of 2,41s, with a final 2,35. A 6-mile night in all. Oh, and a 15-mile cycling round-trip – the return in a monsoon.

WEDNESDAY: Merciful rest. Or nearly – 15 miles cycling.

THURSDAY: A social event at school; I leave at 8.30pm. ‘Are you really running home?’ a fourth or fifth incredulous colleague asks. ‘In this? Why don’t you get the tram?’ They have a fair point. ‘This’ is a mucky night: rain and wind. I run all the same, even adding an additional 1.5 miles to the typical 7.5 miles it takes to reach home, and throwing in a couple of short, sharp hills at the end. South Norwood Hill conquered – again.

FRIDAY: A gentle run with students. No more than 4 miles, but a worthwhile stretch of the legs. No suicidal road crossings. It sets a bad example to children, apparently. Another 15 miles on the bicycle.

SATURDAY: To Box Hill. A 13.5-mile up-and-down run around Denbies vineyard, then onto the hill itself, following the course (albeit haphazardly) of the Box Hill fell race. The ground was sodden, causing me to slip and slide. A marvellous two hours, nonetheless , particularly when the alternative – and the easy option – would have been a ‘hilly’ run on far more stable ground around Crystal Palace. I arrived home to find an email from a friend suggesting two pre-BG preparation events: one, The Pilgrim Challenge, a 66-mile, three-day ultra on the North Downs; and two, The Thames Trot Ultra, a 50-mile jaunt between Oxford and Henley along the river. The thought of either filled me with horror. I filled in an entry form for Box Hill, which made me feel a little better.

SUNDAY:  A 30th birthday party meant I could not join the usual club run today, thus robbing me of a two-hour effort. Nor could I run the Pirie 10 on Farthing Down. A brisk 5 miles around Streatham and Tooting Bec commons sufficed. Perhaps wise. Illness is on the way, I am convinced. There are odd pains in my right ankle too. They have 24 hours to go away before the next Monday ‘recovery’ run. So, a 47-mile week, with an acceptable amount of those hill-specific. Bob has been accommodated. Just about. Only 30 weeks of this to go.

 Box Hill. Not quite Lakeland. Definitely not London.