Below is my article, ‘Beautiful madness,’ on the Glen Coe Skyline, published in the Scotsman magazine.
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
When news of the success of the expedition to climb Mount Everest was revealed to the world on June 2, 1953, four days had elapsed since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had stood on the summit. When Jez Bragg reached Glen Nevis youth hostel at the end of a record-breaking Ramsay Round in the Scottish Highlands, the world knew in seconds.
Bragg’s round is symbolic of the technological age. Continue reading
Having survived my altercation with the ghost of a Jacobite in Glen Shiel, I ventured east, first to Inverness, then to Moray. I had a three-day Bank Holiday plan. Day 1 – The Glen Challenge, a 10-mile trail race that forms part of the Glenurquhart Highland Gathering and Games in Drumnadrochit; Day 2 – Ben Rinnes; and Day 3 – the Munros either side of the Cairnwell Pass in the Grampians.
Meatloaf sang that ‘two out of three ain’t bad’ and such is the case in the north of Scotland when one is utterly dependent on the vagaries of the weather. Day 1 dawned drizzly and cool – ideal running conditions – and 24 of us made the 10-mile dash from Corrimony to the Games field in Drumnadrochit. I was 4th until half-way, then squeezed into 3rd, only to be pegged back on a two-mile climb. I clung on, though, arriving at the finish in bronze medal position to a ripple of applause and a £20 note in an envelope.
My legs were weary as I headed up Ben Rinnes the next day, but since the altitude gain is little more than 500 metres and the path dry, rocky and obvious even to the navigationally-inept, I vowed to run all the way. And I did – just about, in 31 minutes. Only when the steps arrived did I start to wobble.
What a view from the summit, the marvellously-named Scurran of Lochterlandoch: Speyside, the Moray Firth, the Cairngorms, the hills of Caithness, loads of wind turbines. I descended via Scurran of Well, accurately described as a ‘pile of pancakes’ by my guidebook, then down and along a winding 4×4 track to the car park. While traipsing about on the Ben, a fine day had become a glorious one. I basked in the sunlight outside a Dufftown cafe enjoying a celebratory slab of cake.
No such luck on Day 3. Winter came overnight. There was flooding in Aberdeen. High winds were cancelling ferries in the west. I knew there was no chance of doing a round of the nine Munros either side of The Cairnwell. As I breached The Lecht I scaled back aspirations to the three west of the pass. But ascending to the Glenshee ski station, my car was engulfed by mist and driving rain. Such was the shroud I missed the cafe and had to turn back. Carn Aosda, a 917-metre Munro, the smallest of the lot up here, I thought?
A few seconds outside made me realise the foolhardiness of even this. Terrible visibility, driving rain, absolutely miserable. I got back in the car and turned my nose to Edinburgh, wondering whether I was in the same country that 24 hours earlier had held me in its warm, gentle glow.
What can one expect of a day that commences with the consumption of a can of lukewarm macaroni cheese, eaten with a Debenhams gift card? Standing in an empty layby near the Cluanie Inn, I gazed skywards at the mist-covered South Glen Shiel ridge. The forecast was for this theme to continue: mist and intermittent rain. The same thought ran through my head: today, I actually have to use a compass. Not just carry one and be deemed ‘prepared’ should I tumble off a cliff and need rescue. I am going to have to navigate. On my own. I contemplated calling the whole thing off. I contemplated the north ridge instead. But the lure of nine Munros – from Creag a’ Mhaim in the east to The Saddle in the west – was too great, and I set off running slowly towards Cluanie Lodge.
I passed my river-side camp site of the previous night. It had been a dreadful few hours. I was woken repeatedly by rain and wind, and then a nightmare. Sleeping on my front, I felt the weight of a man on my back, pressing down hard. Weirdly (and very disconcertingly), he was licking the back of my neck; not aggressively, but how a cat might gently lick a hand. I struggled for breath. Three times I cried out, waking on the third. ‘It’s the spirits of the glen,’ my wife’s aunt told me later. ‘A Jacobite, no doubt.’
The problem with running over nine Munros – especially in the mist – is that it is subsequently difficult to recall the characteristics of the individual mountains and summits, or to even remember their names. Creag a’ Mhaim was memorable as number one, followed by Druim Shionnach because I gained a rare view from the summit. Thereafter, it’s a blur. I crossed Aonach air Chrith, the day’s highest point, and clambered along the ridge to Maol Chinn-dearg. Sgurr an Doire Leathain I recall because I twice went the wrong way as I tried to re-find the ridge from the summit.
The mist had closed in by now; the weather getting worse as I progressed west. There is nothing pleasant about running in waterproof trousers. Still, there were moments of unexpected joy: the view to Loch Quoich as I skirted Sgurr Beag, a dozen ptarmigan battling the wind on Sgurr a’Bhac Chaolais, a glorious vision of Loch Hourn.
I took the steep way up Sgurr na Sgine, popping out by the summit cairn. A tricky descent was followed by a straightforward ascent, watched by a herd of deer, of The Saddle. Finding the trig pillar, I knew I couldn’t go wrong from here. I turned to what I thought was the east, and headed for the famous Forcan Ridge.
It’s a good thing for me I’m never surprised when I make a navigational error, such is the regularity of these occurrences. An absolutely-nothing-can-go-wrong approach means everything is about to go wrong. It turned out I was moving west, not east. It took me 10 minutes to work that out. As a belligerent soul, there was no way I was reversing what I’d just done. Even if it was going to add on two hours, I wasn’t turning round. I pressed on, blundering over two of The Saddle’s Munro tops, before plunging down a slippery, mossy slope to the river that flows to Shiel Bridge. I’ve never been so pleased to see a caravan site. I hadn’t seen another person since leaving Cluanie.
Thank goodness I was running. I would be out for eight hours in ridiculous weather as it was; walking would have been purgatory. I can also understand why the advice is generally to tackle the seven easterly Munros of the ridge and the round of Sgurr na Sgine and The Saddle separately. But two outings? Where’s the challenge in that? Back at base camp Findhorn – my temporary Scottish home – I told my wife’s aunt about the ‘Jacobite’. The spirits wanted me to feel their suffering, she told me. ‘Imagine them fleeing from the English to Skye after Culloden.’ I didn’t ask why a Jacobite would want to lick my neck like a cat. ‘Well, I’m glad you had a good time.’
I thought for a moment: macaroni cheese for breakfast, a Jacobite with a fetish for licking, rain, sludge, rain, waterproof trousers flapping round my ankles, rain, mist, rain, navigational incompetence, torrential rain. ‘I wouldn’t quite describe it as a ‘good time’,’ I said.
‘Land of the giants,’ a running friend remarked when I announced I was Knoydart-bound. Knoydart is a wild, west coast peninsula suffused in the mythology of the outdoors: a place of extremes, a place of dreams. The Rough Bounds – as Knoydart is also known – have also been over-described as Scotland’s ‘last wilderness; that interpretation demands a definition of wilderness – and one man’s definition will be very different to another.
My objectives were the trio of Munros of Knoydart: Ladhar Bheinn, the highest, Meall Buidhe and Luinne Bheinn. There is nothing simple about these three; the giants have seen to that. First, I had to hike six midge-bothered miles from the road end at Kinloch Hourn to Barrisdale, then spend a muggy night in the estate bothy before the mountains could be contemplated.
Summit day dawned mercifully bright; I set off expectantly shortly after 7, a pasta breakfast consumed. A writer on Walk Highlands described Coire Dhorrcail as Lord of the Rings-esque. I can’t argue with that. The corrie was big and scary, getting out of it an unrelenting slog. Alone and having told no one of my specific plans, I had never felt so spectacularly isolated. The consequences of a trip or twist here were alarmingly apparent. This is the thrill of being in high and remote places, but – and perhaps it’s cowardly to say – on this occasion I was overawed by the exposure to danger.
Nevertheless, in a shade under two hours since leaving Barrisdale, I was on the top, a blanket of mist to the right, a gloriously clear view to the left. Standing there was like being on the rim of a smoking volcano, such was the proliferation of mist on one side and nothing to the other. How wild is Knoydart? I could have searched the web or sent an email; there was 3G coverage up there.
Ladhar Bheinn would be the physical and emotional high of the day; what ensued was struggle. I struggled up the north flank of Meall Buidhe. Don’t go there. It is steep, wet and grim. I struggled over the terrain between Meall Buidhe and Luinne Bheinn, falling heavily on an already-troubled ankle in the process. I struggled on to Luinne Bheinn, my 66th Munro. The view from here of Barrisdale and an emerald Loch Hourn is one of the most extraordinary I’ve seen from a mountain.
The final descent to Kinloch Hourn should have been a joy, but the sore ankle reduced my progress to a determined limp. After 7 hours and 17 miles I touched the door of the bothy and slumped down inside. Knoydart had redefined my perception of a ‘long mountain day’, and there were still six miles to go.
I feel guilty writing these final words: for while Knoydart is meant to captivate and inspire, I’d had my fill. I wanted to escape. This land had challenged me and – at times – scared me. I shouldered my pack, took a last glance at the mountains and got the hell out of there.
My Bob Graham Round attempt is almost upon me. In around 52 hours, at 1am on Sunday, I will set off from Moot Hall in Keswick, before proceeding up the moonlit (hopefully) slopes of Skiddaw. And thereafter? Some 60-plus miles, 42 summits, 27,000ft of ascent and descent, returning to Keswick by dusk that evening. The prospect is tremendously exciting.
There are umpteen variables that will ultimately lead to success or failure, a swift round or a pedestrian one. But there are two key variables in my mind: one, the elements; two, injury. The former looks a safe bet: no rain, high clouds, not too warm, negligible wind. Conditions don’t get more ideal.
And so to injury. My final visit to a physio was on Wednesday. I told her my left ankle was tight after just 20 minutes of running, with the surrounding tendons then becoming disconcertingly crunchy. She dismissed my concerns, saying that 20 minutes was scarcely time to get into a run, let alone adequately warm up. Her gung-ho attitude was a revelation. She massaged the ankle area, then the calf. ‘You’re fine,’ she said. After weeks of mithering, it was impossible to accept her words without grave doubt. My brain has now, finally, processed her vital information: it really is going to be fine.
The Fellsman has redefined what I understand about running. I have run ‘properly’ since I was a teenager, from the middle distance races I ran as a schoolboy and the road half-marathons and marathons of my 20s, to the gradual transition to fell, hill, mountain and trail, and now, ultras. Over the years, I’ve often described training or races as ‘hard’. How little I knew! I have a new definition for hard – the Fellsman.
Not only hard, but the hardest. The 2012 edition of the Fellsman – a 61-mile horseshoe from Ingleton to Threshfield in the Yorkshire Dales – was even more bruising, battering and exhausting than any in its previous 49 years. Almost unbelievably, the event was abandoned mid-race for the first time in its history. It all started with a runner being airlifted off Whernside with a broken bone. Then 16 competitors were being sick at one checkpoint. Another 20 were hypothermic, according to another report. Meanwhile, one poor soul was pulled from the race at 55 miles suffering with wind-blindness some five hours after the race had been called off. The race organiser was in tears as she announced to runners on Sunday morning that the rumours were true – the event was off.
That decision was taken at 1.40am on Sunday, almost three hours – mercifully – after I was back in Threshfield, having completed my first Fellsman in 12 hours, 54 minutes. Moments later I was slumped in a chair, dazed, elated, sporting a fine 1000-mile stare, contemplating the magnitude of it all, while hundreds of people were still battling a horrible north-east wind, plummeting temperatures and darkness. Jez Bragg, the race winner, had already tweeted that this Fellsman had been ‘the hardest race of his life’. And this is a guy who has won the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc and come fourth in the Western States 100.
It’s a cliché, I know, but it all started so well. Shortly after 9am on Saturday we were sent on our way from Ingleton, fresh-legged and hopeful. I ran to the summit of Ingleborough – one of the Yorkshire 3 Peaks – with the leading pack, matching Jez stride for stride. This wouldn’t last, of course. Cresting the summit, a wall of wind met us, as we darted over the plateau. I cupped my eyes fearing the ferocity of it would strip the contact lenses from my pupils.
Down Ingleborough and up Whernside, I was flying. Then, after trailing a group of racers who were attempting to chase down then leader Konrad Rawlik off Whernside, they vanished. I had badly overshot the descent; two walkers confirmed they hadn’t seen any runners in front of me. I propelled myself across a wall, glimpsed the red jackets of two runners as dots in the glen, and threw myself downhill to rejoin the race.
I had lost no more than five minutes, but I was furious with myself. I ran – rashly, aggressively – with fury, desperate to catch the guys who I had led off Whernside. I would pay for my efforts. Once on the Gragareth-Green Hill-Great Coum stretch I felt feeble. I fell three times, once while clambering over a fence, causing my left leg to cramp, and twice more into bogs. I tucked in behind Duncan Steen, who was running his second Fellsman, and he led me to the summit of Great Coum, from where we descended to Dent having run close to 20 miles.
I felt a little better after eating, but I still trotted out of the village with a cheese and onion roll and an apple in one hand, three chocolate biscuits in the other. Duncan had left no more than a minute earlier, but I wouldn’t catch him for miles. We eventually reunited on the bleak summit of Blea Moor. On the pretty road to Stonehouse, we were now a marathon into our 61-mile race. I was plagued by demons and I verbalised my anxieties. ‘I’ve still got to run further than I have ever run before – on top of a marathon,’ I moaned. My mental thoughts were darker still. It seemed impossible that I would get through this.
Ascending Great Knoutberry, I fell thigh-deep into another bog, a genuine man-eating one, while we watched the top-10 runners – except Jez – spin past on their way back down. Still running side by side, Duncan and I slipped through the 30-mile mark, then 33 – the distance of my longest run before today, and eventually to Fleet Moss checkpoint. I was dreading the next leg across the moor, famed for its peat hags and general confusion. Instead – as we set out across Fleet Moss – I felt profoundly emotional, like I could burst into tears. We were soon joined by Mark Hartell – the Mark Hartell, 11-time winner of the Fellsman, and the three of us steered a careful course across Fleet Moss. Mark, at times, seemed to be on autopilot; there was no need of a map. To him, these fells are old friends.
From Cray – where spaghetti hoops and rice pudding were consumed – we set off up Buckden Pike, some 250 metres of climbing that I didn’t need following 40-plus miles. After feeling strong on the ascent, I instantly felt weak on the tussocky descent. I began to fade, this time in a fashion that felt more terminal. The thought of running for another three hours on top of the nine I had just completed was hideous. That is, I would learn, the psychological challenge of the Fellsman. I felt very sorry for myself as I trundled along. The cold too seemed to grip me for the first time, making me shiver despite my layers. I had been slowing for some time, but the extent of my slowdown accelerated on the way to Park Rash. Mark disappeared into the distance; Duncan took out 200 metres on me.
It didn’t matter, though. It was after 7pm. We would all be grouped at Park Rash for the final stint over Great Whernside. More fool them for running ahead, I thought. They’ll have to wait for me. But Mark was nowhere to be seen when I arrived. Nor can I remember what Duncan was doing, but we mumbled some words about the prospect of being grouped. Then one of the people marshalling the checkpoint told us that if we cleared off in two minutes, we would not be grouped (or words to that effect). We didn’t need to be asked twice. Grabbing a handful of custard creams and cocktail sausages, we abandoned the tent and marched towards Great Whernside, marvelling at our luck.
Not that that made life easier in any way. Everything ached: my arms, back, stomach, chest. My ankles throbbed; my right knee was twinging; my feet were sore; my eyelids drooped. The Bob Graham Round, I thought. No way. Not in a million years. This is destroying me. Even talking was an effort. Duncan and I didn’t say much. We were running up Great Whernside together in a blustery dusk but we had retreated into our own worlds of survival. At one point I remember thinking I had better eat something and stuffed a custard cream in my mouth. I bit once but the cold meant I couldn’t chew. I opened my mouth and allowed the wind to blow away the crumbs like dust.
It was dreadful on top of Great Whernside. The wind was howling and cold. I’ll never forget the frantic thrumming of my jacket hood as we left the summit. We trudged on, knowing that every step would bring us closer to salvation, but still that salvation didn’t seem a reality. The journey to the penultimate checkpoint, Capplestone Gate, was interminable. The brief high of reaching this – the 55-mile mark – was checked by the thought of a further 6 miles to go. We had, effectively, a 10k to do – something I could do in 35 minutes on a good day. A mere sub-65 minute 10k on this occasion would bring us home in under 13 hours.
Something forced us on, into the night. Even when Duncan fell awkwardly over a metal fence, he simply got up and started running again. No complaining. Our pace was inexorably slowing, but there was no collapse, no bonk. Run, run, run – that’s all we knew to do. I entered a trance-like state, oblivious to why I should keep going, but keep going I would nonetheless.
Yarnbury. Wonderful Yarnbury. Mile 59. I suddenly felt rejuvenated. I set off down the road, as if I was running the last two miles of a fast 10k, enthralled by the bright lights of Grassington below. I felt like I was flying, sprinting downhill, flashing past pubs and an Indian restaurant. The speed and ease of these miles was utterly incongruous to the previous 59. The finish – a school foyer – was similarly incongruous to the epicness of the Fellsman, yet the finish is the finish, and – appropriately – after one final climb I stumbled through the door of Upper Wharfedale School.
Sitting on that chair, I quickly decided I hated the whole ordeal. Never again. Once was enough. Duncan arrived three minutes later; he looked like he was thinking the same thing. Memory is an unfaithful mistress, however; within minutes my mind was blocking out the worst. The sheer horror was becoming hazy. It didn’t seem quite so bad, I reckoned. Finally prising myself off the seat, I tucked my stinking trainers under an arm and proudly hobbled to the showers to wash away 61 miles worth of Yorkshire muck.
My body aches. It aches in a way that only two days of Bob Graham recce can induce. My quads ache. My thighs ache. Even my arms ache. But, to corrupt that hackneyed saying: 11 hours and 35 miles on the Lakeland fells will make me stronger.
Apart from the inevitable ache, the consequences of recce are twofold: one, you gain confidence in the ground you must cross; two, you appreciate a host of problems that the ground you must cross poses. The consequence of familiarisation is, therefore, the creation of a whole load of dilemmas and difficulties that you hadn’t previously considered. Ignorance really is bliss when it comes to the Bob Graham.
Nevertheless, on the plus side, I now know the second half of leg 3 – Rossett Pike to Wasdale – the Great Gable section of leg 4 and all of leg 1 a little more intimately. I felt pretty fit too. Some 18 miles over Bowfell, the Scafells and Great Gable on day one was perfectly manageable. On top of Scafell, we sat in short sleeves as a fairytale snow fell. Day two was harder, of course, but conditions on snow-speckled Skiddaw were inspirational. And, after years of going to the Lake District, I summited the marvellous Blencathra for the first time.
I’ve plenty to worry about too, like finding the summit of Bowfell in bad weather, the long descent off Scafell, the muddy sloppiness of Candleseaves Bog en route to Great Calva, the longness of the climb to Blencathra, and what proved to be an unenjoyable plummet to Threlkeld via Hall’s Fell.
But perhaps the most important revelation came between Scafell Pike and Scafell. There are three ways to gain Scafell from Mickledore: via Foxes Tarn, Broad Stand or Lord’s Rake. Broad Stand – a Moderate rock climb up often-slippery rock – was our first objective. The climb isn’t much to write home about, apparently, but the prospect of climbing Broad Stand following some 12 hours of running the Bob Graham round seems implausible. And so it was today – after less than 4 hours.
Having squeezed through Fat Man’s Agony to reach the start of the climb, I came to the platform described by Wainwright as the ‘limit’ of pedestrians’ ambitions. Indeed, it was mine. A mere pedestrian, I retraced my steps through the gully and made for Lord’s Rake, realising in these moments that I would not climb Broad Stand in my Bob Graham attempt. I was thrilled at my decisiveness.
I’d never visited Lord’s Rake, but I’d heard the stories about a mighty lump of rock that crowns the first col one comes to. If it falls, which it undoubtedly will one day, the person beneath will experience a fair bit of discomfort. The rock was obvious from the bottom of Lord’s Rake: a giant fang balanced across two walls. Lord’s Rake was a slippery, very steep conveyer belt of scree. I enjoyed it immensely, despite the occasional rock rapping my ankles. A pool of blood decorating a rock near the col reiterated this was a place worthy of respect.
Soon, however, we were on open hillside, trundling happily towards Scafell’s rocky crest where – minutes later – we would sit in wonder, first at the spectacle of Wast Water, then at the magical sprinkling of snow flakes all around us.
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.
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.
The best city for running? The answer is subjective, of course. Who am I (or anyone else, for that matter) to suggest Nottingham is better than Norwich, or Dundee is better than Derby. We all have favourite places, whether we’ve lived there for 50 years or once passed through on a sunny afternoon and thought: this seems like a nice place.
Moreover, much depends on what the runner likes beneath his or her trainers/spikes/fell shoes (and so on): road, trail, cross-country, fell, hill, mountain, tow path, river bank, park. If you like running on coast paths, Birmingham is not much use. If you like the fells, Cambridge is best avoided. If you are incline-phobic, Sheffield is a bad place for you. I’ve lived in enough cities to have a view, yet my favourite city to run in remains one I haven’t lived in. One day, perhaps.
First up, Exeter: the scene of my university days. I remember runs down the Exe, all the way to Dawlish Warren, and up and down the formidable hill that winds up to the university campus. It was also in Exeter where I learned that just the right level of intoxication made me feel like I was flying, not running, as I made my late-night way back to halls.
Then there was Preston. A river beckoned again, the Ribble. I lived here for a year, spending that time training seriously for the Paris Marathon and a BUSA indoor championship 1500m race (in which I was comfortably last). I remember once running from the city centre to the M56 junction at Broughton with a super-fit soldier who hurdled traffic barriers and had a suicidal approach to crossing roads. I liked Preston, and I liked running in Preston, probably because I didn’t live there long enough for the place to get boring.
Work took me to Cheltenham (a town, not a city, I realise). One of the best things about Cheltenham is its 1930s lido, hence I made a short-term transition to triathlon. The sport didn’t possess me like the singularity of running would. Nor could the meagre salary of a cub reporter support the lifestyle of a triathlete. Living in Cheltenham was, however, a launch pad to the hills – Cleeve, Leckhampton and Nottingham, notably, and for the first time I experienced that now regular sensation of lactic drowning my calf muscles.
As is often the case, you don’t appreciate a place until you have left. I swapped Cheltenham for Peterborough, a low and flat land. I’m tempted to add ‘uninspiring’ but that would be unnecessarily cruel. Trotting around Ferry Meadows and along the River Nene was generally a pleasure, after all. There were less good times, though. When the wind blew, there was rarely a hiding place, while the glaring absence of an even modest inclines meant my ‘hill’ reps started from below sea level, in the bowels of a quarry.
And so to Inverness. I felt safe in Inverness. In London, you never know what might be lurking in a bush. I hate that feeling – not so much living in fear, but the sense that you can’t let your guard slip. Craig Dunain is to Inverness what Arthur’s Seat is to Edinburgh. Only a lot less famous. A protrusion at the end of a wide ridge that drops to the Beauly Forth, Craig Dunain is an innocuous tump, a domain of the Forestry Commission. Even the Great Glen Way ignores the summit. But ask me now, or on many, many other occasions, where I’d like to be running, the answer is Craig Dunain. Preferably with a torch strapped to my head, in the dark, in mist, and with a cover of snow on the ground.
I think about Craig Dunain when I run in London. Chalk and cheese. London – inevitably busy, smelly, smoky – isn’t too bad really. I can run an 8-mile loop from home through the commons of Tooting Bec, Wandsworth and Clapham. I can gain one of the most astonishing views in the world when I run across Waterloo Bridge. I can (almost) get lost in the tracks that criss-cross the Addington Hills above Croydon.
Exeter, Preston, Cheltenham, Peterborough, Inverness, London – put them together and you’ve got an ultimate running destination. But that’s impossible, which means, for me, Edinburgh, a city I have never lived in, wins. Maybe I’m overly impressionable? I’ve just spent three days there – although it did rain incessantly. But each time I go there I’m giddy at the prospect of running in this city. I was on Arthur’s Seat on Friday (as were dozens of others) and looking down on Edinburgh the possibilities seemed immense, incalculable. I picked out three hills I had ran over in previous days – Blackford, Braid and Craiglockhart. I must do the Seven Hills of Edinburgh race, I told myself.
My mind was working. I could run into the Pentland Hills. I could cross the Forth bridge to Fife. I could run down to the sea and the docks. I could be running over Munros in less than two hours. I could be up here – on the breezy, rocky summit of Arthur’s Seat – every day. So that’s why I choose Edinburgh – because nowhere else do the possibilities of running and living seem so powerful.