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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


The unpredictable art of running blogging

I have been blogging for some years. I was a writer and journalist first. My original purpose was to support the publication of my first book, Heights of Madness, and my second and third books thereafter. Over time, heightsofmadness.com graduated into a running blog – a blog that last week pleasingly surpassed 50,000 visits. Writing permits self-expression, reflection and can be a carthotic process, but writers also write to be read. As I tell my students, writing is meant to be read. Writing must have an audience. Writing must provoke a response.

What is always surprising, however, is what people want to read and what becomes popular. Every blogger will empathise with the time you spent hours crafting the apparently perfect blog, adorned with beautiful images and scrupulously edited, only for very few people to engage with your masterpiece. And then there is the blog that you knocked into shape in 10 minutes while on the bus or the train from somewhere to somewhere that racks up hundreds of visits.

What I have learnt about blogging, particularly in the overcrowded market of running blogging, is that if you don’t shout, no-one will listen. The most successful blog posts – and I certainly don’t mean the best written, most interesting or most entertaining – stem from exposure, be it on social media or the traditional media. The cream does not always rise to the top.

To mark 50,000 visits for heightsofmadness.com and in the spirit of if-you-don’t-blow-your-own-trumpet-you-don’t-get-anywhere these are my most visited blog posts.

1. ‘I was there…’ Marking 125 years of Herne Hill Harriers


2. ‘Do you want beans with that?’ A tribute to Stan Allen

Stan Allen

3. Bob Graham Round – SUCCESS!


4. Overcoming adversity and adverse conditions at the Box Hill fell race

 Box Hill village

5. Mont Ventoux

The north side of Ventoux

6. Beachy Head Marathon 2011 – race report

Beachy Head

7. The Bob Graham Round as seen from the water-carrier’s corner


8. The madness of the ultra-distance runner


9. Isle of Jura Fell Race

The finish

10. Running with the horses: Man v Horse 2014



10 inspirational places to run in Britain

Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

A mountain amid a city, a volcanic plug, a tourist honeypot. Run over grassy ramparts, slip beneath the towering Salisbury Crags, try not to stop running on a steep, winding, unending staircase, scramble the final steps to the rocky, breezy summit of Arthur’s Seat. While you are unlikely to be alone, you ran here, with every uphill step heightening the sumptuous glimpse of Edinburgh, the Firth of Forth, Fife and the Pentlands. There are few places where the possibilities of running and living seem so powerful.

1 Arthur's Seat

The Seven Sisters and Beachy Head, Sussex

Once Cuckmere Haven has been escaped, the Seven Sisters emerge suddenly – a violently undulating carpet of grass ending in sheer white cliffs. This is the view that faces runners in the annual Beachy Head Marathon having already negotiated close to 20 miles. Beachy Head and the finish line in Eastbourne appear a lifetime away. Count the Sisters off. Try not to succumb to walking. Hard? Yes. Inspiring? Undoubtedly. You could be plodding along concrete; instead, you are running the finest final six miles of a marathon a runner could wish for.

2 Beachy Head

Worcestershire Beacon, Malvern Hills

‘The most beautiful silhouette in the world.’ Who are we to argue with Stanley Baldwin? Best viewed from the east, the Malverns rise shockingly from the Vale of Evesham, a British Himalaya. There are few finer expeditions than the challenging, rolling run across the backbone of the hills, with a well-trodden path leaping over top after top, to reach Worcestershire Beacon at its northern end, from where – on a fine day – the onlooker can glimpse 13 counties and the cathedrals of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester.

3 Worcestershire Beacon

Craig Dunain, Inverness

A crowd of Inverness Harriers’ athletes had been running for several miles on forestry tracks around Craig Dunain when a vision of loveliness in the evening haze appeared before us: the vast sprawl of a glistening Loch Ness. Tourists travel thousands of miles to glimpse this; we had jogged here from the outskirts of Inverness on our regular Tuesday night run. ‘What’s that?’ I was asked. ‘Lock Ness,’ I fired back. We ran on, the Highlanders sniggering at the poorly enunciating Sassanach.

4 Craig Dunain

St Annes on Sea, Lancashire

When the sea ebbs at St Annes, it all but vanishes into the haze of a far-off horizon. Running towards that horizon provokes a queer sensation. Where are the obstacles? The buildings? The mountaintops? The junctions? There is nothing but soaking sand stretching into oblivion. Run and run and run, and turn. You have run away from civilisation. The pier and seafront houses are inconsequential dots. The loneliness is overwhelming, filling the runner with fear. The sky is impossibly large, the ground endless, and you imagine the sea could suck you away at any moment.

5 St Annes on Sea

Harris, Rum

Home to no more than two dozen people and an aggressive midge population, Rum is the largest of the Small Isles, pitched off the west coast of Scotland. Running west on a track from Kinloch, then turning south over a col before plunging to the ocean at Harris, the runner will encounter – if they are lucky – no-one. Harris is no more, an abandoned township circled by shuddering mountains. Turning your back to the ghostly remains is a wild Atlantic surf breaking on a deserted, rocky beach.

6 Rum

Skiddaw, Lake District

It is 2.15am. It is very dark. The twinkling lights of Keswick have vanished into mist. The beam of the head torch is thrown back in my face. Following an hour of gradually moving uphill, the land flattens. The 933-metre summit. Another world. A black, godforsaken world, jumbled with rock, smashed by a tremendous wind. I scramble across the confusion, seeking out the triangulation pillar. It is found – joyously – and murmuring a little prayer in my thoughts, I flee, running frantic zig-zags downhill to escape that other world.

7 Skiddaw

Tooting Bec Common, London

Familiarity breeds contempt, the saying goes, but familiarity also breeds fondness. Humans need constancy and Tooting Bec Common is my constant. The seasons change, motivation and running spirits fluctuate, but the common endures. Flat as a Frisbee, split by railway tracks and home to the second largest lido in Europe, there is no gloss to Tooting Common. Battersea Park or Hyde Park, it is not. The thousands of people – from shufflers to sprinters, from beginners to serial marathoners – who are drawn to Tooting Bec are grateful for that.

8 Tooting Bec Common

Kynance Cove, Cornwall

Like a vision from the Caribbean, Kynance Cove is the marvel of the Lizard peninsula. Azure seas, golden sand, rocky outcrops, and – for the runner – a rollercoaster coastal footpath that showcases the charms of the cove. From here, perhaps after feeding and watering at the beach café, the runner can climb steeply on an undulating path above cliffs before arriving at Lizard Point, the modest southern-reach of the British mainland, a world away from the commercialism of that other great Cornish full stop, Land’s End.

9 Kynance Cove

Ladhar Bheinn, Knoydart

Knoydart is the ‘Land of the Giants’, a Scottish west coast peninsula suffused in the mythology of the outdoors. To stand on the summit of Ladhar Bheinn – a 1020-metre Munro – after several hours of the roughest, toughest, wildest hill running in the British Isles is to be spectacularly isolated. The consequences of a trip or twist here are alarming and potentially fatal. Danger is juxtaposed with supreme beauty: to the west is an astonishing window into a world of ocean, island and mountain.

10 Ladhar Bheinn

A version of this article is published on the SportPursuit blog.