img_3297-1

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

img_2586

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

img_0955

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

img_1274

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

img_1125-1

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

img_0661

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

IMG_0296

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

20140705-104426-38666933.jpg

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

20140113-182113.jpg

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

Stan Allen

3. Bob Graham Round – SUCCESS!

Hindscarth

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

20140526-170827.jpg

8. The madness of the ultra-distance runner

20120318-171012.jpg

9. Isle of Jura Fell Race

The finish

10. Running with the horses: Man v Horse 2014

20140615-190134-68494512.jpg

@MuirJonny

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.

@MuirJonny

Wild swimming in the River Findhorn

There is a place where the River Findhorn and the Davoch Burn meet, a wild place where soldiers of Scottish legend once battled. Here the churning gorge of Randolph ‘s Leap is a whisper on the breeze. A beach of shingle drops sharply into the confluence. I am ankle-deep. A step. Now thigh-deep. The water – water that once fell as rain or perhaps snow in the high Monadhliath – grasps at my legs, strangers to its previously unbroken flow. A sharp breath and I’m in and under, and suddenly breathless. I swim from the Irn Bru of the Davoch Burn into black, unknown depths, and roll onto my back. I swim again, into the whisky of the Findhorn. The water shallows and I can no longer swim. Dragging hands over slimy rocks, I reach the far bank. I have crossed a river. I shuffle and swim back to the river’s centre, guarded by a boulder. I scramble up and jump into the deeper, fast-flowing water on the other side. I swim, a lusty front crawl, against the current, the outflow of the Davoch. The fight cannot be won; the river’s will is unceasing. Knowing it is time to go, I emerge. Waist-deep. A step. Ankle-deep. And out, back on shingle, wondering which is the greater part of the wild swim: the wild or the swim?

20130803-153059.jpg

20130803-153202.jpg

Stretching is bad for your health

I dabbled with proper mountain running when I lived in Scotland. Ben Nevis, Paps of Jura, Goatfell, Loch Lochy. That sort of thing. One of my strongest memories of this period was the Slioch hill race, a 12-mile dash up and down a Munro and its top. It is brutal: two to three (or four) hours of punishment. The fellows preparing for the race lined up idly and when the time came to depart, it appeared the only muscle the throng had stretched was their tongues. We ran. Up, along, down. We survived.

Stretching? What need is there for such a triviality?

Stretching is bad for you. Stretching antagonises. Stretching makes the stretcher dwell, even obsess, on that blighted area of injury. You lie awake thinking, thinking, thinking about that godforsaken body part. Your dark, lonely thoughts magnify the tweak into an I’ll-never-run-again disaster. The policy of quietly ignoring a niggle or ache should not be underestimated.

Yet, here I am nursing an irritating niggle behind a knee. The advice, inevitably? Stretch.

This is easier said than done. Stretching is harder than running. I would rather run for an hour in the rain, in the cold, in the dark, than stretch for an hour in the warm and comfortable.

But, it seems the one hour run in the rain, cold and dark will not happen without the one hour of stretching. I am two weeks into an eight-week holiday – sorry, I am a teacher – and I run the risk of losing a summer of running if I do not stretch and rest.

Only an idiot would persist with running.

Unfortunately, I am that idiot.

20130722-111919.jpg

An anarchic run around the Seven Hills of Edinburgh

Running is an expression of anarchy. What other sport lacks limitations? Running is a metaphor for life; what path you choose to take. Running, essentially, is freedom. I was reminded of the glorious anarchy of running in Edinburgh. I had resolved to run the route of The Seven Hills of Edinburgh, a 14-mile loop (I contrived to make it 19) of the famous and prominent bumps of the Scottish capital. There’s nothing very anarchic about following the route of another (and certainly not that of a mass participation race), I appreciate, but bear with me.

The annual race – held on the third Saturday in June – starts and finishes on Calton Hill in the city centre. However, running from Morningside, I made Braid Hill my first objective instead. Once on the summit, I felt breathless and unfit, but I pressed on nonetheless; it is normal to feel like this after Christmas. Blackford Hill, muddy and slippery, Arthur’s Seat, windy and magnificent, passed, then Calton Hill, much of it crudely barricaded for Hogmanay.

Left onto North Bridge, right onto Royal Mile: an ironic setting for anarchy. It was raining hard in a diagonal fashion.The wind was whistling. The temperature hovered a notch or two above zero. The runner was wearing T-shirt and shorts. A piper was playing Amazing Grace. William Wallace, his face daubed in blue, shouted: ‘For freedom, for Facebook.’ Adam Smith glowered down at me. I accelerated on the incline, over cobbles, dodging pedestrians, weaving around and under umbrellas. Some stared, some saw and ignored, some didn’t even note my existence. A teenage girl screeched in horror. A man running in those shorts, in this weather? It was all too much to take. I was smiling.

I stood in the middle of the esplanade before Edinburgh Castle. There’s only so long a runner can pause, so I was very quickly off. As I made for the West End and Corstorphine Hill thereafter, I mused on the Royal Mile moment. That is why I run, I decided, to live these precious moments of anarchy.

Braid Hill

1. Braid Hill – 213m

Blackford Hill

2. Blackford Hill – 164m

Arthur's Seat

3. Arthur’s Seat – 251m

Calton Hill

4. Calton Hill – 103m

Castle Rock

5. Castle Rock – 128m

Corstorphine Hill

6. Corstorphine Hill – 162m

Craiglockhart Hill

7. Easter Craiglockhart Hill – 157m