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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 on the edge: on foot on Scotland’s west coast

A British expat living in Thailand was visiting a tourist centre on Koh Chang when a photograph, purportedly of the island’s Kai Bae beach, engaged his attention. To the casual observer, nothing was amiss. Here was an illustration of the unerring beauty of the Koh Chang coastline: a white-sand beach, a cobalt sea, a shimmering sky. It was unquestionably a Thai paradise.

Or not, for something was indeed amiss. This was no Thai beach, the expat realised. It was a beach on Berneray, a Hebridean island pitched off the west coast of Scotland, some 6,000 miles from south-east Asia. The hills in the 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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Hill running: the ultimate sporting juxtaposition?

I was planning a break from running today. But then I had cause to go to IKEA. And the panorama of the snow-capped Pentlands from the car park of aforementioned Swedish emporium was like gazing up at a hill runners’ nirvana. And my running stuff happened to be in the car just in case. So I drove to Flotterstone and ran uphill. Now at home and poised in front of a laptop, I am searching for an appropriate adjective to describe what I saw. Lots come to mind: scintillating, breathtaking, inspiring, beautiful… They all sound cliché, though. You know what, I can’t grasp the right word, the word I really want. But it was scintillating, breathtaking, Continue reading

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A record-breaking Ramsay Round for the 21st century

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

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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

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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

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8. The madness of the ultra-distance runner

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9. Isle of Jura Fell Race

The finish

10. Running with the horses: Man v Horse 2014

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@MuirJonny

Running and writing: top tips from the Write This Run conference

Write This Run, which, funnily enough, unites writing and running in both an online, virtual community and at real life conferences, is one of those annoyingly good ideas that I wish I’d had. Laura Fountain and Liz Goodchild got their first. Incidentally, I know Laura from university a decade ago. Had I suggested she join a group of four of us running the Paris Marathon in 2004, she would have laughed in my face.

I jumped on the Write This Run bandwagon on Saturday, speaking at the group’s November conference about, funnily enough, writing and running. Conference is a dull word, isn’t it? Let’s call it a convivial meeting of running minds.

This is the gist of what I had to say about better blogging and writing.

1. Find the nugget –

As running bloggers we need to decide: do we write about running, or do we write about things that are actually interesting to our fellow human beings? This may not always be about running. Running is tedious. Sometimes there is absolutely nothing to say – by that I mean nothing of interest – and then it is best to shut up. There are some desperately boring blog posts out there. You’ve seen them. You’ve written them. I’ve written them. They go along the lines of: Today I ran the Kidderminster 10k. The alarm woke me at 7. I had a piece of toast for breakfast, with strawberry jam rather than my usual marmalade. The car park was nearly full when I arrived, but I was lucky enough to get the last parking space. On arrival, I met Sandra and Jim who told me that Simon couldn’t race because he had stubbed his toe on a plant pot. And so on.

No imagination. As Einstein said, imagination is more important than intelligence.

I trained as a journalist and one of our lecturers demanded we green student journalists find the nugget. The nugget. Essentially, the most important, exciting, repulsive, evocative, funny, interesting, entertaining detail, the thing you would tell your mates in the pub after saying, you never guess what. And that is where you start. Not when the alarm clock goes off.

2. Give fully of yourself –

A running friend once told me after reading Isles at the Edge of the Sea that I was prone to exaggeration. A reviewer on Amazon wrote of Heights of Madness: ‘Found his constant whinging put me off.’ I also remember Richard Askwith being criticised when he compared his injured, weary plight atop a misty mountain in the wonderful Feet in the Clouds as akin to a soldier at war.

Askwith was giving fully of himself. I was giving fully of myself.

Sometimes, when you are running up that hill or churning through mud or on an eighth three-minute repetition with two to go, life is pure torture. There is simply nothing more diabolical than this thing that you willingly started. This is the moment to capture. Feelings dissipate and disappear very quickly, and you have to remember the purity of those moments. Capture too the contrasting emotions of euphoria, of course. But that’s never as interesting. Besides, I don’t believe evangelical writing about running. You’re clearly not running hard enough if you’ve time for euphoria.

3. Do something different –

The highest number of hits on my blog this year was a race report I wrote on the Box Hill fell race, which went ahead in January in snow. Rather than write a straightforward post, I wrote a satirical report that mocked the news stories of that weekend that spoke about ‘treacherous’ weather when there were just a few inches of snow, and I spoke liberally about health and safety. It was like reading a copy of the Daily Express. Although that’s nothing to be proud of.

You can go even further. If you’re bored of your own voice, change it. Switch the narrator from you to something else. A pair of shoes? A water bottle? Or, be indulgent – write about yourself in the third person. Give your new voice a character, a personality. It is nothing to do with running, but to give a useful non-running example, when asked to write creatively about church and religion (what was I thinking?) one of my less-than-enthusiastic school students proposed the idea of an atheist hymn book. He created a memorable narrative voice: irritable, frustrated and on a mission to convert those who opened him. It was a triumph and all started with a little imagination. Thank you, again, Einstein.

If an 11-year-old boy can make their writing illuminating, you definitely can.

WTR panel

WTR panel

@MuirJonny

A ‘bad’ review and a right to reply

Reviews are important to writers. Although eagerly anticipated, they are feared. The views of a few – be they newspaper or magazine reviewers, or increasingly book sellers and book websites – guide the masses. Few outlets are as important as Amazon. I don’t know what percentage of my total book sales come from Amazon, but I imagine it’s a significant amount.

Prior to last week, Isles at the Edge of the Sea, my second book published in 2011, had been reviewed on Amazon five times. They are all generally positive, containing phrases like ‘a great read’, which cheer me no end. Such positivity ran out last week when a reviewer, called excile9, wrote under the headline ‘More fact than fiction’: ‘I read the three sections covering Lewis, Harris and St Kilda and I had to give up. Inaccuracies were peppered throughout and gave the impression the “diary” format was written from memory. In places it certainly lacked knowledge of the geography and history.’

Ouch.

One star out of five. If he/she could have awarded a zero, I imagine he/she would have done. A link to the review is here.

I don’t mind bad reviews. Honestly. We all hold different opinions. The Harry Potter books didn’t do much for me; I struggled with The Great Gatsby. Does my little judgement discredit Rowling or Fitzgerald? Of course not. It’s simply a point of view – like saying I prefer the colour green over blue. Moreover, I expect critical reviews. They show people are reading the books. They show that your words can provoke a reaction. That’s got to be better than passivity. Some people will like what you do. Others will hate it.

However, this ‘bad’ review left me puzzled. Admittedly, two of the last three chapters of Isles are potentially the most controversial. The Lewis chapter deals with the highly sensitive issue of Sabbatarianism; the St Kilda chapter focuses on the 1930 evacuation of the archipelago, an emotive and much-debated topic some 80 years on. Because of these factors, my greatest care was spent crafting these two chapters. My observations on Sabbatarianism were based on conversations with members of the Free Church of Scotland; I deliberately didn’t insert my own opinions in this section, because, frankly, I didn’t think I was qualified to do so.

As for St Kilda, the entire chapter was proofed by a professor of Scottish history (as were the details about the evacuation of Scarp in the Harris chapter). Indeed, it was on his insistence (and latest research) that I included the Scottish Office’s rejection of a proposal for regular steamship services to St Kilda as a key reason for its decline in the 1920s. If there are inaccuracies in this chapter (and anywhere else in the book), I’d be keen to know them, as would, I am sure, the professor.

I’m going to stop there. I’ve got excile9 off my chest. Except – suffice to say – the book was ‘written from memory’, with, of course, the aid of extensive diary notes, photographs and reams of researched material. Find me a travel book that isn’t written in this spirit.

It’s a too often quoted proverb, but it’s worth hauling out on this occasion: You can’t please everyone.

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.

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.

A mini-Welsh adventure

The first thing – and it really is the very, very first thing – you notice when you return to London from cycling pretty much anywhere in the UK that is not a city or large town, are traffic lights. Hideous, everywhere-you-turn, always-on-red traffic lights. I once counted 60 sets of traffic lights on an eight-mile journey between Streatham and Euston; I’d have had to spend another week pedalling through Wales to tot up that many. Still, there is one consolation to being back in London. Every male cyclist will empathise. No cattle grids.

So, three days in Wales, cycling from Swansea to Chester via Aberystwyth, 170 miles in all. It rained only slightly on day one, a day I’ll remember for a formidably tough climb north of Trefilan. On the evening of day two – after a visit to the Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth, we found ourselves thundering along dark, windy roads (in a car, mercifully) to attend a two-hour public meeting about wind turbines in Newtown. These are the perils of travelling with an environmentalist. We returned to a hostel dormitory full of hot air and, later, the detestable, infuriating sound of snoring.

Rolling north from Corris on a crisp, almost wintry start to day three, Cadair Idris loomed ahead. The mountain was shouting to be climbed. It was a straightforward affair along the Minffordd path. Ascents of the Nuttalls, Craig Cwm Amarch (791m) and Mynydd Moel (863m), sandwiched the real business of the day, the Penygadair summit of Cadair Idris (893m). What a lovely view from this top, the blue and yellow glow of the Barmouth estuary and the striking outline of the Lleyn peninsula in particular. Llyn Cau was a pane of glass. The summit hut was a surprise too; I didn’t know it was there. A welcome retreat on bad days.

I broke into a trot off Myndd Moel as I contemplated the hours it would yet take me to cycle to Chester. I was fine until I hit midway point on the ever-rising Dolgellau-Bala road. I had avoided Dolgellau to shave off miles, but was paying with the bonk. Then a gear cable snapped, leaving a bonking man with just three gears in his armoury. I ate to excess in Bala, then again in Rug 10 miles up the road. A food-induced recovery did not transpire, however, and I spent 15 or 20 miles of up and down feeling sorry for myself. I can’t remember exactly where – shortly after Rhydtalog perhaps – the view ahead altered very suddenly. Ahead and below were the seething tentacles of civilisation – houses, cities, factories, shopping centres. No hills, no lakes, no sheep, no cattle grids. And then, also quite suddenly, there was a long, gradual (and, as it turned out, extremely welcome) escape route to England.

 Preparing to depart Brechfa

 Aberystwyth beach

 Llyn Cau

 Craig Cwm Amarch

 Llyn Cau from Craig Cwm Amarch

 Looking east from Cadair Idris