Eight years ago, I remember driving up the A9 thinking that we might die. At that time our car was this anti-aerodynamic Vauxhall Agila. Our little silver box on wheels was getting blown about the road in crazy winds and it was hard to see through the sheets of sleet. Massive lorries kept thundering past, their draft further throwing us around the road. The A9 can offer white knuckle driving at the best of times, but this was special. My wife and I had planned a spring trekking break in the Cairngorms, but the horrendous weather was making us think that our long weekend would be spent in the pub… if we made it to Avimore in the first place. We eventually made it to the hotel in twice the amount of time it should have, checked in and fell asleep to the sound of rain hammering the window.
We woke to an odd light streaming through the curtains and a strange silence. When I drew the curtains, I could see that everything was covered in a couple feet of lovely powdery snow, and it was still falling. It seems the temperature had dropped just enough overnight for the rain to transform into snow. We were treated to a winter wonderland at the tail end of March. We weren’t prepared for the snow, so we just did some lower level walks rather than the Munros we had planned.
It was magical. Ever since then, I’ve had a real love for the Cairngorms and keep returning.
Our most recent trip was about eight years on from that unexpected snowy break. Big changes since then — we came up during the half-term holiday with two little people in tow. We both took up running after we had the kids.
We were able to spend a good chunk of time running on some of the trails around the Cairngorms; many thanks to grandparents who were willing to watch the kids so we could indulge our hobby! We haven’t spent much time running in the area before. Turns out it’s a fantastic place to run.
We made a point of running the routes that we walked in the snow eight years ago. The vistas were the same, but they were emblazoned in autumnal glory, rather than sparkly wintery whites. Both equally stunning views and somehow now better given the contrast of seeing the same landscape transformed by the seasons.
We also ran some new-to-us trails. We based ourselves in lovely Carrbridge. The village has a nice network of trails through the local woodlands. It makes for very enjoyable running on almost bouncy pine needle covered paths. Quite similar to the trails that I remember walking on as a kid in California’s high sierra. Wildlife everywhere! We saw red deer, red squirrels, and bold songbirds. Here’s a good map; we were able to run most of the marked trails. The Carr Plantation Trail was a real highlight.
The Cairngorms aren’t really known as an autumn destination (though the National Park has published this article showing why it should be considered as such). The skiing takes a lot of attention as well as more serious long mountain treks. But it’s fantastic this time of year. The mix of deciduous and evergreen trees makes for some cracking views. We did get a bit of rain, but the weather felt more ‘settled’ than it has on some of our summer trips to the area. Another nice thing about running up there is that the trails are well defined and not terribly boggy. Navigation feels pretty straightforward.
So if you have the chance, enjoy the Cairngorms in autumn for a run. It has everything from nice groomed low level trails to serious big mountain ascents. And while Aviemore is not going to win any awards for architecture, it’s a handy base with good infrastructure, outdoors shops, and food. It’s a lovely place and I can’t wait to go back.
The Kippen Trail Race has become one of my favourite events on the calendar. I did it last year and made a point of making time to do it again.
It stands out in contrast to my previous race, the Salomon Ring of Steall — with its huge participant numbers, corporate sponsorship, big screen telly with clips of rad pro runners downhilling, a big Salomon truck selling the latest kit, etc. Not that I have anything against that. I enjoyed being part of such a big, almost over the top, event like that (and admit that a big city marathon appeals for the same reason). All of this said, I feel like the lower key races on the calendar capture something of the heart of trail running: it brings the most basic and joyful elements of the sport to the centre. The Kippen Trail Race fits into that category.
There’s not much pomp or pretentiousness to the Kippen Trail Race. It’s very well organised, friendly, and feels like genuine community event. It’s supported by local businesses: Skinner of Kippen , Rhubarb Lime, The Inn at Kippen, and – exciting for me – on of my favourite breweries the Fallen Brewing Company (if seeing those cans of lovely local beer isn’t enough to inspire you to run hard…). Conditions were challenging this year. The rain was absolutely chucking it down and even the hardiest runners found themselves huddling for shelter in the retro football changing room. Despite the obvious challenge of the elements, there were still a lot of smiles and laughter.
I did the race on my own last year. This year I made sure to get my family to come along, because I was sure everyone would enjoy it. I wasn’t wrong!
My son took part in the preschool field race and came in second place (proud dad!). Preschool races are both ridiculously cute and hilarious. I love how all the kids just stop immediately at the finish and the way my boy can’t run in a straight line but still gives it 100% enthusiasm. He loved it, but really wanted there to be more races for him!
There’s a 1 mile race for older children. Around the start of this one the heavens opened and it began to bucket. The kids were pretty stoic. It was my daughter’s first trail race and she seemed a bit unsure about the whole thing, but still took off like a trooper at the start. There are some blisteringly quick kids at that race! My wee girl made it around the course, but was soaked to the bone and was a bit annoyed that she had slipped to the back of the pack. But once she dried out and had an empire biscuit, she felt pretty good about her accomplishment – but kindly requested that we have a sunny day next time! My son, on the other hand, “wants to get really muddy like the big boys” when he takes part next time.
The full race was the same as last year. It’s a 7.5km route with 150m of climbing. The course starts from the sports field, heads up through a wood to a couple of farm roads, then back down to the start via a farmer’s field. It’s a short course, but packs a lot in. There’s a good climb to start with, some tarmac, some rocky dirt road, open field, speedy grassy descent, and some singletrack. The views are great as well. Most of us are used to seeing the contour of the Campsies from Glasgow, but the Kippen Trail Race gives us a totally different look at these underappreciated hills, looking southwards at them from the route’s highest point. It’s a nice distraction during the rather fast and furious pace of this one.
I felt good about my run last year and conditions were great. So I was really pleased with cutting 2m47sec off my previous time, especially with the rain and mud this time around. I came 22nd out of 42 runners. I probably could’ve cut a few more seconds had I not played up for the camera, but what’s the fun in that?
The Kippen Trail Race is always great fun. I’m making this one a regular fixture on the calendar.
When I showed up to Springburn parkrun on the 19th of August, I wasn’t planning on attempting to run my best time. My fuelling the evening before was hardly ideal: fish and chips chased down with a bottle of Lomond Gold. Despite that, I felt surprisingly sprightly at the starting line. When Bobby did the countdown and shouted “Go!” I found myself running nearer the front of the pack than usual. My GPS watch beeped at the first kilometre. I glanced down and was surprised to see 4:06… it hit me that if I kept up this pace, I’d run well under not only my PB for this course, but my 5k PB as well. I was surprised because, at this point, that pace was feeling more comfortable than it usually does.
One of my running goals for this year was to run under 22 minutes at my lovely local parkrun in Springburn. It’s a fairly modest goal. Achievable, but one that I thought would push me a bit. I know that I can run 5k in under 22 minutes on a track, but Springburn’s undulating course with its turns and 53m of gain adds a bit of bite to the challenge. I also view Springburn parkrun as one of the pivotal things that got me running in the first place, so it has always felt like a good place to mark my progress.
In 2015, I struggled to beat 24min. In 2016, just nipping in under 23 minutes felt impossible (I remember being totally gutted after pushing as hard as I could and getting a soul destroying 23:01!). Even though my 22min goal means that I would only sneak slightly above 60% in the WMA age grading, I’ve been fairly surprised by my own progress: dropping about a minute off my 5k time every year. I have the luxury of being an average athlete, so my goals will always be purely personal. My 22min 5k will not turn any heads. That said, going for a personal goal within a supportive community like parkrun adds some extra motivation. The goals vary widely, but we’re all part of a similar process. I’m as equally stoked for my friend breaks 18min as he is for me when I get a PB; even better is the huge accomplishment of those who manage to run their first 5k.
Around the second kilometre, my pace started to slip, but I kept it together. As it always is, the third and fourth kilometres were the killers. I saw my PB slipping away. I was probably looking at my watch too much, wondering why my perceived effort was dropping below the reality of my average pace.
Here’s one of the many great things about Springburn parkrun: as you pass the 4k mark, you reach the top of the penultimate hill and there’s a speedy downhill section. I glanced at my watch again and knew that if I pushed it, the PB was still on despite my poor pacing on the previous two kilometers. I picked up the pace downhill trying to psych myself up for the final push. Notice I said “penultimate hill” earlier. There’s this long and burning hill that you have to run up three times at Springburn. Totally runnable, but an energy-sapper. I tried to focus on my form, not the hill, keeping my legs going at a decent cadence. Then I went all out on the final sprint. At this stage, I wasn’t sure if the PB was still on, I was too tried to look at my watch and aware that a glance could rob me of precious second or two (that 23:01 still haunting me).
My running watch doesn’t always correspond with my “official” parkrun time. But it’s usually accurate within a few seconds. As I grabbed my finish token, through hyperventilated gasps, I looked down at my watch. Thankfully, there was no doubt. I had reached my goal of running under 22 minutes by at least 10 seconds. It was well within the margin of error! I went to ring Springburn’s PB bell, hammed it up for a photo, and got high-fives. It was even more fun to share the moment with my family. My son was the first to greet me, hilariously only wearing one shoe. He had lost it while playing in the mud and made the decision that retrieving it was too much of a distraction from whatever mad game he was playing.
I was absolutely delighted to have achieved my goal, even though in reality, the 22 minute mark is nothing more than an arbitrary number and not — in any objective sense — an impressive or fast time.
Reaching my sub-22 goal early in the year felt great. I’m in no hurry to set another benchmark. That can wait until 2018. Without the self-imposed pressure of an sub-22 minute PB at Springburn, I’ve been enjoying other great aspects of my “free, timed, local run”. Things like working on pacing negative splits or incorporating parkrun into the middle of a Saturday morning longrun.
Still, even better than all that is seeing parkrun overlap with “real life.” I’m a refugee support worker. Some of my new Syrian friends asked me what “all these brightly dressed running people” were doing across the street every Saturday morning. I helped them register (the process is straightforward, but less so if you’re struggling with written English) and then paced them around the course. Because of the problems back home, the joy of simply going for a run in safety is something these guys haven’t had the luxury to do for a long time. They loved the atmosphere at parkrun. They appreciated how everybody was so supportive even when they couldn’t understand everything that’s being said. They’ve become regulars and I’m sure these guys will be lapping me by the end of the year. The guys have told me that parkrun is “the best start to the weekend ever… and we get to do it every week!” parkrun was a first step to getting more active, which they say has also improved their mental health. Life is still difficult, but since getting out for runs, they’ve told me that they now feel a bit more hopeful and able to confront the inevitable difficulties that arise. Getting around the course becomes a metaphor for life – “if I can keep myself running up that stupid hill three times, I can push through any problem!” They also now feel part of a community in a place where they didn’t know anyone. On top of all that parkrun is free (the cost of sport is a huge barrier for many on extremely limited budgets, parkrun removes that at the outset) and provides a great variety of volunteering opportunities.
I’ll admit that I’m already a big fan of parkrun because of what it has done for me personally. In seeing some of my refugee friends get involved, I’ve become an even bigger fan of it’s ingeniously simple way of promoting health and fostering community.
Getting a PB at parkrun felt great. But even better than that has been helping others get involved in parkrun. Especially seeing how it can be a springboard to steps toward an all-around healthier and happier life. Pacing my new friends around the course is a genuine joy. It’s amazing how something as simple as a weekly run, where it’s more about community than egos, can make such a positive impact in people’s lives.
Not long after I started running, the concept of skyrunning got my attention. On the ISF website it’s described as, “From sea to sky, skyrunning spans the great outdoors, across the world’s mountain ranges…and the imagination of thousands of participants and fans. It’s a sport born in the wild, where the logic was to reach the highest peak in the shortest time from a town or village. Today it represents the peak of outdoor running defined by altitude and technicality… How could that not capture the imagination?The photographs from those races are spectacular. Unfortunately, I’m not one to be content with simply looking at something — I want to experience it for myself.
I suppose that looking at a skyrace is the first step to doing a skyrace. I remember this feeling as a kid. We’d take camping trips up to Siskiyou with a view of Mount Shasta towering above the lake, snow clinging to the peak despite the dry August heat. It’s a view that I remember being beautiful as well as frustrating. I wanted to actually get on the mountain, not just look at it. I was only content after my dad took me up the Old Ski Bowl Trail. My ten-year-old self craved more than a view, I wanted to pick up those impossibly light pumice stones with my own hands, to feel the ice cold of the snowpack during the peak of summer’s heat. Twenty-odd years later, reading about skyrunning, looking at the photos, watching those Salomon videos… it’s a similar impulse. I was excited to learn that Scotland got its own series of skyraces in Glen Coe, one of my favourite landscapes.
I kept hearing things about the Glen Coe Skyraces. Christopher Slight’s first episdoe of Mountain Podcast evocatively describes the 2015 Glen Coe Skyline and interviews the local 2015 champ Joe Symonds. I also listened to Ian Corless do his round-up of the Glen Coe Skyline races on Episode 94 of TalkUltra, a race he’s clearly passionate about, and that enthusiasm is infectious.. I was sold on the idea and determined to take part, at some stage.
In October last year, I ran up and down Beinn Dorain one early morning. Though not the gnarliest of Munros, there’s this lovely singletrack along the edge of the mountain if you diverge from the main path. Looking down from there, I had a bird’s eye view over the West Highland Way trekkers looking like miniatures through gaps in the clouds, which were billowing over the mountain’s edge. That perspective, as well as moving fast and light across the mountain, was an incomparable feeling. I signed up for the Salomon Ring of Steall Skyrace on the morning that it opened.
Fast-forward to 16 September 2017… I was standing on the starting line of the Ring of Steall Skyrace. I felt a great sense of gratitude just to be there. Not only that being physically able to take on the challenge is a like gift in and of itself, but a couple weeks before the race it seemed that work crises and car trouble meant that I wouldn’t be able to take part. Thankfully and unexpectedly, all the pieces fell into place a fortnight before the race. I woke up at 4am on Saturday morning and drove up to Kinlochleven from Glasgow to register.
I’ve never done anything like a skyrace before, so I went into it without any great expectations about my time or performance. The first thing I wanted to do was (cliche as it might sound) enjoy the experience and try to soak the whole thing in — the atmosphere, the views, the camaraderie, and competition. I was also acutely aware that my training had not been ideal. Not having my car for most of the summer meant that getting specific training in the mountains was nigh impossible. I did a lot of runnable inclines, but precious little scrambling. My only real performance goal was to make the cut-offs and finish.
I felt fairly comfortable during the first half of the race. The famed Devil’s Ride was more spectacular than had I imagined. The sight of other runners picking their way along the ride, disappearing into the mist was a fantastic and slightly surreal sight. It also gave a hint of the challenge of this race after the first climb to Sgùrr an Iubhair — I just did a big sustained climb, but there was visibly a long way to go! Traversing Devil’s Ridge was slightly easier than I thought it would be, maybe I had given too much credence to its ominous name? The scrambling was fun and unlike anything I’ve done in a race before, but I never felt out of my depth or scared (I have done a fair amount of scrambling in Scotland, Greece, and California, but never combined it with running).
The descent into Glen Nevis from Sgùrr a’ Mhàim started out enjoyable, then got tricky due to the sharpness incline, coupled with muck and standing water. I felt my quads start to protest. As I made the critical check-point 5 before the cut-off, I felt more confident that I would indeed finish this race, but knew that it wouldn’t be a fast time. In the aid station, I took a moment to stuff my face with Soreen Loaf and had my first drink of Coke in over a year. I sat down and dumped the grit out of my shoes. As I started running into Glen Nevis on the flat trail, my legs were feeling slightly fatigued but were still turning over. I enjoyed the company of other runners on this less technical and runnable section. The company also made the very muddy section leading down to the Water of Nevis crossing more enjoyable. One of the highlights of Glen Nevis was seeing all the tourists, asking us runners what we were doing. “Why would you even want to do this?” asked one American walker, her expression matching the incredulous tone of her voice. My honest response, “Why would you not want to do this?”
It was on the climb up to An Gearanach that I started to pay for my less-than-ideal training. The sustained climb on the wet and crumbly-sandy stuff took the little power-hiking oomph that was left in my legs right out of them. My quads started cramping in places they’ve never cramped before. To keep myself moving in the right direction and stave off the cramping, I had to shorten my stride. It made the seemingly endless 1000m climb even more of an embarrassingly slow trudge.
I was gubbed… but as with any climb, there’s always the anticipation of a summit. Don’t underestimate the rejuvenating powers of a summit check-point. After dibbing in with the marshal, I felt able to run again after seeing how far I had come. The sense of accomplishment of getting to a summit and taking the 360° views gives a serious mental boost. The Water of Nevis looked like a thin blue thread below and there were awe-inspiring peaks and waterfalls in all directions. It goes to show how much of this endurance stuff is in the head. And the sound of cowbells… pure magic, that.
The ridge after the first An Gearanach check-point was tricky. I found it more taxing that the earlier Devil’s Ridge. Maybe it was just the fatigue, but I found myself needing to use my hands regularly to make the climbs up to Stob Coire a’ Chàirn and Am Bodach. I’ve never been in a race where my forearms started to ache!
I’ll admit that I was feeling rough, but I never once had that “why am I doing this?” question in my mind. Maybe this goes back to looking forward to doing the race for so long, then thinking that I had been robbed of that opportunity, then being able to do it at the last minute… it filled me with a great sense of gratitude. Even in the most physically trying moments, I still felt that special joy that only comes from being in mountains.
At the final summit check-point, I stopped to take in the views, ate an energy bar, and drank the rest of my water. I felt a spring return to my step and I ran the rest of the way down to the finish. I surprised myself and made up a bit of lost time, even passed about fifteen people. Upon reflection, a couple reasons for this:
1) The end was (literally!) in sight.
2) Much of my training took place in the permanent bogs of the Campsie Fells… so where many of my fellow runners were cursing the mudfest of the final descent, I enjoyed the mayhem. That kind of terrain has become my bread and butter. I was able to maintain my balance, and never fell on my arse. When I could run during the Ring of Steall Skyrcae, I felt confident. I paid for not doing any scrambling in my training for the race, but reaped the benefits of all those hours doing steep boggy descents in the Campsies. In all my races, descending is my strongest hand, so I also get a bit of extra confidence on sections that others don’t seem enjoy.
3) I think my competitive instinct kicked in, remembering that as well as being an adventure, the Ring of Steall Skyrace is indeed a race. The irony being, of course, is that my time was far from competitive. But that’s what racing does: it makes you push that wee bit harder and dig a wee bit deeper. Outside of a race, I’m not sure I would’ve run that final descent on my spent legs.
I felt like I ran a half decent pace all the way down from check-point 10 into the finish at Kinlochleven; my best splits for the entire race. I finished in 8:09:30, knackered but having loved the experience.
The finish line was a welcome sight and enjoyed seeing so many other racers (the faster ones!) cheering everybody in. There was a great atmosphere, like a mad carnaval of mountain running as well as the esprit de corps that comes through shared experience.
I think we lucked out with the weather. Not that it was perfect. I like that we got a bit of everything that Scotland has to offer. Moody clouds, dreich, sunshine, and even felt a bit of sleet on the summits. It made it feel like a more of an adventure (and showed the wisdom of the mandatory kit rules!) as a result.
The race was well organised. I can’t say anything negative. The red flags that marked the course were remarkably easy to follow, even in the mist. The marshals were always encouraging and helpful. Even the beef chilli and rice at the finish tasted amazing (bear in mind I was starving, so I probably would’ve wolfed a boiled pig’s foot at that stage).
All in all, a wonderful experience. I’m still buzzing over a week later and can’t wait to go back with the benefit of experience and more race-specific training under my belt.
Before I was a runner, I was a swimmer. Or, I still am a swimmer; I just don’t swim as much as I once did.
Taking part in my 5th Great Scottish Swim in as many years was a joy. It has always been a well organised event in a spectacular location. The vibe is one of excitement and positivity. It’s what keeps me coming back every year. I’ve done the 1 mile three times, the 2 mile once, and the 5k once. The only “bucket list” distance I have to tick off is the 10k, but I’ll hold off on that one until I can devote some proper training to it (and when I can convince my wife to allow me!). The 10k distance, especially in open water, deserves due respect.
As I’ve been so focused on running the past couple years, I enjoyed getting in the water again. In many ways, swimming feels more natural to me than running. Maintaining proper form, efficiency, all of that comes easier when I’m swimming. It just sort of snaps into place and I find a good rhythm. In comparison my running feels a tad awkward and laboured. If I’m honest with myself, I’m just better at swimming than I am at running. At this year’s Great Scottish Swim I clocked 31:59 for the mile, which put me in 84th place out of 924 swimmers. I was 10th in my age group… these are placings that I dream of getting in running races — being in the top 10% feels outside the realm of possibility. Even though my (annoyingly!) elusive target for an open water mile is sub-30min, I’m still pleased that I managed a decent time. Especially given that my training for the Great Scottish Swim wasn’t ideal (my last proper training swim was in May, prior to that just running because of the demands of work and childcare over the summer).
So why not just stick to swimming? I ask myself this sometimes.
If I’m honest, as much as I love it, swimming is a kerfuffle. Especially open water stuff. Just getting in and out of the wetsuit never becomes less awkward. And then you have to drive to the loch. Pools are not much easier, I feel like I need a PhD in analytics to figure out when there will be lanes available for doing laps in the local leisure centre. Don’t get me wrong, the kerfuffle totally is worth it, but when you have small kids and need to train whenever you’re able, the pure simplicity of throwing on some trainers and bolting out the door offers the biggest bang you can get for your buck. Sorry, don’t just put on your trainers and bolt out the door. Such behaviour could get you arrested. Don’t forget shorts and a t-shirt!
Swimming and running. It’s not an either/or thing, is it?
Right now, I try to swim at least once a week. It’s an amazing cross-trainer. It’s easy on the body but you still get a full work out. If you work on efficient form, swimming is the perfect active recovery. In the most October 2017 edition of Runner’s World, there’s a feature that claims that swimming can improve your breathing, ankle range, and quickens recovery. Good stuff, right?
After a hard hill session, a good swim makes my legs feel normal again. Also, because it’s a non-weight bearing activity, so you don’t really need to worry about injury even if you do push yourself harder.
Another thing to commend swimming to runners – there is a lot of overlap, if we get specific. I know the thought of monotonous up-and-back of lane swimming simply doesn’t appeal to many trail runners. Trail runners are a tribe of runners who thrive on things like exploration, the views, and the exhilaration of being outdoors. The physiological benefits of swimming may not be enough… so it’s a good thing there’s open water swimming and events like the Great Swim that make it so accessible. Outdoor swimming has all of the things that people love about trail running. I’d say that swimming actually heightens the experience as you’re – quite literally – submerged in it all. My favourite view of Loch Lomond is the view that I get when I pass the halfway point on the great swim. The views are so special and the mountains look bigger somehow. Wetsuit technology is amazing now and, in contrast to the pool, inspires confidence in swimming because of the added buoyancy. I actually think many people swim with better form when their wearing a wetsuit because there less fighting against the perception of “sinking.”
Of course, if you do decide to take up open water swimming, be sensible! A few tips: start with an event with a safety crew, like the Great Swim does. If you want to explore a loch or lake, don’t swim alone, but find a group (there’s a number of wise and welcoming local groups on Facebook). There’s strength and safety in numbers. It’s just a lot more fun in a group. I’ve found that open water swimmers are a welcoming tribe – much like their trail running counterparts. Avoid places that have motorised watercraft. Speak to a park or countryside ranger about the cleanliness of the water and where to avoid currents or blue-green algae. Invest in proper kit and a tow float; get recommendations from more experienced swimmers. There are some great resources on the Outdoor Swimming Society webpage.
I’m now in taper mode for the Ring of Steall at the end of the week. I’m looking forward to it with more excitement and nervousness than I expected. It’s a total unknown because I never participated in a mountain race like this before.
I did a few hill reps on the local fells with my race backpack stuffed with all the mandatory kit. It’s a fairly comprehensive list that points to the nature of the challenge: a survival bag, extra dry top, water, compass, food, waterproof trousers and jacket (don’t forget: FULLY TAPED SEAMS!). It was good to get a feel for what the weight would feel like (not that bad, actually) and I ran in fairly horrendous conditions, so felt it like good preparation for all eventualities. I’m hoping that the weather does settle a bit!
There will be more on the Ring of Steall soon. I’ll post a link to the GPS tracker thing if you want to watch my progress… but I imagine everybody will be more excited to watch Kilian Jornet run the bigger and more hardcore Glen Coe Skyline race! Great to have some of big names coming over here, I’m hoping it will raise the profile of the quality that Scotland has to offer in the trail and mountain running department.
While training for my first ultra, I started listening to a lot of podcasts. They’ve been a total revelation on my long runs and I’ve learned so much. One of the most useful was (and is) Scott Jones’ Becoming Ultra Project. The stories are totally relatable and Scott gives good advice that’s down to earth and doable. Listening to stuff like this doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes, obviously. But for me, things like Becoming Ultra helps to put the lessons from running misadventures and successes into a context and helps to deepen the learning process.
So it was a real honour to feature on the show to talk about running my first ultra after recovering from pneumonia and early sepsis. I’ve written about the story on the blog before, but different things always come out when you’re talking through the thing. I had fun doing it, I hope you enjoy listening!
Another thing, if you haven’t already subscribed to the Becoming Ultra podcast, you should. I love all the podcasts about elite runners, but there’s something special about hearing about stuff you can really relate to — running and getting sick, trying to fit in training around a full time job and kids… You know, mid-pack runners like you and me.
Also I should say, Scott’s other podcast Athlete on Fire is worth a listen. Great info and interviews with some big names, but like BU, it’s always earthed in reality. Go treat your ears!
I’ve loved Brendan’s writing since stumbling across his blog SEMI-RAD.com while pulling all-nighters as my son recovered from cleft palate surgery a number of years back. His writing captures that je ne sais quoi about what is so great about the outdoors — even if you’re not sponsored by the North Face to climb big walls in Baffin Island. There was also this sense that while I was spending so much of my time in hospitals, I might as well get some of my outdoor stoke vicariously. SEMI-RAD was one of the places I went for that fix. So when I found out that Brendan had written a book, I was keen to get my hands on it. Even more so when The Dirtbag Diaries recorded Brendan’s presentation from 5Point.
“Sixty Meters to Anywhere” is memoir, and a bravely personal one at that, about alcoholism and recovery, through climbing. You can read the many reviews online, so there’s no need to repeat all that here. The beauty of climbing, or trail running for that matter, is that when view through a utilitarian lens, it’s pointless. As Yvon Chouinard said in 180° South, “Conquerors of the useless – that’s what we were. You learn that what’s important is how you got there, not what you’ve accomplished.” But because it’s pointless, useless, it’s exactly why something like climbing is so important, necessary even.
“At twenty-eight, I had graduated from pointless shit like sitting on a barstool for hours at a time to pointless shit like crawling sideways across a meaningless rock face and wishing I could just get a few feet farther. It was exactly what I needed.” (p.114)
Brendan describes climbing as a kind of enforced mindfulness. When you’re on a rock face, all the other stuff melts away and you’re in the moment. Your survival depends on focusing on the task at hand. And what you learn in those moments will transude into the other aspects of life. In his own words:
“For me, climbing was about learning a different way to deal with the world, and the challenges of life. It’s no more heroic to spend your weekend hours climbing up some pointless rock face… than it is to sit in a bar and get drunk all weekend. But it certainly takes a little more ambition… I do consider myself an exceptional recovering addict. I can deal with the challenges of addiction because of what I’ve learned in the mountains–perseverance, balance, patience, accountability.” (p.142)
It’s all intensely personal stuff and Brendan’s story is unique. Yet, he is not alone in finding that climbing is a catalyst to a fuller life (exhibit A, exhibit B).
So this is a blog about running. How does a climbing book relate to that? Well, it’s just a great book and that alone makes it worth recommending. That said, I think there’s a lot of overlap between climbing and running. In running the stakes are usually lower (unless you’re Kilian Jornet). Both climbing and running are pointless activities — let’s be honest, there is no rational reason to enter an ultramarathon — but they improve our lives and link us into a supportive community. As outdoor activities, there’s also the restorative and invigorating power that being wild spaces can give us. Climbing, trail running, or backpacking and surfing for that matter… we can find so many stories about how these pursuits can help us become better people. Though my story is nothing like Brendan’s, running and a bit of bouldering continues to help me recover from GAD and depression.
Kevin Fedarko (author of the rather brilliant The Emerald Mile) says in a blurb that Sixty Meters to Anywhere points to “the transcendent power of wild spaces, and the redemptive radiance of the AmericanWest.” This, in my estimation, is true and Brendan’s story bears witness to this. Much of the book is about climbing, but it transcends that and will undoubtedly speak to anyone who feels the gravitational pull of infinitely important and pointless activities in wild places.
Many of us know Vassos’ voice from the Chris Evans Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2. His enviable enthusiasm, even at ridiculous o’clock in the morning, also comes trough on the page. Vassos’ love for running is obvious. To illustrate just why he thinks running is so great, he treats us to a number of little stories to illustrate the sport’s brilliance. Vassos is also a unashamed amateur when it comes to all this running malarkey. He recounts his his successes and setbacks with great humour. Can’t all new runners identify ITB trouble induced by overenthusiasm?
The genius of this book is the format, which makes for perfect summer reading (even more so if you have little kids on holiday with you, trust me on this). Each chapter is broken into three easily digestible portions. First we get a snippet of what was going through Vassos’ mind as he ran through each mile of the marathon leg of the Outlaw Ironman Triathlon. Second, we get another story about Vassos’ journey in running — everything from his pre-marathon eating to taking to the fells for the first time. Each chapter then closes with a contribution by a famous runner and what running means to them; many are well known in the running pantheon (e.g. Steve Cram, Paula Radcliffe, the Brownlee brothers), others are a bit of a surprise, like Jenson Button.
I wish that I had read this book when I just started running, I might’ve have avoided a few mistakes. Or maybe not? The best lessons in running are learned the hard way, but Vassos is a fantastic guide the many ups and downs we all experience.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter on parkrun, of which I’m a huge fan. It’s an oasis of inclusivity and positivity when so much now is defined by sneering and snark. Vassos puts it well:
But parkrun doesn’t stop at getting people active. It’s also about the atmosphere, the all-encompassing positivity… Because a run isn’t, and certainly shouldn’t be, all about winning. It’s about being the best you can be. And at parkrun, people seem to get that. (p.135)
Again, a bit like climbing, running is a very personal pursuit but it also links us into a supportive community. parkrun is a brilliant example of this. When I push my limits and manage a PB, I get high-fives from all my fellow runners. Even if a 22min 5k is, to them, the same speed as a recovery run.
Autobiographies by elite athletes are inspiring , but Vassos’ book about the everyman runner, really made be want to lace up my shoes and get out for a run after each chapter. Even in the pouring rain (he extols the virtues of this as well)!
Both books are great and well worth your time, if you’re looking for some late-summer reads.