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Confessions of a non runner

It doesn’t matter how you get there or what you call yourself, the hills don’t care. David Lintern escapes the tyranny of team sports and goes for a jog up a ridge.

A few years ago you’d have never caught me doing it. I used to run a bit in secondary school, but only as a way of getting out of games. We’d be allowed off school grounds to run around Shirley hills, but we ran only the pavements and not into the woods themselves. We were on a prescribed route. I tolerated it, but it was mostly an escape from the marshalling of team sports, which I loathed with a passion.

I got used to thinking of myself as non-sporty – not good enough, not a team player. How often do we define ourselves (or let others do it for us) in the negative? I started smoking at 13, became an awkward teen – half swot, half rebel. In my twenties, I cycled everywhere but only because I couldn’t drive and was broke. Later still I found the hills, a steep learning curve for a city slacker but a welcome respite from a piece of charity work that was fulfilling but emotionally exhausting in equal measure. And then came the Pyrenees.

I didn’t run the Haute Route, but I did do the full crossing as well as some exploratory detours over a couple of months. I returned 2 kilos lighter and had ditched the fags. Suddenly, it clicked into place. No – not (just) an early mid-life crisis! The physicality and momentum of that journey was a revelation. I’d enjoyed getting leaner and stronger over time, and I loved the re-connection between body, mind and the outside world. I discovered that some form of athleticism wasn’t just for others, I could manage just a little of it too. I wasn’t racing anyone else, just challenging myself. No peer pressure, no stop watches and no off side rule.

Somehow, over the last five years or so, I’ve found myself running again. First in my local parks and now in my local hills. I shouldn’t be surprised really – a lot of new parents seem to take it up as a means of keeping a modicum of fitness while being much more time constrained. It’s a micro dose of the outdoors that can be shoehorned in between nursery drops, work and household duties.

I’m certainly not breaking any records. My personal best on my most local bump is almost double the time the fastest person races around on the annual hill race. But that PB is mine… both yardstick and pressure gauge; a measure of tiredness, fitness, recovery from illness, a weather check and some headspace from kids, deadlines and the other blessings and trappings of adulthood. Often as not, my other outdoor activities are communal these days, and while I love to share those experiences, I cherish the personal time that running offers. I’ll not be entering any hill races any time soon.

Even stranger than my dodgy jogging habit, I’ve found myself writing a book which is ostensibly all about running. The Big Rounds – the Bob Graham, the Paddy Buckley and the Charlie Ramsay Rounds – are mainland Britain’s most challenging 24-hour mountain circuits. I’ll share a bit more detail on the Scottish Round in particular next time, but for now these routes are a portal into some amazing hill country and a life affirming part of our outdoor culture – the regional differences, as well as what we enjoy in common. And the people I’ve talked to on the way have told me things I’d not expected to hear from serious athletes.

Jim Mann, who holds the record for all three rounds in winter, as well as the record for the most Munros in 24 hours (it’s 30, plus a pint in the Braemar Hotel by the way) put me instantly at ease;

In the end, all this is just a bunch of mates going out for a big day in the hills and having fun. That’s the roots of it, and that’s what I love. It’s no different to people going hillwalking for the day, doing a tenth of the distance; you have a day that wears you out, and you land up in the pub. Big, fun hill days. It’s as simple as that.”

Cheers Jim, sounds great! Jasmin Paris, who until recently held the overall record for the Ramsay Round and still holds the women’s record for the other two, continued in the same vein and didn’t mention puking once; “Going hiking in big mountains is the ideal preparation for these sorts of challenges. You need long days out with less risk of injury than running, lots of ascent and descent, and some altitude training.”

Wendy Dodds, the first to complete Paddy Buckley’s Welsh round in 1982 and one of the UK’s most experienced fell runners, said matter of factly; “It allows me to cover more ground in a given time than walking, and allows me to reach isolated places that would require a bivi if not running. I consider myself more a mountaineer than a runner.”

Granted, the hill running scene as a whole is refreshingly down to earth, but these are concepts I can get my head around as an average hillbum… despite being shared by people who have achieved genuinely astonishing things that I cannot begin to fathom in the mountains.

I park the car and get the bike out of the back. I cycle steadily through the forest and up onto the treeline before tucking the bike behind a tree and setting off in first gear for the Lairig Ghru. You’d never have caught me doing this a few years ago. I’m feeling cautious enough to have chosen bike shorts over ‘proper’ running shorts because I might feel too exposed in the ‘proper’ mountains… but that’s one of the joys of running. No special kit; just a pair of trainers, a small pack and some snacks. Any old clothes will do, really. There’s an extra layer, navigation tools and a tiny first aid kit in the mix too… but nothing a hill walker doesn’t already own. Running means stripping out the baggage.

I try to pace myself early on, enjoying the dance between rocks on the path. I caught an interesting online conversation between a runner (Mark) and a walker (Alex) a while ago, with the former convincing the latter of the benefits: “You’ll get the benefit of increased resilience as you build leg musculature, bone density and proprioception. All good if you want to keep on your feet for long periods.”

It seems to be true that running does these things, but for me that isn’t selling it. I do love that running on uneven ground keeps me nimble. I’ve found it improves my mental dexterity; my ability to negotiate a good line; my footwork. It’s obvious really – moving more quickly, you need to think faster about where to put your feet. My ankles feel stronger, and on a good week my cardio is too, but mostly it’s about how well I process the environment. That connection, the body awareness, is nurtured through practice. I think this is the ‘proprioception’ part of Mark’s statement, and it’s the same stuff I savoured when I walked across the spine between France and Spain.

Running in the hills is not the same as running laps around the park back in Glasgow. Even there I could check in on new growth, birdlife and other seasonal changes, but off the tarmac it’s interesting underfoot as well as ahead, and what I’m interacting with changes and evolves. Exploration is the other piece of the puzzle that was missing at school. The only prescribed route here is the one I design myself. And there are rules, but they belong to nature, not a game.

It’s worth saying out loud that hill running needn’t mean running all the time either, which to be honest is a bloody relief. Even the proper runners don’t run uphill (much). I’m over that particular mental barrier. If I’m really tired, I walk, but I try not to stop, and slowly my threshold has improved… at least until the wheels fall off the next time!

I pass the Pools of Dee as a brief snow shower passes over. I eat but keep moving, around into an alpine Gharbh Coire greening up nicely from snowmelt, poke around the shelter and study the steep wall under Lochan Uaine for a workable line. I’m adopting Wendy’s advice today, if not her pace, and going (just a bit) more quickly is really an excuse to explore new ground. I end up too close to the burn on slippery rock and backtrack before finding a way up to its right.

I stop for a few minutes at the loch and my cardio relaxes a little. The beautiful simple line of Sgor an Lochain Uaine’s NE ridge beckons, and the exercise endorphins take over. It’s a straight forward grade one scramble but with little gear and all my food gone I feel lighter, a fraction extended, slightly giddy from a mix of exertion, excitement and not quite enough calories. Depending on which list we’re using, I’ve just ‘run’ up the fifth or sixth highest mountain in the UK – not too shabby for the runt of the pack. Near the top, the boulders are larger and steeper and I slow down for the final clamber, completely immersed in my mountain meditation. It’s the same kind of headspace we all benefit from, however we travel in the hills.

I’ll be honest; after reaching Braeriach I didn’t run much further. I’d not taken enough food for the day and was getting sore. I alternated walking and jogging with a bit of hobbling down the long north facing slope back to my bike, and my knees were glad I was freewheeling most of the way back. Braeriach didn’t care, either way. I’d had a wonderful day in the hills and had rested a palm gently against my personal envelope; testing, probing to see what I could manage. I often think that in the UK we are a little too tribal – about everything, including our hobbies. In my head I’m still not a runner, but there’s a lot to be said for shedding preconceptions, however hard fought for, and giving things a go. You just never know where you’ll end up.

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Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each walker's responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.