Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Run for the hills!

‘Warning: 5% Battery Remaining’. Oh, shit.

I am several miles from the nearest human, over a thousand feet above sea level and have no food, no water and no map. Soon I will have no phone either, which to be honest is largely irrelevant as I have no signal. I am dressed in running shorts and a T-shirt, with my ordinary road shoes on – probably two miles from the nearest road. It looks like it’s going to rain. The sheep are laughing at me, and with good reason.

Rewind a few days and the root of this madness might become apparent. I was delighted to be invited down to a house in the middle of nowhere in the Scottish Borders, for a long weekend of eating, drinking, countryside appreciation and, quite explicitly, running. Our host, a gentleman of Yorkshire extraction who has previously made me run with whisky demons and made major demands on my race schedule, was envisioning a group of a dozen guests having a jolly time, of whom quite a few would be up for a wee jog, including himself. We were to celebrate his 25th birthday.

We were good at eating. We were excellent at drinking. We were exemplary at banter. But the running element came under threat almost immediately. The night before the pre-determined Saturday morning run our esteemed host, giddy with birthday excitement, managed to smash up his knee during an altercation with a skip and some rocks. At 6am the following morning one of the running party laced up her trainers and headed off solo, several hours before the rest of the team regained consciousness. This left just three of us still keen for a run; ‘Aye Aye’ Jenny Mackay – queen of the Kilomathon, veteran of the London Marathon and regular Great North Runner, Roger ‘Shades’ Thornton, who rows a lot and owns a pair of trainers, and yours truly, keen for some miles and fresh air. We were all very hungover.

We head out in search of a rumoured farm track which promised lovely views, some lambs to look at and a nice, easy-to follow route.  Nobody mentioned that it was quite so spectacularly uphill, pitched at an angle that a ski jumper might have baulked at.  What we then did looked like running, but was really just a little faster than walking. In fact, before long, it was walking. But the further we climbed uphill, ‘adopting a run-walk strategy’, the more amazing the views became. A warm breeze cooled our struggling bodies, and soon the track gave way to a ruined, ancient road running alongside a dry-stone wall. The terrain evened out and the flocks of newborn lambs became more spread out. We were a thousand feet in the sky, with a staggering view in every direction.

The rumoured farm track. This is the best condition it was in.

It was wonderful. I was over the moon.

But Jenny and Roger had had enough. They insisted that their usual training routine in Cambridge had not prepared them for these hills. No-one in Cambridge has even heard of hills, apparently. We agree to part ways – I need to run a little further, and they intend to turn tail back towards the house, to make full use of the downhill reward they’ve earned for all their hard work on the way up. I fail to notice that my phone is dying, I have no water,  no watch and no clue.

Once I finally stop climbing at 1053 feet above sea level, (having ascended 569 feet in 1.4 miles), I reach a signposted crossroads. I know for sure that the English border isn't actually that far from here, if only it weren't for the ridiculous hills in the way. I have a rough idea that if I make it to the border there'll be a nice road to follow back - again, if only I knew which direction to head in. I choose one direction, but have to turn back before long as the track peters out, reclaimed by the wilderness. Back to the crossroads.

So I take the other option - downhill. I am descending into the neighbouring valley, away from the way I came. And by descending, I mean falling, fast, trying to make my legs keep up with the momentum imposed by gravity, that wily old dog. At the bottom of the valley I reach two ruined cottages, a tiny stream, and a minuscule bridge. It's all very lovely, but I have a 200 foot climb followed by a 500 foot drop before I make it home. On my own. 

‘Warning: 5% Battery Remaining’. Oh, that again.

The track has deteriorated somewhat...
But somehow this is brilliant. The warm breeze is still lovely. The silence is absolute - I haven't brought my headphones. The solitude is immense, and the view is fantastic. I love everything about it. Much as this situation isn't ideal from a safety perspective, there's something primal about being alone in the middle of nowhere, relying on my own two feet to get me home. About being completely alone in the hills.

As you might have guessed, I do eventually make it home. The straight-line distance is just 3.55 miles, but it has taken me over 45 minutes to go the distance. The RunKeeper record of this jaunt is a bit dubious as I had to manually enter the last section after my phone died. But what this has taught me is the running isn't always about numbers and stats - this run was about me, mostly on my own, conquering whole valleys with just my two feet. I bloody love running.

Happy adventuring.


2011 to date - miles: 386.41, parkruns: 4, races: 2, miles biked: 12.85

P.S. Happy Birthday Ben, you lovely man.

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