On Running, Winning, and Losing

I have a thing about hills. It goes back a long way. Aged five, my granny took me on a holiday in the mountains, and I have been drawn back ever since. Forty-plus years later, out there on the high ground, the inner child comes out just as wide-eyed as when during those two weeks I listened to tales of mountain creatures, real and mythical alike, and imagined the fairies and elfs coming out after dark.

Over the years I have walked, climbed, skied and biked the hills. Now that I am wiser, I mostly run. A means to an end. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy running per se. I like the sense of rhythm and flow. But I run hills because of the convenience (I can travel farther in less time), and because of the sense of freedom (unencumbered by excess of kit, I can go pretty much where I like).

To scratch my itch, I try to sneak in a longer hill run most weekends. And so on this particular Saturday in October I find myself at the Ben Lawers Nature Reserve, a second weekend in a row, after a last minute change of plans late the previous night. I ran the Lawers main ridge the previous week, and wanting to do something different, it is time for the Tarmachan.

As far as I am concerned the Tarmachan is right out there with such Scottish classics as the Anoach Eagach, the setting is nothing short of stunning. But also the ridge provides steady, first class running. The usual Tarmachan loop is a bit on the short side, but this is easily remedied by taking in Beinn Ghlas, Ben Lawers and Meall Corranaich to start with, and then ascending Meall nan Tarmachan off track along its North East ridge rather than via the usual walkers' path from the South.

This proves an excellent choice, hard work rewarded by solitude on an otherwise always busy hill, the otherworldly magic of Lochan an Tairbh-uisge, amplified by a low rolling cloud, taking the sting out of the steep push up onto the main ridge.

It's funny how our mind often works on different levels, how while our conscious thoughts are pre-occupied with this or that, we still continue to function in a kind of a semi-autonomous, semi-conscious way, that gets us through much of life. As I finally emerge on the walkers' path heading for the summit, I am still thinking about the magic of the lochan below, and then, as I check my watch, about being a half an hour behind schedule -- I will definitely not make my intended (wholly arbitrary) target time.

At the same time, in the background, I register that the summit is fairly busy (not surprising on a dry Saturday), people are grinning at me and getting out of my way (Scots are quite nice people, all in all), saying 'well done' without the usual Scottish self-deprecating, yet somehow still always slightly barbed banter (surprising), and even holding dogs on a short leash (definitely unusual!).

As I am approaching the summit cairn, I register a couple unmistakable Mountain Rescue Team jackets, and having noticed a couple of fluorescent cajoles down on the walkers' path (looking very much like the Police) I am (not)thinking 'oh, a rescue in progress', and then seeing that two guys are very glad to see me, (not)thinking 'bummer, someone saw me plodding up the open hill and raised alarm thinking me lost' (far fetched but not wholly inconceivable). All that, while still pre-occupied with that half an hour behind schedule.

It is only when I am asked about my number for the second time, that my consciousness finally takes over and all the pieces fall in place -- there is a race on, and all these people think I am in the lead (impressive lead, I must add, I can see way down the path, and there is nobody else coming up; and yet, by sheer coincidence, I realise later, not an unfeasible lead in the light of the standing course record).

I am not endowed by any particular athletic abilities. I have never won any sporting event in my whole life. I do the occasional Scottish hill race, and I consider it a success if I place in the top half (I often don't, so I don't race that often either). But suddenly, for this brief moment, I get a glimpse of what it feels like to be in the lead. And I tell you what -- I could get used to this!

But then clarifications are made, and I am again just another ordinary, anonymous, runner, and carry on along the ridge, briefly confusing another pair of race marshals as I pass the point where the race course descends the ridge early, while I stay on it.

I rejoin the course an hour or so later on my way back. I can see a handful of runners on the hillside above me, but from the footprints on the ground, and the fact that I can't see anyone at all in front of me, I surmise I am now near the end of the field. I settle into a comfortable jogging pace, my legs enjoying the rhythm in the knowledge that there are no climbs and no descends left. I am happy, it's been a great day.

As I approach the car park, I start encountering runners jogging in the opposite direction, returning from the finish back to their cars. Of course, they assume I am in the race, and so I get another round of 'well dones'. Funny how nominally identical phrases can be so semantically different. The one 'awesome, how the f* did you get here so fast -- well done!', the other 'poor sod, still running, but, good on him, still running; well done!'.

As a self confessed child of Derrida and Mann, I know that meaning is a construct of my mind, and has often little to do with what might have been intended. I know these are genuine words of encouragement. I know that on some level the experience of a hill runner approaching the finish line is very similar whether we are at the front or back -- we have pushed ourselves, we are suffering and we are only running at this point because we make ourselves; that when the car door opens at the end of our journey home, we will fall out rather than step out, and that come Monday we will put immense effort into hobbling only when we think no one is looking. I know it is this shared experience that is behind those 'well dones'.

I know all of that. And if that was not enough, I am not even in the freaking race, I have no reason to feel irate, at myself or anyone else -- I have been on the go for five hours, covered over 25km, climbed 2000m and I am still going well and enjoying it. And yet, somehow, I do feel irate about being at the end of a field of a race that I am not taking part in!

There are some who believe that running itself has a sort of magical, life transforming quality; I don't know, perhaps it does, for some. What I do know is that at times, up there in the hills, I experience brief moments of extreme clarity and self understanding. Today was one of those days: I learnt that losing, more than anything, is a state of mind, that I can make myself lose even where there is nothing to be lost and everything to be won …

But then the moment passes and all I can think of is the burger I'll have in Mhor-84 caffe on my way home --all pretense aside, there lies the real reason I run!

P.S. The 2015 Tarmachan Hill Race (9.5km / 700m of ascent) was won by George Foster of fellicionado.com in a very respectable, though not earth shattering, time of 00:54:13. Well done!