A Year in the Hills

TL;DR: ~440 hours of running, 3,000km travelled, 118km ascended, an FKT set on the Assynt Traverse. Yet, the numbers don't even begin to tell the story ...

It's been a good year, with some satisfying longer days in the hills: an enjoyable two day round of Glen Affric & Kintail in April (still in full-on winter conditions), a two day loop around Glen Lyon in May (taking in the Lawers and Carn Mairg ridges), a round of the seven Crianlarich Munros (East to West in May, West to East in June), a two day trot through the Mamores in September, a three day run through the Cairngorms in October (with some of the most amazing light I have ever seen, and shoes turning into solid blocks of ice over night). There have also been many great shorter days, the Carn Eighe Horse Shoe and the Coigach Horse Shoe come to mind. But the highlight of my year, without any question, was the July Assynt Traverse, at 74km of largely off track running, and some 6,400m of a vertical ascent, by far the most physically challenging thing I have ever attempted, setting a new FKT (23h 54min) an icing on the cake.

The Assynt Traverse had been haunting me since the summer of 2013. During those three years I had gone through a random mixture of great enthusiasm, physical setbacks (from too much enthusiasm!), and self doubt (as the scale of the challenge had become clear). I came very close to not attempting it (again), thinking failure was inevitable. Fortunately, a brief, incidental, conversation with a friend helped me to refocus -- at this scale DNF is never a failure, just an attempt, the only real possibility of a failure is a DNS, a failure of the mind. From that point on the rest was just logistics, and some running in the most beautiful landscape I know!

The real significance of the Traverse for me, however, was neither in completing it, nor in setting the FKT. Rather, the Traverse turned out to be a condensed essence of the totality of my running experiences, neatly packaged into a single day. As such it brought much clarity into my understanding of why I run, and, in particular, what drives me into the hills.

Obviously, there are the views, at times but brief glimpses, at times sustained (and, far too often, none at all). There are the brief encounters with wildlife: the sense of awe over a golden eagle you nearly run into, the envy of a raven playing with the wind that to me, a supposedly superior species, is proving such a nuisance (and in Assynt, the ever present frogs and toads).

Then there is the whole mind over matter thing, like when merely three and half hours into your twenty four hour venture the body declares it can't go any further, but your mind knows it's nothing but load of BS, and you somehow manage to carry on. There is the simple enjoyment of running, six continuous hours of it negotiating the ridges of the Ben More Assynt massive, hopping from boulder to boulder under blue skies. There is that sense of complete physical and mental liberation as the dopamine high goes through the roof after fifteen hours of hard graft. There is the need to hold it together, sleep deprived in the wee hours on Quinag, simply because there is no other alternative, it's just you and the hills.

All of the above are reasons why I run hills. But the reason that exceeds all of the above is the time to think it affords me, time to reflect in the peace and quiet, senses sharpened by physical exertion -- that is the real reason why I run, and why I unashamedly enjoy running in my own company.

In a place like Assynt, in the midst of the seemingly immutable, aeons old landscape, it is impossible to escape the sense of one's own transience and insignificance. The knowledge that these hills have been around long before me, and will remain long after my brief intrusion somehow puts everything into perspective. The hills ask not merely 'what are you doing here?' but also 'what do you do when you are not here?', and 'why?'. They question our priorities, our commitments, or the the lack of thereof. They encourage us to look forward beyond the immediate horizon of tomorrow, of the next pay check.

There is much thinking to be done in twenty four hours, and on the back of that some decisions have been made in the weeks that followed, some plans laid, there are some changes on the horizon for the coming year. It's too early days to say more for now, maybe in a couple of months.

As for my running, the Ramsay Round has been in my thoughts since the morning after Assynt -- I am toying with the unsupported solo option (I don't think I have it in me to meet the 24h limit anyway, so might just as well, and it simplifies the logistics), but I expect a realistic timetable for that is 2018. I am hoping for some more multiday runs, there is so much exploring to be still done in this wee country of ours, so little time.

Happy 2017!