A Life in Runs.

Skinny. Awkward. Shy. That is what I see when I look back at those early photos of my fell-running days. But there is also a streak of determination in those eyes – an inner strength building that would be invaluable for years to come.

I was 11 years old and about to run my first fell race near Elterwater in Great Langdale. Something about the challenge, being on the go, and exploring the wild got me hooked and throughout my teenage years I’d run all through the week and race every weekend. From rain clouds to hot bracken trails, from steep and rocky climbs to long and muddy descents, from bounding through rivers to ploughing through snow, they were years well spent. Running up and down Bowfell and Scafell, some of the biggest peaks in the Lake District, soon became a normal way to spend a weekend throughout my school years.

Things changed once I started at Newcastle University. I stood alone at the end of freshers week to watch the Great North Run steadily pass on by, and was moved by the sheer volume of people running all together. I vowed I would do it next year and the year after it turned out too. My thoughts quickly skipped to a marathon and I chose Windermere, close to home but seriously hilly. On the first occasion I was only just recovered from a bout of tonsillitis but still managed to jog across the line. On the second occasion I limped back onto the train to Newcastle the day before my final exams were due to start – always impatient to finish and conquer whatever I set out to do.

My running escapades as a child had also got me into all things Mountain and I would go on to trek through the Alps, the Andes and the Himalayas. Travel, tour guide jobs and working in ski resorts made my running outings a bit more sporadic. I eventually settled in Madrid for a short time and would spend the cool mornings or twilight dusks jogging along the vast boulevards, through the old squares or around the bustling city parks. The Madrid marathon tiredly snaked its way through the hot city one May morning. Passing the Royal Palace and the Gran Via, I ran alongside and chatted to an old man from Austria who had run 50 marathons across the world in his life, with the dates and locations all printed on the back of his vest. “I want to be like him” I thought. At that moment it seemed to be all about the participation in a big event, the experience, and the personal challenge.

With the start of my first real office job at the age of 26, running half marathons around the south of England turned out to be a great way to let off some steam after a busy week behind a desk. I broke my half-marathon PB in Bath. Also beating my brothers…by 30 seconds! A bit of friendly sibling rivalry had turned out to be the best motivation for me, as I sprinted down the home straight with my eyes half on the digits of my watch. I also ran the Southampton half marathon 2 years in a row with one of my best friends from university. Apparently I had inspired her to run and, carrying a slight injury, I ran most of it with her, the shared experience and camaraderie turning out to be the highlight of the day.

Now at 29 years old, I find myself back home in the Lake District. Unsure about my next step, running is one of the few constant forces in my life – The wild weather, the thick and crunchy snow beneath my feet, the cold air against my face, and the empty trails that still, 18 years on… ignite inside of me that feeling of exploration and adventure. Running will always be my connection with Home and where I most truly feel myself.

 

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Surviving Britain’s last wilderness…

Green lumps, bumps, white rivers, rapids shrouded my vision, unfocused due to the massive amounts of water hurtling down from the skies. We tumbled along the path tripping on the roughness of the ground, enjoying the secret wilderness laid out for no one but ourselves.  

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We were in Scotland and discovering the wonders of hiking in a place where the nice, neat dotted foot path line on the map crossed deep rivers without even a care in the world. I was facing a stream of bubbling cold water and shivers sent me screaming when I tiptoed across this icy obstacle, horrified to think of what would happen if I slipped into the murky depths. The path from Strathan to the Sourlies bothy was rather treacherous to say the least. It took until 3pm to walk the 8 miles through boggy terrain under grey threatening skies, but despite the constant shower there was something rather refreshing about being out in the wilds, the wind on your face and exploring a remote and earthy green deserted land.

On the edge of a little bay stood a stone shed. This was the Sourlies bothy, a shelter from the storm for hardy hikers like ourselves. Beyond this resting place the lochs reached out towards the skies, bold and bright but quiet too. The slopes around were alight with blazing waterfalls due to the hard pounding of heavy rain fall. The scene was quiet literally brimming with the power of nature and the power of the land. Having not seen a single person all day we felt very small and insignificant in this wide watery open arena.

The bothy had 2 wooden benches inside for sleeping on, a table with some tins of beans and the bothy book where visitors left their messages. The interior was rather rough, as expected, merely a hiding place from the storms. We stayed inside those stone walls and contemplated the new challenges we were facing, never before had we hiked through such extreme weather, used to as we were, the sunny alpine summers, this was challenging for an entirely different reason. But then the rain subsided and we lounged on wooden chairs outside the bothy wrapped in our sleeping bags, dressed in our thermals and boots, with my messy hair we were quiet literally the bedraggled king and queen of the Highlands. And then to our utter amazement, we spotted two figures coming down the same path as we had descended hours before. It was just turning dark when they approached us at the bothy and to our surprise they were speaking German, Michel’s mother tongue. A German feast followed as the 2 young men had brought piles of German snacks with them like sausages, bread and cheese. Over the stove we brewed hot drinks, while camaraderie between hikers blossomed. We shared our impressions of the challenging Scottish land while sharing German biscuits all under the dark roofs of the bothy, out on the tip of western Scotland. They mentioned the name of a dramatically formed mountain over on the Knoydart peninsular named Ladhar Bheinn. They had always wanted to climb it but their tiredness after the first day, lack of equipment and experience meant that they did not feel up to it now. I turned to Michel, hoping he was thinking the same as me,…we should totally do it!

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The next day after breakfast we were reading the bothy book…. “hiked to Knoydart today and had a pint in the Old Forge in Inverie, the remotest pub in Britain”….we were curious and given that we were already running low on food supplies we decided also to make a quick detour to this place named Inverie. Michel was no good at rationing, having eaten 7 snickers on the first day! Our German friends were drying off their kit in the sun when we left for the pub. We turned west and crossed the low prickly expanse of the bay area and then climbed the great ridges of that quiet corner of Scotland. A slither of civilisation came into view. A peaceful, tranquil and unspoilt secret on the edge of the sea was coming into focus and I felt so lucky to be there, the mountains all around me enlightened a love of this wild but comfortable place named Scotland and as we slogged along to the village of Inverie my appreciation for this place only grew.

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Inverie is happily placed, all alone, on this dynamically shaped and empty knot of land named Knoydart. There is no road connection, only a wet and hilly 16 mile slog over from Strathan, our route, or a tiny passenger boat from Mallaig, tipping over the rough seas. In the town of Inverie, single road hugs the water front, the locals look at you with surprise as you march out of the wilderness. On arrival we dived straight into The Old Forge where we would spend the next 5 hours until darkness fell, eating, drinking, washing, chatting and recovering from the onslaught of the Scottish hills. This place was perfectly suited to hikers, there was even a warm shower on offer!

In a contented day dream my eyes wandered over the interior decoration of the pub and settled on an article framed on the wall just nearby. The same name from our camp light chat of the night before reappeared, Ladhar Bheinn. This was becoming a mystical destination and now we simply had to climb it. I read the article, studied the possible routes and by the time Michel had returned from the shower, our food had arrived and I had planned our next days hike.

While devouring our home made burgers, chunky chips and salad, I studied the map and its contours. I pointed to a valley, then a knife edge ridge, then a summit ridge so narrow, so thin, I wasn’t certain there would be room for us to stand. The contour lines on the map were drawn to suggest that this mountain was a mash of swirling shapes, impossibly narrow trails and thin descents.

As the moonlight sparkled forth over the path to our bed, we pitched our tent in long grass behind a wall, dreaming of the great mountain we had to climb and the unknown wilderness we would cross, with waves lapping at our feet and soft grass tickling our toes.

The only café in Inverie didn’t open until 10am. Despite the huge Munro waiting for us, we had to wait. Our rucksacks were painfully lacking rations. We wandered into the offices of the Knoydart foundation while we waited and discovered some of the interesting history of this peninsular. In 1948 seven local men attempted to take some of the land from the rich estate owners so they could farm for themselves. This raid was unsuccessful but the fame of the men lived on as they became known as the “7 men of Knoydart”. The power of the people eventually won, when in 1997 several trusts and the Highland council set up the Knoydart foundation, giving locals the opportunity to take control over the lands that surrounded their homes. Many community and conservation projects have since been set up. One activity of the local population that would effect us in particular was that of deer stalking. Hunters would go out into the hills and using whatever means possible keep the deer population under control. This activity was partly to protect local flora and fauna but also for the sales of wild venison.  A map was pinned to the wall of the offices, showing where stalking activity would be heading. Hikers were kindly reminded to avoid these spots, partly to aid the hunters in their work, partly to avoid being shot at by mistake.

Once the doors of the little café were open it was very hard to leave. An arty interior, comfy cushions, delicious cakes, breakfast sandwiches and the best window view in town kept us in there for far too long. The Munro was still waiting. We bought as many sandwiches as we could carry and then I spent my last coins on some irresistible chocolate short bread. Every little bit counted when we were about to face one of the most fearsome munros in Scotland!

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Ladhar Bheinn stood at 1,020m, in the centre of the Knoydart peninsular. Having climbed mountains my whole life I had never experienced a hike like this. An impressive and complex route lay between us and the peak. Firstly, we had to go cross country, scrambling over rubble and tall grass to reach that ridge, a tortuously long climb. We followed the uncomfortably narrow ridge and then turned right and shuddered when we saw the mighty and powerful summit ridge and the scramble needed to get there. The drop all around us made me to concentrate vividly on every single step. Jagged and razor sharp streaks of rock fell away hundreds of metres below us. And then we turned to be greeted by the epic scene of western Scotland, the islands of Rhum, Egg and Muck were perfectly placed along the horizon, along with Skye, and even the outer Hebrides, far out to sea. Unfortunately a rain cloud was hovering out there too and heading straight for us. It would be here in minutes and we still had 200metres to go before the summit. The unpredictability of Scottish weather was upon us. It hit us 100 metres below the summit. We hid behind rocks for a moment to breath against the strong winds, too terrified to move as we had no idea where the chasms started and the whiteness began.

The summit was a line of ground with who knows what on either side, it was too white to see the drop. We found the ridge back down easily and my heart was exploding inside when I clambered onto wet rock, hoping my boots would stick and prevent me from slipping into the void below. 200metres down from the summit we came out into the clear skies again and realised that this was the most spectacular descent we had ever made. A large corrie opened out on either side of us with rocky lines vertically decorating the blistered rock faces. In front of us lay Loch Hourn and the empty bay of Barisdale along with its bothy, our destination for the night. Darkness fell as we descended, still alone in the mountains with no humans in sight. we arrived eventually at the door of the bothy, relieved to have survived the sheer power and magnificence of Ladhar Bheinn. I felt blessed and lucky to have met those German hikers, to have let my eyes wander over that article back at the Old Forge. We had discovered a truly spectacle mountain.  

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Only a day away from civilisation and I already felt like a complete mess once again, after having fallen into bogs and been scratched by twigs and bushes, hair tangled and clothes mud splashed, I was again a true hiker of the Scottish wilds. There was still a smile on my face as we huddled inside the Barisdale bothy to eat warm pasta and sauce. Adventure such as this was the only thing I wanted. 

 

The next day took us 6 miles along the shoreline to Kinloch Hourn where we realised that we had completely run out of food and we were still miles from civilisation. That dot on the map was simply a pile of rubble that could have been a working farm once upon a time. Walking on and slowly scraping the crumbs from the bottom of our rucksacks, a picturesque little garden and thatched cottage appeared out of the trees. We had crossed over into the next estate and this little place was the home of the new stalker. That is, the person who chases after the deer. Michel knocked on the door and asked if he could buy any food. An elderly lady took pity on us and gave us some apples, chocolate and cheese free of charge.

So we devoured this feast as if it was haute cuisine, while the great pinnacle of Ladhar Bheinn was slowly fading away behind us. I felt relieved but thrilled that we had crossed and survived Knoydart, the last wilderness of Britain.