In my days as a high school cross country runner I had earned the nickname “Bulldog,” the kind of creature every teenaged girl dreads being compared to. While it gave my teammates ample ammunition to tease me with, I learned to take it in stride, as it meant that my coach appreciated my ability to endure every challenge the sport had to offer with strength and ferocity. This bulldoggish personality means that I am also always looking for new and exciting running challenges to test whether toughness was what truly knit me together.
As it happens, moving to Scotland introduced to me a new caliber of running that I had previously never seen. While the kinds of Scots portrayed by the media may be just glorified stereotypes – fierce warriors who can be stuck by several arrows and still carry on as normal – my time in Scotland was beginning to demonstrate how much closer to reality these representations may be. For the truly intrepid on the Scottish running circuit, Scottish hill racing (known as “fell running”) is the chance to prove your make to your teammates and rivals. The idea is absurdly simple: run as fast as you can up a large, steep hill. For the more challenging fell races, the event is usually a combination of mountaineering and intense endurance racing, as both hands-and-knees scrambles up loose scree and marathon-caliber racing skills are required to finish. For my part, after a leisurely Sunday morning long run up Fife’s largest hill, West Lomond, I believed a fully-fledged fell race to be the most exciting prospect. And with the Meall a’Bhuachaille fell race in the Cairngorm National Park just a week away, it seemed that something in the universe was begging me to try it.
In the week leading up to the race, Scotland had been weathering winds up to seventy miles per hour in the after effects of a storm sweeping bombarding England. As race organizers were anticipating winds up to sixty miles per hour atop the peak of the hill, they rerouted the racecourse, which entailed adding distance, making the race closer to eleven miles rather than seven miles. As I had not really run more than seven miles lately, I was suddenly apprehensive. All of the other participants, seasoned fell runners, merely shrugged at the added distance. The cloud of “What have I gotten myself into” merely loomed over me as I feigned interest in pinning my number on.
It was fascinating to watch my fellow participants prepare for the run; what gear they were bringing on the course, how tightly they laced their worn trail shoes, and the various, and at times eccentric, warm-up rituals. I felt a bit out of place as perhaps one of the youngest participants and someone who had never done a fell race before. As this was a Category A fell race (ascent of at least fifty meters), I felt very naive in my choice of “first fell race.” And as I chirped merrily away with my teammates, I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious that maybe I didn’t belong here.
The first ascent began quite well for me. I tried running a majority of it and strategically chose the places I would walk in order to not fall behind the other participants. In hill racing, walking is acceptable if not crucial. There is an entire technique to it that my more seasoned teammate demonstrated prior to the start: hands on thighs, legs braced, and trudge. I managed to keep pace with one friend of mine for most of the ascent, that is, until we hit the wind. I think the strength of the wind is really what got to me throughout the race as a whole. As I’m not a very big person, each gust of wind nearly blew me from the side of the hill and even knocked me off my feet a few times. Other times I felt as though I was moving, until I realized that I was in fact being held back by these gale-force gusts. As I reached the top of the hill, marked by a cairn, I thought I was doing pretty well. Then came the descent.
When I was a child I used to be fearless: I could climb trees as nimbly as if I had been born amongst them and would run headlong down sand dunes without qualm. As I have gotten a bit older and realized the limits of the human body, however, that fearlessness has been replaced by over-caution. In the summer of 2013 I severely rolled my ankle on a trail run, which put me out of commission for months. I have never taken that amount of time off since I began running. Recovery involved physical therapy twice a week and absolute rest, easily one of the worst things I have experienced. I thought I would go mad. Never again do I want to experience an injury like that. Yet unfortunately, the nature of ankle rolls is just that: once you roll it, you can never go back to how you used to be, and it will always be weak and more susceptible to rolling. This has put a lot of fear into my physical activities than I would like: I’m constantly worried about my ankle, always taking my time to do things and gingerly completing whatever I am doing in order to protect it. Even with ankle supports, I am still haunted by the blue, swollen, deformed wreck my ankle had become. The fearlessness that once was so quintessentially Maggie has been replaced by caution and delicacy.
Descending Meall a’Bhuachaille was a reflection of this. I was picking my way gingerly down the scree, constantly worried my ankle would give at any second. At one point, I heard a sickening snap emanate from my right ankle, my bad ankle. Yet I was determined to keep going, since I was alone on the side of a mountain. All the other participants were either leagues ahead or behind me. Just the mountain and myself: I had to do this. I stumbled, I slipped, I tripped. The wind kept ripping at my eyes, making it harder for me to see where I was putting my feet. Yet for a split second I was able to take in my surroundings: a sunshine that seems almost endangered in the October season, majestic Scottish hills all around, and a loch in the distance. The Scottish highlands in this state are perfection. As I was alone with all these elements, I finally gained the small shred of confidence I needed to simply trust my body and hope for the best. So I began to run, faster and faster, down Meall a’Bhuachaille. For the first time in a long time, I felt free.
After this descent I made it back out onto the road, where I encountered a few other participants, the first people I had seen in about half an hour. I overtook them with ease, gaining confidence as the run progressed. I had no idea how far or how long I had been running, all I knew was that we were drawing closer to the campground where the race started. Little did I know that this was only halfway. Since the course had to be rerouted and distance added on, I was essentially running blind. I had no idea where the course was going next, and little did I know that this addition meant there would be a second ascent.
This is where my real struggle began. Again there was a “wee” hill on the road; to any from my hometown, this hill would seem mountain enough, similar to the “huge hills” we used to run at our Sault St Marie invitational in high school. To the other fell runners this was a flat road and the perfect time to rest for the upcoming ascent. They all ran up the road with ease. And while I pride myself in faring quite well on hilly runs, I needed to walk at a few points as I was slowly losing the ability to breathe. It was here that I encountered the teammate who suggested this race in the first place. Already ascended and descended the second peak, he was casually sprinting down this last hill towards the finish. This was when I realized I had quite a ways to go.
The second ascent began on root-bidden trails slick with muck. I also had to keep diving into the verge to make way for leaders hurling themselves down the trail. I recall watching them in awe as their feet rolled over the roots and stones with ease, as if they themselves were a part the old Scottish forests. As I made my way out of the trees at last I caught sight of the second peak: the entire ascent was a gaping maw of deep, black mud, hungry to suck me down. With each step I sunk nearly up to my knees, not only fighting to free my legs but struggling against even stronger wind. These factors, along with already being exhausted from the first climb, made the second ascent one of the hardest things I had ever done. Then one of the racers I had so eagerly galloped past on the flat road shouldered ahead of me, and I realized how much of a greenhorn I truly was.
Suddenly I saw the cairn right before me. At last! Yet where did that runner who had passed me only moments before disappear to? As I reached the cairn, I recognized it as a false marker. There was an additional peak we needed to ascend before we could turn around. The stronger, older, and more experienced runners I had put so much distance on suddenly moved around me, as if the howling winds had no effect on them. The final push to the turn around point also took me by surprise: it was an all out, hands-and-knees scramble up loose slate stones. With the hood of my vest trying to break free from my neck and the wind fighting me, this was the moment I was almost certain I would be blown straight from the mountain face. Yet I stood up and I pushed on.
I was alone once more. Really alone. I was convinced I was the last participant out on the course, which nearly brought tears to my eyes. As a two time high school cross country MVP with race wins to my name, last is a position I thought I would never encounter in my lifetime. Yet here I was, alone in the gathering dark and speckling rain. This was probably one of the most humbling experiences of my life, yet it forced me to confront precisely why it is I run. I signed up for this race for myself, to test the limits of my body and to experience something new. I am always seeking new experiences and crave adventure, and this, mountain running, is the very heart of that. For the second time that day I mustered my courage and flung myself headlong down the hillside into the gathering dark.
After falling onto my backside twice, a shoe being claimed by the muck, fingers bloodied on the twisting bracken I reached the road. I could not feel my legs at this point, yet the sun had returned to welcome me back to the finish line. Faster and faster I ran, determined to put in a good effort for the completion of my fell race. I do not know what my finishing time actually was, I ended up not being the last one in but third to last, and I finished. I ran an eleven mile race that ascended two giant hills. I survived.
Meall a’Bhuachaille now constitutes the hardest physical challenge I have experienced to date. I still cannot believe I actually willingly participated in a fell race, and a rather difficult one at that. This race also reminded me of something very important: that I run for myself, because it is my passion, and how it is a gateway into the beautiful places of the world, such as the Scottish highlands. As a very competitive person, winning titles and being ahead of all my teammates used to be the only thing that mattered to me as a runner. While I achieved none of those things at Meall a’Bhuachaille, I realized how little those things constitute the sheer joy of running.
While I tend to be a very predictable person who is quite set in my ways, since moving to Scotland it has become my mission to infuse my life with as much spontaneity as possible. Though I love the comfort of routine, every so often I feel the insatiable urge to do something that is completely out of character, to test my body, mind, and will, and to see just how far I can go. Meall a’Bhuachaille constitutes one of these great spontaneous milestones that punctuate my life. I managed to complete something most people would never even dream of doing, and I surprised myself by being up to the physical challenge. Lately I have been telling myself that I will never be in as good of shape as I was in high school, that I’ve lost the mental edge I used to have as an athlete. Yet my participation in this race reminded me that I am indeed a strong person, both physically and mentally.
Following the race my legs were bruised and scraped from my fight with the highland bracken. I was not able to walk properly until the week after, and every time I stood up my bones protested. I was also forced to throw away the shoes that endured the wrath of the rain and mud, as “survived” was a rather loose way of describing their post-race state. The question remains: would I ever do something like this again? A better question might be “when is the next one?”
Originally written 26 October 2014