The paths of southern Scotland
This newsletter was first published on Patreon on 23 August 2021 after a week in Scotland
I’m writing this late on Sunday night because I’ll be driving home from a week in Scotland in the morning (which, as you read this, is now today, Monday). And I’m zonked.
Earlier this week I got confirmation that on 17 September I’ll be lining up again in London to take on the Self-Transcendence 24-Hour Track Race. Although I’ve been nudging ideas around about running the B-I-G one, the Self-Transcendence 3100 in New York, and writing books and making films about it, until this week that all seemed serenely far off in the distance. But suddenly I’m feeling worryingly under prepared for something that’s happening way too soon.
So this week, despite being on holiday with family, I kept ducking out for runs at every tiny crack of an opportunity. On Friday my kids met their cousins to ride mountain bike trails, and I saw my chance, quickly changing in the car park.
They were going to be riding for a couple of hours and so rather than walk with the other adults and the babies, I waved my goodbyes and quickly knocked out eight miles.
Even on my rest day I was at it, suggesting we climb the highest peak in southern Scotland, the Merrick. I didn’t get too many takers, but it was wonderful to see my son and daughter, Ossian and Uma, take on the challenge and make it to the summit with ease. Sometimes when my kids are lounging around on their phones, having not lifted a finger to help out in the house for days, I start to despair and think I must be the worst parent ever. Then I go out for a run, around Dartmoor say, and see other people’s kids playing around in the woods and I wonder where I went wrong.
And then sometimes there are days like our walk up the Merrick. If I’d have happened across these two kids bouncing along up in the mountain that day, one aged 12 and the other 15, chatting away to each other happily, eating up the trail with barely a second thought for the blasting wind and low cloud - even finding it exciting to be up in the clouds - I have to say I’d have been impressed.
We pretty much ran down the last mile or so, just for the sheer fun of it, leaping from rock to rock, banking the sides of the trail on the turns. Some other families, just out walking on the lower slopes, stood aside to let us go by, clearly amazed by these two agile mountain kids - and perhaps a little concerned for the lumbering father behind!
No, there’s no doubt really, these are definitely good kids. I just need to remember that when they’re having their downtime (aka phone time).
But back to being zonked.
Today, feeling the rising panic of the on-rushing 24-hour race, I knew I had to hit up a long run.
When staying with my sister-in-law just outside Lockerbie, I have a boring 10-mile loop on the roads near their house that I usually do. But in a fit of inspiration on Saturday evening, I decided to Google “trails near Lockerbie” and came across the 56-mile Annandale Way, which runs right by the town and goes all the way up to Moffat 22 miles away from the house - which just happened to be where everyone else in my party was planning to go for a Sunday morning outing.
“I’ll run it and meet you there,” I proposed. I could have put an imaginary cigar in my mouth, grinned and said: “I love it when a plan comes together.” But I didn’t.
The Annandale Way is fairly well marked, which is lucky, as I didn’t have a backup plan other than to follow the signs.
The route skirted through soft, bouncy-floored woodland, along back lanes, grass verges between fields, and across farmland. Along the way I kept imagining the discussions that must have happened between the footpath makers and the farmers about where the path could go and where people could walk. I sensed a fair degree of reluctance from the farmers to get on board with the project, with paths skirting the long way around fields, and dotted with signs saying “No Walkers!!” In angry red paint, or “Your dog may be shot if seen with the sheep”. I kept imagining that there was someone in the little white farmhouse in the distance standing there with a brew, saying to the rest of the room, “Ach, there’s a runner up there now. I bet he leaves the gate open.”
As I closed each gate behind me, I almost gave a sarcastic bow, just in case.
The path also ran for large sections through forestry plantations, and these felt more welcoming, the tall, uncomplaining trees providing shelter and a sense of calm. These were places people could run without issue. Twice I came upon a deer and her fawn, which just added to the sense of tranquility.
So tranquil, however, that I suddenly realised I hadn’t seen one of those nice purple Annandale Way signs for a fair while. And I’d been running downhill for a long time too. I was worrying that I’d missed a turning, when I emerged into a wide stretch of bogland, with nothing but marshy grass and fields of sheep as far as the eye could see - and a little white farm house in the distance.
But I wasn’t going back up that hill. I was about 14 miles into my run and my family were waiting for me in Moffat. I had to push on. I pulled out my phone, which had about 5% battery left, worked out the general direction of Moffat, and set off across the fields, hoping that this particular farmer didn’t also shoot runners.
Once I hit a small road, I followed the signs to Moffat, and luckily managed to get there on quiet lanes and without being directed onto the nearby motorway.
So in the end I managed to get 53 miles for the week in the bag, plus a hike up the Merrick. Is that going to be enough to keep me running for 24 hours? Should I be worried that my legs - and hip flexors in particular - felt close to shot by the end of today’s run? Or that a dull pain in my left foot seems to be getting a tiny bit worse with each run?
Part of me feels that my experience will count for more than all of that. My knowledge of what it’s like to do such a mad race will help me push through, further than I did last time at least (which was 89 miles, for the record). I’ll simply descend into my tunnel, my well, when things start to get tough, focus my mind on the movement and forget about the finish. That’s definitely going to work. Fitness will help - of course - and I’ve still got a few weeks to build it up a bit more, but my mind is the thing that is going to pull me through, so I really don’t need to worry.
The trails of southern Scotland. Photograph: Marietta d'Erlanger