Beyond Merlin Crag

beyond Merlin Crag

a glistening Aradaidh awaits

the broken sky as breathless as I

plodding rather than prancing

up the rough track more

usually travelled by machine

bumping and jostling

its cossetted occupants





A wild moon threatens the still

spruce silhouetted on the skyline.

The shadow hound stalks at pace,

scent marking his territory at will.

The owl screeches, wise to the time

whilst the seeker whistles prematurely

and a mother barks warning her kind.

The haunting echo of the distant roar

taunting the neighbouring balladeers,

a prelude: the percussive climax to come.



Finding my line is all well and good

but it does not help to flood

my lungs with the oxygen I so desperately need

to feed my blood

so I can soar away from the pain and succeed

rather than bleed and sink gasping

grasping for some hope and some sign

of a glorious descent

and the line drawn by another

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The ray of light that broke the cloud departed.

I descend; the pace increasing, the pulse

steadying after the shock.

Sat in its shadow as evening draws a close on the chapter

I survey the soaring ramparts, searching for the return

that will never come.

A joyful ache takes away the pain as I sit

staring at the pieces, pondering the next move;

upward glances marking time

in the silent lullaby of Liathach’s lament.

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Behind the scenes

Some recognition of the work that goes on behind the scenes to make a hill race happen. Last year’s Slioch Horseshoe features in the latest edition of The Fellrunner. One of many great photos documenting the race by Phil Hindell.

Fellrunner photo

Cioch Mhor

Six months on, they came

never would it be the same

but still they came

greater and stronger than before.

They did not file like Owen’s cattle

but stampeded past them and their shit

a fertile ground for all of it.

Working like ants, downwards

and onward to their baptism.

A short-lived blessing in these pressing times.

And now the burning season through the heather

the weather holding but brooding and befitting.

In ones and twos and more the procession reaches out

and reaches, a turning point.

Pants and grunts and curses, smiles and laughter

some walk, some stop and some canter

but for all the banter (as is befitting)

one voice is heard, by a tearful ear,

“Alex brought me here.”



And that’s what happened

A bit of hyperbole goes a long way. A local theatre company accidentally stumbling across Shakespeare and careering on to the national stage. Played out like a sociological case study of structure and action; all experienced through the comfort of the laptop keyboard, the visceral assault of the monitor and the unnerving disquiet of the telephone ringtone.

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About that hedgehog

I’ve done a few daft things in my time. None particularly serious and certainly none of note. I’ve made small gestures on points of principle and maybe raised the odd eyebrow or smile. I’ve stood anonymously in crowds, marched and shouted with the best of them. All deliberate actions but never really raising my head above the parapet. Then I became father to 3 boys and settled on contenting myself with quietly grumbling in the corner, a gradual but inevitable slide into an ineffectual, cantankerous old man.


Sometimes though something happens quite by accident. You really didn’t mean much by it, maybe you thought you were trying to help. A little thing that got out of hand. You then find you have a bit of a dilemma. Do you go back to sleep and ignore it or do you follow it through and hope, even if it’s an outside chance, that something good will come out of it? It’s not so much of a stand, more accidental turn down a one way street. Now though your head is above the parapet, directly in the line of fire, and frankly for all your principles you’re shitting yourself. About something you never thought you’d be shouting about. Kids do strange things to you. When their welfare is at stake you start to take risks again. It’s not comfortable.


I’m not sure if the writer was able to salvage anything intelligible from my ramblings or what treatment they received. I hope it wasn’t too negative, ours was a good news story after all. I don’t yet know whether I dare show my face in public any time soon and I certainly don’t think that I’m brave enough to read it. I hope however it turns out that I’m not judged too harshly. I was just looking out for my boys and the community that I’ve come to call home these past 10 years, and those like us.


And what’s this got to do with hedgehogs? Well courting all this attention might seem fun but it’s a wee bit prickly.


Looking out for you

2014 Part 1: An unexpected start


For 2014 my mountain marathon partner Jon and I decided to focus our efforts on this competition format. It was our middle-aged, semi-serious stab at trying to be competitive. The year started slowly enough with long sessions of bog-trotting through ice cold water on bleak winter hills, more often than not, with a reasonable size pack on our back. I seemed to spend several hours most weekends covering seemingly little ground. During the week I seemed to be constantly doing hill repeats of increasing length and duration again with a pack. Jon by contrast seemed to breeze through the week on relatively flat, short sessions. I always feel weak in comparison to my stronger partner on the climbs and feel the need to work on my perceived inadequacy in this area in order not to penalise us unduly.

When we got together for joint training sessions it became apparent that some of the ground that I’d be covering was in fact a bit grim. My times for covering such ground in winter conditions turned out to be perfectly acceptable for our goals.

Bracing against high winds during early season training

Bracing against high winds during early season training

Our first target for the year was the Highlander Mountain Marathon which has developed quite a following and reputation over recent years. Bar some umming and ahhing over whether we were going to commit to another trip to the Mournes in September we had scheduled a challenging progression through the year. We avoided trying to overcommit, both of us have young families, neither of us were getting any younger and recovery is always challenging, especially as we both have the capacity to push ourselves very (painfully) hard in competition.

A few weeks prior to Highlander we had a local shakedown overnight trip to iron out any bumps in our new, lighter approach. It was important to make sure we weren’t going to end up too cold as April in the Highlands can still be pretty inhospitable.

Fine tuning kit selection

Fine tuning kit selection

The overnight trip was both successful and enjoyable, putting everything together and discussing our plans and training approach for the year ahead.

Putting it all together, Jon refilling and fuelling on the move.

Putting it all together, Jon refilling and fuelling on the move.

On higher ground

On higher ground

First on the agenda was safely navigating through the Highlander which this year would be in Moidart. As part of our staged progression for the year we had entered B Class and promised ourselves that we wouldn’t take it too seriously. Turns out we have a problem understanding this concept. The day before we were set to travel I appeared to develop a cold, it had been threatening for a while. The trip to our hostel accommodation went well enough despite me feeling under the weather. During the night things went from bad to worse as I developed a fever and was drenched in sweat. A grim looking morning arrived and I was sleep deprived and dehydrated before even reaching the start. I wasn’t overly concerned. We had agreed that this was a warm-up and we were happy to settle for a comfortable trip round nestled safely in a mid-table finish if possible. From the outset we were clear that we wanted to steer clear of qualifying for the chasing start on day 2.

Posted the day before, the revised plan

Posted the day before, the revised plan

Achieving the ‘non-competitive’ aim seemed easy enough as I silently cursed every ascent on my way around. Jon usually drops me on the climbs, he’s far stronger in that respect, but I was feeling rough and slower than ever. There were several times where I seriously wondered whether I’d get around and I just knew that my death march was hampering our progress. The obvious racing route choices were rough, actually the ground was rough full stop. One competitor didn’t even make the first control before breaking his leg in two places. We find this tends to play in our favour…not losing competitors, although that helps! Rough, technically difficult, terrain is our natural ground and helps level the playing field with far stronger runners. I found the easiest bits of the day were those where we were scrambling and negotiating steep burns and snow rather than running or walking. The only section where I felt that I had positively contributed to the pace setting was on long rough, steep contouring leg. Unusually, by the end of the day Jon was setting the pace to the finish. I just couldn’t keep up. I just couldn’t wait for it to be over.

After dibbing, we greeted the news of our provisional position with shock and incredulity. When the dust had settled and everyone had completed the course, or at least accounted for, we found ourselves in 4th place overnight and firmly in the chasing start. I was less than happy. Somehow we had just gone out too fast. This was brought home when it transpired that 20 minutes spent searching for one control had cost us a comfortable 2nd place. There was only a couple of minutes between 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. The pressure was now on with no hope given my current condition. This was totally against plan. There was plenty of support at the overnight camp from clubmates and friends also competing. It didn’t really help to lift my mood. I didn’t feel that we could maintain our position let alone compete.

Day 2, and a reverse order chasing start for the lead teams. Jon and I didn’t discuss a plan. We’d recovered as well as we could overnight. A silent understanding always appears to be achieved. “5..4..3..2..1..Go!” We were off and officially racing, and being chased. It was hot and the ground was easier, more runnable. We fully expected to caught by the leading 3 teams, we didn’t have much of a buffer. It never came. On the downhills we simply flew, sometimes quite literally. At times I was quite giddy with laughter. ‘Non-competitive’ teams graciously let us by, dib ahead of them and cheered us on. By the end we were flying and bum sliding down the final steep descent. Then a curse. Nothing left to give, nearly in sight of the finish and they’d put a control on the most insignificant contour blip on the map. Swines. All that was left was the flat leg under Glenfinnan Viaduct and relief to finish. Standing ahead of us on the run in were some friends from the club who’d travelled down to support at the finish. I thought I felt ok and by this stage I was certainly holding my own in terms of finishing pace. Jon even asked me to slow when I started to pull away. The picture tells a different story.


Smiling inside, the face of a spent man

Smiling inside, the face of a spent man

We dibbed convinced that the leaders had passed by us through better route selection. First placed team on the first day were an hour ahead. No, none had passed. We were provisionally, temporarily, in 1st place. We knew it couldn’t last, it was a tense waiting game. I don’t know what was going through Jon’s head. I didn’t even know what was going through mine. We stood at the finish monitoring the time differences as teams started coming in. Guaranteed 4th we hadn’t lost anything. Then something incredible happened. Guaranteed 3rd. Relief. Elation. It couldn’t get any better. We did the calculation and watched the seconds and the minutes pass. It happened again, guaranteed 2nd. Never in our plans or wildest dreams. At this point my body realised what a state it was in. I had to take myself to one side. Dropping on all fours I felt sick, it was all a bit much. I held back the vomit but there may have been a tear. My first properly competitive podium placing since my school days. On day 2, with over 5 hours racing, there was about 1.5 minutes between the winning pair and us and we’d put a 20 minute buffer between us and 3rd place. Finishing time: 12 hours 10 minutes 3 seconds.

B Class 'Podium', looking brighter after fluids and sugar

B Class ‘Podium’, looking brighter after fluids and sugar

Next up was the LAMM. If we thought Highlander hadn’t gone to plan, well…

LAMM to the slaughter

LAMM to the slaughter