In November last year, I received a message from Jonny Muir, an Edinburgh-based author and hill runner, asking if I would consider writing the foreword for his upcoming book, The Mountains are Calling. Jonny Muir was well known to me. We are the two members of a very exclusive club – only we know what it feels like to have visited the scattered summits of every county in the United Kingdom in continuous, solo, self-propelled journeys: Jonny’s over 92 days in 2006; mine over 70 in 2017. Tomorrow, Sunday 13th May, is the one year anniversary since I started mine. This sense of community in the outdoor world is a special one and it’s been great to meet Jonny through our adventures and combined obsession with running in the mountains. No doubt there will be plenty of running in the mountains together in the near future (…though he is considerably faster than I am).
Obviously I agreed to write the foreword and was pretty chuffed to be given such an important role. The foreword came together during my recent trip to Nepal whilst under the ‘calling’ of the Himalayas. Fast forward seven months and The Mountains are Calling: Running in the High Places of Scotland will be launched in Edinburgh next week.
Here’s an adapted version of that foreword below:
When I was prompted to seek a challenge closer to home, it was while planning to link the highest points of all the United Kingdom counties, by cycling, running, walking and kayaking, that I discovered Jonny Muir, an amazing athlete and writer. My 5,000 mile journey, titled Climb The UK, was completed in July 2017, and he was the only person to have made an attempt before me. In a world with so little uncharted and records set so high, it’s thrilling to devise unique ideas that don’t involve a chicken costume, and somehow reassuring to discover it has already been done by such a remarkable individual.
Without a precedent it would be too easy to dismiss the idea as absurd and probably unachievable. Standing, exhausted, on Moel Famau, my final county top, I felt I had done well, but proof came when I was invited by my exemplar to write the foreword for the exceptional piece of writing that is The Mountains are Calling.
On four expeditions to the Himalayas, I have experienced altitude sickness, sleepless nights under the steam of breath, and –20 temperatures that left icicles in the stubble of my older colleagues, but it is still not an environment as unpredictable, character–building and enchanting as that of Scotland, whose bipolar tendencies can hit before the clouds roll off the hills. In contrast, the monsoon jetstream that knocks each Everest season on the head is forecast almost to the day. Predictable or otherwise, and be it Everest or Scotland’s revered Chno Dearg, these mountains crush dreams without apology and can strike fear into the most robust of hearts.
When voices of reason tell us to turn back, we are reminded by what others have achieved; we groan, dig deep and push on because we want to be like them. Why are we drawn back, time and time again, hungry gluttons for punishment? This ‘type–2’ enjoyment that we find in the mountains is difficult to describe or explain.
Outdoor writers have tried, and many can say what runners do, but these pages tell of the journey of understanding. In The Mountains are Calling, Jonny Muir sums up these feelings to a tee. It’s only by losing ourselves in these high places that we truly find ourselves. After watching the sunset from 7,000 metres altitude, humbled by the grandeur of the Himalayas, I know nothing rubs away a longing for the familiar mountains on our doorstep that we know inside out, and love. The benefits of being outside for our physical and mental wellbeing cannot be overestimated.
At first, I wondered where I might fit into such a fascinating collection of perspectives; between the hill running wonders, the international champions, and satisfied Sunday plodders. From their banana bunches to Prosecco and playground hill reps, there seems to be no common factors beyond modesty and the simple desire to be out in the hills. This is what unifies us. Runners are often asked: ‘have you ever run a marathon?’ as mountaineers are somehow expected to have climbed Everest, but only a runner would ask: ‘Have you completed Ramsay’s Round?’ Only a runner would understand. Maybe we don’t need to be understood. Hopefully this community will remain mysterious for decades to come.
Reading Jonny Muir’s book makes it apparent that animalistic capability and talent alone do not command the meaning we take from the mountains. Maybe it’s not the battle of seconds and minutes, but the euphoria of owning a summit by the power of feet, grit and glycogen; the realisation of ‘I’ve done it’ is something we all relate to. Nothing else comes close.
In its simplest form, running equates to survival: from prehistoric man chasing his dinner to city workers swapping briefcases for bothies and conference calls for checkpoints. As recounted in the chapter Ambushed by Chno Dearg, some have risked the worst to run at their best, and drawn the short straw. Their legends still run today, if only through these pages and the hills they reigned over, but the biggest risk is in not doing what makes us feel so alive.
Those who stay inside, warm and dry, can only be pitied – that’s as alive as they’re going to feel all day. We cannot run forever, though someone will probably try. The grasp of ‘real life’ pulls us back to terra firma, but soon enough the mountains will call us again. This is our way of life.
What’s the book about? Here’s the blurb:
Jonny Muir was a nine-year-old boy when the silhouette of a lone runner in the glow of sunset on the Malvern Hills caught his eye. A fascination for running in high places was born – a fascination that would direct him to Scotland. Running and racing, from the Borders to the Highlands, and the Hebrides to the hills of Edinburgh, Jonny became the mountainside silhouette that first inspired him.
His exploits inevitably led to Scotland’s supreme test of hill running: Ramsay’s Round, a daunting 60-mile circuit of twenty-four mountains, climbing the equivalent height of Mount Everest and culminating on Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak – to be completed within twenty-four hours.
While Ramsay’s Round demands extraordinary endurance, the challenge is underpinned by simplicity and tradition, in a sport largely untainted by commercialism. The Mountains are Calling is the story of that sport in Scotland, charting its evolution over half a century, heralding its characters and the culture that has grown around them, and ultimately capturing the irresistible appeal of running in high places.
Who is Jonny Muir?
Jonny Muir is a runner, writer and teacher, and The Mountains are Calling, published by Sandstone Press, is his fourth book. A runner since his school days, Jonny ran and raced on road, track and trail before receiving a calling to the mountains. Since then, he has run extensively in the British hills and mountains, and has completed the Bob Graham Round and Ramsay’s Round.
Jonny followed, encouraged and supported my own county top journey and I’m hugely privileged to play a small part in his latest project. It’s quite surreal to see my name on the front cover!
Make sure you grab yourself a copy! The Mountains are Calling is available from the following: