Why Hill Running is the Best Medicine

Hill running is the one activity I turn to when I’m feeling confused, annoyed or lost. Here I talk about the mental health benefits of trotting along the tops, and the results of two fantastic hill running events that I took part in last year.

In spring 2017, my main focus was logging enough trips to qualify for my Sea Kayak Leader assessment in June. There is only so much kayaking one can do, so in the meantime I was putting in plenty of tough training miles ahead of the Scottish Island Peaks Race and the Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon.

North Harris boasts some fantastic hill running (if you are not concerned with running on trails) and only on rare occasions will you see anybody else. Highlights include An Cliseam, the highest peak in the Outer Hebrides at 799m, and Sron Uladal, a massive overhanging face held in high esteem by the climbing community. The ridge of Beinn Dubh to the north of Luskentyre affords the best views on the island, with the mountains and West Loch Tarbert on one side and white sandy beaches on the other.

Beinn Dubh ridge, South Harris – looking north to West Loch Tarbert and North Harris.

I had frequent doubts about setting up the sea kayaking business – it was a step into the unknown and I didn’t really have anybody around to discuss my concerns or ideas with. Whenever I came to a problem, I found that the best thing to do was go for a run, clear my head and come back to it later. While I had seen the benefits of doing this before, it wasn’t until this time that it had such significant impact.

For me, there is no better aid to mental health than getting stuck into a long, steep ascent in the mountains, so much the better if the weather is bad. Everything is so raw; the wind on your face, the squelch of your shoe in a bog. The only consideration is moving forward, and with sustained effort one eventually reaches the top. Progress is tangible, obvious and easy to understand. Above the streets, houses, rooms, people, internet and emails, it is easy to put things into perspective. The magnitude of the hills and the ocean helps to see problems for what they are – tasks to be overcome, rather than a cause for endless worry.

Coming back to civilisation, there is a new found sharpness; a composed alertness that allows one to view things objectively without getting sucked into thoughts of what may or may not happen at some point in the future. Strangely, when I’m having a hard time, the idea of going running seems even less appealing; curling up in a ball in bed and hiding from the world feels like the safest thing to do. This is when the advantages of running are greatest and at times like these, tying the laces and getting out of the house for a run is the best thing to do.

The clarity of thinking that I gained from working up a sweat in the hills wasn’t the only benefit – I was building up good physical fitness too. As I sacrificed my doubts to the summit winds, I was getting into great shape for the upcoming hill races.

In the Scottish Island Peaks Race, teams of five comprising some combination of sailors and runners must sail from Oban to Troon, stopping off at the Isles of Mull, Jura and Arran to run to the summits of Ben More, the Paps of Jura and Goat Fell, respectively. There is so much uncertainty around events like these because one is completely at the mercy of the weather, which is what makes it so exciting!

A video account from Scottish Island Peaks Race 2018

We were sailing ‘Jjig’ (an acronym of family names), known fondly (and perhaps more appropriately) as the Gin Cruiser. While not built for racing, or the light winds that we were plagued by for much of the race, she (eventually) saw us safely back to Troon on Monday afternoon, over 3 days after the race started. My pal Ollie and I covered 60 miles over the weekend, running and navigating well aside from a blip on Jura owing to some unpleasant seasickness. Almost half the fleet retired (for various reasons) but coming 19th and last of all the finishers was still greatly satisfying.

At the finish of the Scottish Island Peaks Race 2018 in Troon, minus sailor Colin.

Two weeks later the LAMM (Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon) arrived on the Isle of Harris. Known as ‘the connoisseurs mountain marathon’, this event was to be the last ever, with the boundlessly energetic Martin Stone announcing his retirement from its organisation at the prize-giving ceremony. With such a high profile race on my doorstep, there was no question it had to be done. I set about finding somebody suitably speedy to pair up with, and fortuitously received an email from Iain just three days before the start – his partner Quentin had been injured and wasn’t able to compete. Quentin had still come up to volunteer, and the two of them set up camp in the back garden of my tiny Tarbert flat.

I was slightly intimidated by Iain’s track record – an ex-GB orienteer and experienced (and successful) mountain marathoner – he’d even sent me his ‘food plan’ from a previous event. But as the weekend progressed, we settled into a happy partnership and moved quickly and efficiently through the North Harris hills. Blue skies and strong sunshine made for fantastic conditions, as long as one kept drinking. The onset of dehydration made it hard going for a number of runners.

You’d be hard pressed to find a finer camping spot than Loch Crabahdail – a white sand beach backed by a small grassy plateau, nestled at the end of a rugged valley. The sea of tents next to the turquoise water was a sight to behold, and there was a friendly atmosphere as teams traded stories about the fortunes of their day. Sunday threw up some low cloud and navigational tests early on, but by mid-morning things had cleared up and Iain and I arrived at Tarbert School soon after 1 p.m. as winners of the A course! Such was the success of the event that it has gone down in history as the ‘Isle of Harris Classic’.

Drone photography from the event courtesy of Dropro Aerial Imagery

I love the camaraderie of these events – there are few better ways to build and strengthen friendships than suffering up steep hills together for hours on end. Ollie and I will one day be back (once he has cured his seasickness) to chase the coveted ‘King of the Bens’ title, and Iain and I will be competing on the Elite course at this year’s Scottish Mountain Marathon.

The feeling after a long hill run can’t be matched, but sometimes knowing this still isn’t enough to get outside. With a race in the diary, it’s a great incentive to put in the training miles. By signing up for an event, I’m committing to getting fitter, spending time with like-minded people and improving my mental health.

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