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Why do we go up?

Updated: Oct 16, 2018

An interview with Jonny Muir about his new book on hill running.

If you know me, you know that when I am not writing, I am running. And sometimes, over here, I am writing about running. I also read about running, and I am particular. It's harder than you think to write interestingly and thoughtfully about an activity that is after all just putting one foot in front of the other, a lot. It helps, of course, when that activity is done in beautiful and wild places. I love to run in beautiful and wild places, and I love to read good writing about doing that. I got to know Jonny Muir online through his blog posts, which are a fine example of a writer who runs who writes interestingly and thoughtfully about running, and about the landscape he runs in. So, in a departure from my usual posts on here (which, I know, have been few and far-between over the last year), and as part of Jonny's blog tour, here is a Q&A interview with Jonny on his new book The Mountains Are Calling, named for the famous quote by Jonny's namesake John Muir.

The mountains are calling, and I must go.

I asked Jonny about why he wrote the book, his love of the hills and why we should never underestimate the inspirational power of hill running as a force for good. As well as other stuff.

Why do humans want to go up? In the book, I describe this as a desire to ‘touch the sky’. It is inherent, isn’t it? Think of a child on a swing shouting ‘higher’. It is wonderful to see the world below shrink as you climb ever higher, knowing you are achieving this through your own will and effort. The sensation of I-was-all-the-way-down-there-and-now-I’m-up-here never grows old.

Hill running is a romantic sport that offers its participants an intrinsic connection to extraordinary landscapes. Does that make it easy to write about? It certainly helps. The story of hill running, however, is not one of numbers: times, positions, schedules, and so on. It is a story of experience, a story of understanding, respecting and revelling in high places, a story not of conquering mountains but of conquering ourselves. I hope I have captured those notions in The Mountains are Calling.

The Mountains are Calling took you three years to complete. Can you describe the process of writing the book? Writing any book is a lonely, tiresome, dreadfully-paid, frustrating period of self-flagellation when you wonder why you ever began the process. So it's much like running a hill race. It was also written as I worked as a full-time English teacher at a secondary school and brought up my two daughters, now aged five and three. Three years ago, I drew up a rough structure for the book and wrote a list of everyone I hoped to speak to. Weirdly, the published book is not too dissimilar to that original plan. The interviews, the research: that is the easy bit. Writing is the real slog. Non-fiction is rarely literary, but it needs to be much more than merely functional. Trying to make my narrative highly readable to a mainstream audience – the niche hill running market will always "get it" – was the unending challenge.

Why did you choose the title The Mountains are Calling? The book focuses on the people who go to high places and the inspiration they find there. I spoke to dozens of runners, the champions and the backmarkers, and everyone in between. A common theme, a uniting bond, emerged. These people felt "called" to the fabulous hills and mountains of Scotland. To go to the high places is what matters to them: how fast they run, how many summits they touch, whether they are first or last, is irrelevant. To have answered the call, to just be there: that is enough. In that context, The Mountains are Calling seemed the right title.

Do you think fell and hill running has a role to play in wider society? There are some who take pride in hill running being niche, low-key and, quite frankly, a bit weird. While I am certainly against the unnecessary commercialisation of the sport, I think hill and fell running should realise the role it can play in inspiring people to go to the hills – and particularly young people who seem drawn to these places to run rather than walk. I hear people complaining about "trods" being created on the route of the Bob Graham Round. That more people want to run around the hills for 24 hours can never be a bad thing. That should be the role of our sport, to give people something extraordinary to be inspired by. Look how many people follow Ricky Lightfoot on Instagram: some 11,000. There is inspiration! The mountains are millions of years old; a "trod" leading down Skiddaw won’t trouble them. In the same way, the hills don’t belong to us, the hill runners. We shouldn’t therefore be keeping this sport secret. The sport will undoubtedly attract "incomers" who don’t really know what they are doing, but we all have to start somewhere, and we can’t all be Joss Naylor. How egalitarian do you think hill and fell running is? Society is not egalitarian; inevitably hill running mirrors that. I don’t feel qualified to comment on the English scene, but the sport in Scotland is not elitist and is, generally-speaking, financially accessible. In terms of gender equality in prize money, several races in 2017 were publicly pressured to equalise prizes. Hill running is, however, a very white sport.

Did you interview any women runners in your book? Lots: Helene Whitaker, Jasmin Paris, Kate Jenkins, Joanne Anderson, Alicia Hudelson, Steph Provan, Amy Capper, Angela Mudge, Helen Bonsor, Wendy Dodds, Lucy Rattrie, Renee McGregor. Maybe even that isn’t enough?

If you could step into the shoes of a hill runner at any moment in history, who would it be? I would love to have understood how Colin Donnelly felt as he moved into the lead of the Ben Nevis Race in 1979. He was only 19 – the first and only teenager to win the race. Or Kilian Jornet as he raced over the Aonach Eagach in the 2017 Glen Coe Skyline to see how it feels to move so fast and freely over that ridge. Or Angela Mudge winning the world championships in the Bavarian Alps in 2000, 30 years after being born with club foot. Having said that, I don’t mind just being me, on my own, on a spring evening, running in the Pentlands on a path I’ve trodden a hundred times.

Who do you admire most in hill running (man and woman) and why? The exploits of Helene Diamantides (before she was Whitaker) in the late-80s and early-90s were astonishing. She was the equal to any man in a golden era. In terms of the book, Glyn Jones – the first person to complete a winter Ramsay’s Round in 55 hours – is the hero. His motivation was simply to be in the mountains.

You are one of only 105 people to have completed Ramsay’s Round. Why have so few people done it? Is it because the Bob Graham Round is better? "Better" is obviously subjective. Ramsay’s Round includes some of the UK’s highest mountains, meaning you spend much of the time at greater altitude than the Bob Graham, while Scotland’s more northerly latitude increases the likelihood of inclement weather. Much of the route is pathless and very rough, road support is impossible because there are no roads, and snow and ice can linger into June (as it will this year).Beyond that, the Ramsay hasn’t enjoyed – if that’s the right word – the commercial scrutiny of the Bob Graham. In some ways, doing the Bob Graham has become a cliché. It is what the American ultrarunners want to do; it is what Kilian Jornet wants to do. Do the Ramsay, do the Paddy Buckley, do one of the other big Scottish rounds, devise your own round. There are plenty of alternatives. In conclusion, the Ramsay is "better"! Any last thoughts? I just think we are very lucky. To run in the hills is to have unparalleled freedom and joy. In a world of commercial greed and athletes seeking any means to gain an advantage, this is a sport of everyday, thoroughly normal heroes who we can absolutely believe in.

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