It feels like I have been running north for a very long time – because I have, really, I suppose. On January 15th I stood at Lizard Point, the most southerly place in the UK, took a picture of my face and posted it to Twitter, joking that it was ‘only a few thousand more miles’ until I reached the most northerly point. Now, exactly five months later here I am, sitting in Ullapool in the Highlands and it’s T minus 6 days until I make it up to Dunnet Head.
I used to think that Liverpool was north – so far north that I’d never bothered visiting until I ran there. Then I got to the Scottish border and I thought that I had basically ran to the end of the earth. Now I’m nearly at the top of the country, about as far from London as you can get without a boat or a plane (or a strong swimming technique), and I look at the map and laugh at the idea of Liverpool being even remotely north.
My journey up to these lofty heights has been a quite different to how I originally planned it to be. My original plan for this run didn’t involve any islands, mostly because once you start to add on the lumps of land surrounding Great Britain, the mileage starts multiplying at an alarming rate. 5000 miles felt quite far enough and I had neither the funds, the time or, more to the point, the inclination to run much further. And I quite liked knowing that there would be some coastline left to explore, untainted by the highs and lows of this adventure.
That remained the plan for the first six months – until Scotland happened, the west coast of which is a wiggling tangle of lochs and peninsulas and ocean. It is impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. For some reason, the Scottish road network seems not to have been built with the plight of an on-foot circumnavigator in mind either. The roads rarely loop neatly around the fingers of land and, where they do, there are numerous dangerous sections without footpaths. A little lorry dodging is unfortunately part and parcel of a journey like this but it’s something I am keen to avoid as far as physically possible.
I started to look more closely at the maps, often guided by the more experienced eyes of hosts who know the area far better than I could ever hope to. The more I looked, the more certain islands seemed to just slot into place, pieces of the jigsaw that just made so much sense that it would have been a crying shame not to incorporate them into my route. Arran was sitting there just waiting to take me from Ayrshire to the Mull of Kintyre. The Isle of Mull had a ferry at either end and wonderful, quiet connecting road the seamlessly allowed me to avoid the nasty A82 up to Fort William. And Skye – well they even built a bridge back to mainland from Skye.
With a new plan in mind, I went to the Cal Mac ferry terminal in Ardrossan, bought myself a purseful of hopscotch ferry tickets (which were inordinately good value for foot passengers, I thought) and spent a few weeks island hopping up the coast. I’m so glad I did. There’s something in the air on those islands and I’m sure I wasn’t imagining it – a sense of peace and calm and community. I finished things off with an impromptu holiday on Skye, because I really couldn’t bear to leave after just a day on the island, and then I was well and truly back on the mainland and in the clutchs of the Scottish Highlands.
I have been scared about the Highlands leg of my adventure from the very beginning. I don’t know what I was expecting and that’s probably part of the problem. When I thought about it, my mind just filled with vast expanses of nothingness. That hasn’t quite been the case though. Sure, if you’re comparing the Highlands with Soho on a Friday night then you would probably say that things are a little sparse up here but, really, there’s everything you need. People do live here, after all. There’s enough.
If anything, for my purposes, things are easier. The Highlands are so much more geared up to walkers and cyclists and outdoorsy things in general than elsewhere is, and this benefits the lone runner enormously. When the weather turns, there are hostels and bunkhouses dotted along the route and nobody minds seems to mind too much when you turn up caked in mud and haven’t washed your shorts for three weeks.
Scotland has presented some unexpected challenges though, namely in the shape of the extremely surprising soaring temperatures. My fears for the Highlands centred more around shivering in my tent and wearing wet socks day after day. I didn’t expect a two tone leg tan and heat rash. There are a lot of beautiful things to look at but my views of them have largely been obscured by the obscene amounts of sweat in my eyeballs. Don’t even get me started on the chafing. Running definitely isn’t glamorous, no matter what the models on the magazines with the swishing ponytails will have you believe.
I’m on the final pull north now though and at last I believe that perhaps I’m going make it through the highlands alive and, if I can manage that, then maybe, just maybe, I will make it back to London in one piece too. I daren’t say that I’m nearing the end yet – the home stretch from John O’ Groats back down to London alone is over 1000 miles, a sizeable enough adventure in itself – but I do feel like I can stop telling people that I’m trying to run around the coast of Great Britain now and start saying that I am running around it.
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