Watch any experienced hill runner and suddenly the laws of physics appear to be totally discarded as they fly through the mountains.
To be able to move in the mountains requires more than just being fit and able to go fast. No, somehow there is a special breed of hill runners who just seem to be able to move fast through the hills without seeming to put in much effort.
This struck me one day running in the Lairig Ghru. My friend and I were running at the foot of Carn Toul when another runner past us.
“You guys going up into the hills today?”, he asked.
“No, just doing a recce of the race route”, I said. “What about yourself?”.
“Yeah. Started at the Linn o’ Dee and going to do Devil’s Point, Carn Toul, Angel’s Peak, down, up Braeriach, down and up Macdui and then down the front”, he said casually. He smirked when I looked at him suspiciously.
“Easy day, then?”, I laughed. “Of course”, he said.
He went on, but instead of staying within touching distance, he just glided. He wasn’t just running the trail, he was moving within it, becoming almost part of it as he covered ground almost effortlessly.
“It is fascinating, isn’t it?” says Jonny Muir, author of The Mountains are Calling. “To borrow an idea from coach Malcolm Paterson: You could take anyone who is a fast road runner, fast track runner, and put them on the hills and they could run up them well. As soon as they get on technical ground and going downhill, it becomes a whole different range of skills, strength and mental composure.”
Muir, teacher of English, released his book, subtitled Running in the high places of Scotland, as an exploration of a sport receiving growing interest across Scotland, thanks to a lot of social media output on Instagram, and the growing celebrity status of the likes of Kilian Jornet and Finlay Wild.
Muir, throughout 2018, has been posting daily on Twitter with small pieces of the hill running community in Scotland, featuring the likes of Angela Mudge, Davy Duncan and many others who simply love to run in high places.
One of my favourites comes from day 129:
Man outside Glen Nevis Youth Hostel: ‘We were watching your light descending from the top. Have you run up Ben Nevis and back?’
Graham Nash, having just completed his second successful Ramsay’s Round in 23 hours: ‘Something like that.’
Muir’s published work has been growing since his first book, Heights of Madness, was released in 2009. His latest now sits proudly on the shelves and bedside tables of many hill runners and those who simply love the Scottish outdoors.
The Mountains are Calling is an exploration of Scottish hill running, speaking to legends of the sport and answering the luring call of the infamous Ramsay’s Round in the west highlands: A 24-hour race over the some of Scotland’s highest mountains.
I put it to Jonny, this idea of being able to move in the mountains, he being perfectly placed having picked the brains of and witnessed some of the greatest runners of our time.
He said: “Some people can run fast, and they run fast because it’s a lovely downhill gradient. Take races like Jura or Stuc a’Chroin into Glen Ample – to go down that, you need rhythm. Is there a secret to that? In the book I make a point that it is a technique. In the book there is a chapter on the Ramsayist, which is looking at the anatomy of a Ramsay Rounder.”
In the book, Muir speaks to Tom Owens, recently crowned winner of the Three Peaks race in the Lake District, on the subject of being genetically good at hill running.
In one section, Muir writes: “Tom disagreed again, naming a handful of mountain and ultra-distance runners who he considered to be ‘naturally gifted’: Kilian Jornet, Jonathan Wyatt, Marco de Gasperi and Angela Mudge. Tom Owens, he insisted, was not on the list.”
What gives them this natural gift, I wondered? A lot of what it came down to was a debate over nature versus nurture for Muir.
“I don’t think anyone is born to do anything. I was playing with my daughters today, and I heard one of my wife’s friends say we were brave for letting them do that. I wouldn’t say brave, but they are being allowed to play without control.
“Unless they were putting themselves in harm’s way, it is better for them to explore their limits by themselves than placing limits on them.
“Talking to Finlay Wild, I said, ‘You are amazing at going downhill’. He was behind Rob Jebb in the Ben Nevis Hill race and famously managed to overtake him on the descent. I asked him why he was so amazing at running downhill, and even he didn’t know.
“It is that repeated practice of doing something. Look at Finlay: He was trusted by his dad to go climbing, and he spent a lot of time cycling and climbing, and he grew up with this natural ability to move in the mountains. He built on the skills that made him move efficiently, both physically and mentally.”
Wild is one of Scotland’s greatest hill racers. Working as a GP in the Lochaber area, Wild has stormed to victory on Ben Nevis eight times on a course described as featuring “the roughest, toughest descent”. Let me repeat that: He has won the Ben Nevis race eight times.
His quickest time? 1:28.45 to race 14km and ascend 1345m.
It is this point on mentality that became increasingly clear as a key factor in being able to move well in the mountains. Being able to relax, says Muir, is crucial, and being aware of the process of being a mountain runner likewise.
“Knowing you have fallen, you’ve drawn blood and it is just part of the process”, he says. “You need to be comfortable and accept the sport for all its parts, and in an odd way you begin to move better.”
Muir accepts that his own descending is a weak area for him, but knows his strength lies in the uphill runs.
“From personal experience, I know there is a ceiling on my downhill performance. I don’t like skiing for that same reason, and when I am cycling and descending it is the same. I genuinely think there is not much I can do better in that situation.
“You just need to be comfortable to relax. I have definitely improved; coming off Stuc a’Chroin, I lost people on the descent, but I played to my stregnths and knew I could catch them on the uphill. Look at Finlay and the Glencoe Skyline: He couldn’t compete with Kilian and Jonathan Albon. Jonathan is a good example: An obstacle course racer who went toe to toe with Kilian, and this guy has no experience in hill running.”
What can we do, then – we mere mortals – to improve our downhill technique? Well, practice. Simply moving in the hills on technical terrain is the only way to improve your confidence and ability to relax when the going gets tough.
It is not about going to the gym, doing ladder drills, agility work or balance. In the end, the best way to get better at moving in the hills is to do it. Muir cites the “10,000 hours” theory of practice, and emphasises that putting time on your feet improves confidence and your ability to relax.
Moving in the mountains is about much more than being fast.
The Mountains are Calling by Jonny Muir is out now in Waterstone’s and available to buy on Amazon.