1 I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.Psalm 121, NIV
One of my favourite trail races is the West Highland Way Race. Normally it takes place on the nearest weekend to midsummer in June. The trail is approx. 95 miles (152 km) long with about 14,700 feet (4,480m) ascent and descent. It begins in Milngavie on the outskirts of Glasgow and ends in Fort William at the foot of Britain’s highest mountain. If interested you can read detailed accounts of previous years I have run this race here. I had a place for 2021. Sadly it has been cancelled for the 2nd year in a row due to pandemic (I am hoping however to do another version). A race tradition is competitors can choose their race number. For several years I have requested and received no. 121. Psalm 121 is a poem I reckon captures the inner resources needed to run a long distance trail. One of a group of psalms known as ‘songs of ascents’. It’s said ancient Israelites sung these ascending the hills on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. What you would sing when exerting yourself climbing. As such it captures my endurance running imagination. It’s the hills and the trails that I love to run on and these big races are like a pilgrimage to me.
The psalm opens with a reminder of the mountains. 20 or so hours into the race I reach Glencoe 114 km into race. I’m fatigued, chilled, probably nauseated and generally not feeling so well. Buachaille Etive Mòr* is a majestic, imposing mountain that broods over this famous valley. However in my physical and mental state and with the shadows lengthening such a mountain does not inspire or comfort. Rather it threatens and underlines my physical vulnerability.
At such times recognising the Creator’s help is my prayer. Leaving Glencoe I climb up over the ominously named Devil’s Staircase. At this stage I have often started to hallucinate. Deprived of sleep, suffering exhaustion and about to enter a second all night run I am starting to fall apart. I have been so grateful at such times to have competent and alert support runners with me.
It has been known for me to beg to stop and sleep in the rain and want to lie down in a stream. Losing my grip on reality I tell myself that these fanciful coloured rocks are illusions and that the pebbles moving at my feet are not mice. At these times I am barely aware of the fact that HE does not sleep and that my foot would not slip. Talking about feet during my first race in 2011 my support runner and friend Don washed my feet. There must be a message there! One thing I do know, there is such a thing as happy feet. My feet have never been happier before or since. Thanks Don.
That neither the heat of the day or the moon by night will harm. Holding on to the fact that God watches over me is an assertion. In extreme situations such a truth might not bring much joy, gladness or comfort. However as the night passes into daylight in the last stage of the race another truth from another psalm enters my consciousness “Weeping may endure for a night, But joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30 vs 5). Light dispels the fears and hallucinations of the night, forgotten in the glory of a new day. Replaced with the renewed joy and wonder of being alive.
Of course the sensible reader will be asking why put myself through such a tortuous experience when you don’t have to. Nobody is forcing me. And why do such things over and over again, not just once! To avoid misunderstanding it is not these painful experiences themselves that I long for. Indeed I try everything possible to mitigate them but with limited success!
Looking back these are experiences incidental to something else going on. Something deeper. Not easily explained but life affirming. Like experiencing love, rapturous music, a glorious sunset, poetry or beautiful art some things are better ‘felt than telt’**.
The poet of psalm 121 finishes reflecting on the Lord watching over our ‘comings and goings’ now and forever. An older translation uses ‘going out and coming in’ which appeals to the race imagery I have used here. I ‘go out’ at the start in Milgavie and ‘come in’ at Fort William at the end. As in the race so throughout all of life’s perplexing journey it is the Lord who is my help.
* The mountain’s name is Scots Gaelic, meaning “the Great Herdsman of Etive”
** Better ‘felt than telt’ is a Scots saying ‘telt=told’, and means you gain more insight from experiencing something than being told about it.