I find the pithy sayings of G K Chesterton striking. His book ‘Orthodoxy’ is a defence of Christianity and his journey of faith. It is right up to date in addressing the problems of our age. This despite being written over 100 years ago.
“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity……. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.”
Available to many of us are the simple sights and sounds of nature. Enjoying them can feel guilty when contrasted with the current news of war and pestilence. However these pleasures can be balm to the soul in dark times. So I will indulge you in the following ‘touches of lightness’ that have been a blessing to me in recent winter weeks. You can adapt if you live in Southern Hemisphere!
After months of long, grey days experiencing late winter clear skies has been very refreshing. The light is not as strong as spring or summer. There is a sweet, almost delicate tinge to everywhere the sunlight bathes. Now this may simply be because of many dark days and my eyes not used to brighter light. Whatever the reason it is special and different.
Sunlight is felt as well as observed. There is something gentle on a cold day to have one side of your face being warmed, albeit with a weak sun.
Wakening in the middle of the night to birdsong. When the worries of the world seem to threaten mind and heart their music is balm to the soul. I am no bird expert but listening to this pre-dawn chorus is healing. Naively I have always thought that birds waken later in winter, a bit like myself. It’s only this year I’ve heard them so early. Maybe God wakens them to get up and sing for me!
Country walks punctuated by the gurgling of water. Streams transporting melting ice seem especially joyous and playful. That may just be my imagination. Of course water also rushes and roars with tremendous strength and destruction. However this seems the season for gentle, murmuring waters.
The seemingly random and chaotic patterns of deciduous tree branches in winter. There are scientific descriptions for these patterns in nature (‘fractals’). For some years I find observing them is soothing to the brain. Recently I read that there is apparently scientific evidence for this. Not that I need any. Gazing at the seemingly random patterns of branches against a blue sky is like a brain massage.
The many sounds of different terrain.
The ending of most pandemic rules in UK has also awakened other dormant experiences. One such has been the comforting murmur of multiple conversations when in a large room or hall. Groups of people talking to each other seemed unremarkable and mundane before pandemic times. Such a hubbub of noise makes no sense. With other eyes it shows something of the glory of being human.
You can no doubt add to this list. Wherever you live on this globe there are plenty ‘natural’ soothing ointments for frazzled, fearful and tired souls.
In February 1986 Jean Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier was deposed as President of Haiti and went to live in exile in France. Ordinary people were no doubt hoping that the near 30 year brutal rule of his and ‘Papa Doc’ (his father) would come to an end. However the general chaos remained with a military junta in control. Their will was enforced by the ‘Tonton Macoutes’, a sinister legacy of the Duvaliers which lived on. Their name was Creole for ‘bogeymen’. The populace feared them and the main thing was to avoid their attention. They would race round the capital in open jeeps and armed with guns.
It was with this background that in the November of that same year (1986) I visited Haiti. My reason for going was to initiate preparations (known as ‘line up’) for the visit of MV Logos to the country. Make a brief survey of the situation for others to follow up later. Arriving at the airport in the capital Port au Prince I was immediately struck by a sense of chaos. Exiting the arrivals hall I was accosted by many wanting me to use their taxi services. In a more benign situation the scene would be reminiscent of some film star being mobbed by fans. Not so for me, it felt scary. Eventually I settled on one driver. Tip for using a taxi in a poor land. Always sit in the back with your luggage and just have the driver in front. Never allow a ‘hanger on’ person, either in the front or back.
As we left the airport it was unnerving that crowds were thronging around the car and banging on it. A big relief to get away. My destination was the compound of a Christian organisation in the capital. Upon arrival I began to understand the angry scenes at the airport. Greeted by my host he was shocked to see me. Did I not know there was a general strike on? How had I managed to travel in such circumstances? I had arrived on one of the worst days of demonstrations and riots since the deposing of ‘Baby Doc’. The other greeting has also remained with me. It helped to cement my overall feeling of being in a place where law and order were in short supply… “welcome to the last kleptocratic country in the world”.
The compound was a haven of safety where a number of mission families lived. The whole area was walled in. Outwith the gates were people who seemed to live in hope of some economic benefit from those inside the wall. In my imagination it felt like being in some medieval fort or Biblical walled city. My misplaced sense of identifying with people made me question why those who were there to serve others were so insulated. In fact a concern at the time for the compound community was for one family that had decided to live in a house in the city. However my appreciation grew for having the safety of a walled compound. I recall being wakened at night by the sound of machine gun fire.
My survey visit was only for a mere 6 days. The people I was with would not go downtown for the first 2 days of my stay because of the instability. Much of that time was spent sneaking around back roads to get from A to B. I had great respect for those who chose to live in these difficult, dangerous circumstances for years. I took seriously the counsel that when out and about to wear no watches, rings or jewellery. Another tip. Have small amounts of money in several places including in your socks or shoes.
One category of locals allowed into the compound were shoe shine people. I engaged someone to work cleaning my footwear. Definitely more of a salve to my conscience than any perceived need of clean shoes. Those I was ‘helping’ seemed desperately poor. Apparently the income the shoe shine people received enabled them to employ other people. Seemed there was a hierarchy of poverty.
I don’t remember any tourist sights in the capital though am sure there were. My only ‘sightseeing’ memory was seeing the desecrated grave of ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier. Given his and his son’s legacy of terror it was understandable why there would be some pride in my being shown this.
The dilemma for me in this anarchic situation was where would I get ‘permissions’ etc for the MV Logos to visit the country? I had been given the name of a potential useful contact who agreed to meet with me. Linked by family with the leadership of the junta it seemed this person could be a help. The address for the meeting was on the outskirts of the capital. I made my way there to a well to do part of the capital. My contact managed one of the country’s most luxurious hotels and I was to meet him there. It was all a bit surreal as most seemed to carry guns. Not your normal hotel environment. Turned out my contact had 24 bodyguards. If anything happened to his relative in power he was prepared to go into siege. Again my overactive imagination made it all feel like the set at the ending of many Bond films. 007 meeting his archenemy holed up in his lair. Ushered in to meet my ‘contact’ my bizarre musings were fuelled further. He was in a dimly lit room covered in piles of animal skins and surrounded by several men armed to the teeth. Not sure how dangerous I appeared to warrant such.
Now to the business of the meeting. It was obvious from the start that my presence was of little consequence. My contact was glued to a ‘walkie talkie’ radio most of the time. For short periods in between his intense radio communications he would address me. It was clear that what I was saying was of no interest. What was transpiring on the radio was where the real drama was. My reason for being there became irrelevant as I too was drawn in as he repeated everything he was hearing.
It turned out that a major riot was taking place in the city centre. My contact was following the event as it happened. It was clear he was speaking to some key informant in whatever was going on. It seemed the mob had now arrived at the offices of a world famous (now defunct) American airline. They had smashed their way in and were now trying to break into the safe where airline tickets were stored. In those days air tickets were often written by hand on blank triplicate (or quadruplicate?) forms. Blank tickets, it would appear, would be very valuable. I leave the reader to decide what kind of interest my contact had in this live account of looting.
For my part the intermittent, inconsequential conversation with my contact was becoming embarrassing. It was clear that all I was doing was interrupting more exciting things going on. I suggested I leave. At this point my contact became interested and engaged. He must have been listening to me after all! He could help me with anything and introduced me to his partner. Apparently all it needed was a $2,500 up front ‘service fee’. I sensed the whole thing was opportunistic. Suddenly all that mattered to me was to get away. As politely and firmly as possible I got out of the place. It is at times like that that knowing the prayers of many for my protection became real.
It came time for me to leave the country and travel to the ship which was then in Puerto Rico. As if to cement my kleptocratic understanding a ‘departure tax’ was levied at the airport. I was told it was not destined for any government coffers but some individual.
Some weeks later it worked out to return on board the ship MV Logos. We had an encouraging 10 day stay in Port au Prince as well as 5 days in the town of Cap Haitien on the country’s north coast where thousands visited. No space to relate the activities involved. If interested to know more you can click ‘Logos‘ on the tags cloud.
Haiti’s history is a blot on our shared humanity. A toxic legacy of gross injustices, African slavery, greedy colonialism, despotic leaders and extreme poverty. The suffering of its people being further compounded in recent years by natural disasters. The huge earthquake in 2010 killed an estimated 200,000. Add regular tropical storms, further earthquakes and ongoing political instability and it would seem there is no end to ordinary citizens suffering. Environmentally even in 1986 large swathes of the land had been denuded of its hardwood trees such as mahogany.
I appreciate relating my Haiti experience may not be uplifting to the reader. My desire though is that our common humanity would engender love and compassion for the plight of this country’s hard pressed people. When words fail, sometimes nature and music can step in.
Haiti’s national flower is the hibiscus. A thing of beauty yet delicate, like the Haitians whom God loves.
“So much of what music can do most beautifully is humanize things that have become dehumanized,”
Laurent Dubois, Duke University professor and historian on Haiti.
While wondering how to finish this blog I happened to go to a musical concert. To my surprise among the featured musicians was the Haitian-American singer Leyla McCalla. She sang a folk song in Haitian Creole. You can hear her sing Mèci Bon Dié on YouTube here. It’s a song of hope, even joy, for a land of resilient people in sore need of healing. The translated lyrics are below.
Thank you, God,
Look at all that nature has brought us.
Thank you, God,
Look how misery has ended for us.
The rain has fallen,
The corn has grown,
All the children that were hungry are going to eat.
Let’s dance the Congo,
Let’s dance the Petro,
God said in Heaven
That misery has ended for us.
“Merci Bon Dieu (Mèci Bon Dié In Haitian Creole)”(Harry Belafonte Lyrics)
They say getting to the start line is half the battle. In these pandemic times especially so as nothing could be taken for granted. Added to that about 10 days before I experienced back pain. I could walk but not run so it really played on me whether I could take part. Now think it was more of a sprain from over enthusiastic core exercises. It eventually healed a few days beforehand.
Night before had a fitful sleep and rose at 5am. Elisabeth was going to be my support driving me to Fort William and then seeing me at various points throughout the many hours that followed. Her effort was heroic in the circumstances and involved just as much endurance. Over the time she ended up running 31km and drove hundreds of kms to support me in this effort. As the official support due to restrictions was very limited it is a fact I could not have done it without her.
Had my usual breakfast and we left house at 7am for a pleasant trip north in good weather. Upon arrival in Fort William got registered at Claggan football ground, about 600m from the start. Dropped off my 7 ‘drop bags’ and a ‘safety rucksack’ (mentioned later). These would be taken to the checkpoints en route. So far so good. What was new was signing a disclaimer form.
There were 120 starting. In addition there were a handful of ‘crazy’ folks doing extreme things (more on that later). The rest of us were a mixture of ‘seasoned’, those completely new and those in between. Everyone probably a bit unbalanced.
Made our way to the rather inauspicious start sign for the West Highland Way (WHW) at the edge of a busy little roundabout. More commonly the finish as we were going in opposite direction. 11am was approaching but we were told that the 3 buses from Milngavie had arrived late so would start at 1110.
What was ahead was more of an odyssey than a journey. Such a kaleidoscope of feelings and thoughts experienced that no one thing could define it. It was (according to my watch) about 207,000 steps. Some of them easy and light and many hard. Live in the moment, don’t think of how far or how long you must endure. My thinking is if I can take the next step, time always passes with no effort required from me. According to the laws of physics time + steps = distance!
The adventure began as promised at 1110. The first few km followed the road beside the River Nevis. Just before we turned off into the trail and forest of Glen Nevis 13 of our number took a left. They were first going up Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain, before later rejoining the West Highland Way.
Going up the edge of the Glen is a long climb. Not so steep but long enough that it’s a waste of precious energy trying to move too fast. It was only the start. My GPS watch on record would only do a max. of 10-12 hours so would only use for certain segments, if at all. Main concern was keeping my heart rate as low as possible. Preferably around 127bpm. It was nice at this time to exchange pleasantries with fellow participants. Some might say competitors but unless you are at an elite level everyone else is there to get to the finish and help each other as and when. I did of course have my usual personal challenge with spreadsheet of where I hoped to be and when.
Once over the initial climb out of the glen it was on to much more runnable undulations. Having run this route in opposite direction over the past 10 years it is amazing to see how the landscape has changed especially in this section to Lundavra (12.1km). There seems to have been a huge amount of ancient trees removed and can only assume it’s well managed. Anyhow after Lundavra the trail leads to the more open ‘big sky’ perspectives of the Lairig More. A long valley overseen by mountains which eventually leads to a long descent down to sea level again at Kinlochleven. I was feeling good. Noticed that the heat was proving more tiring than it had been on my recce run on this section 3 weeks ago. Then I had hailstones!
At one point I passed a man and woman and could see from their race no. that they were in the other category of extreme. Derek and Jo had set off from Aviemore on Friday afternoon on the East Highland Way and had now linked up with us on the WHW. It would be a whopping 288km. They were incredibly calm and collected, almost fresh, as if 150km was a warm up. These are unusual folks and for Derek this was ‘training’ for a 360km race in the Swiss Alps. Enjoyed a bit of chat and then moved ahead as they were moving at a highly disciplined but understandably slower rate. Heard later they made it to Milngavie in just under 55 hours.
Coming in to the Kinlochleven checkpoint (23.85km) it was great to see Elisabeth. I was on time, more or less to the minute, which was good. Others were not fairing so well. One poor man had broken his nose from an early fall and was bleeding a lot. He decided that he would carry on.
Due to pandemic situation all the checkpoints were in the open air. I think we were very fortunate that the hottest weather of the year had arrived.
Off now up a long, arduous climb. Most of us were still quite chatty but each was also adjusting to our own style of managing climbs and descents. This meant you kept seeing the same people many times as you passed them or were overtaken.
Finally arrived at the top of the disconcertingly named Devil’s Staircase where a fellow runner kindly offered to take a pic. of me with the imposing Glencoe valley in the background. Not sure if it was a smile or a grimace! In a strange coincidence in my recce here 3 weeks previously I had eaten a ‘Rocky Road’ biscuit in nearly same spot. Unbeknown to Elisabeth she had given me the exact same biscuit to take at Kinlochleven so I had the same thing again. Whimsically I began to wonder if ‘Rocky Road’ had a hidden layer of meaning as to what was in front of me.
There then followed a nice, runnable section downhill to Altnafeadh. Passed one guy who was suffering from cramp so gave him some salted liquorice. Then along the valley to the Glencoe Ski lodge (40km) and next checkpoint. Great to see Elisabeth who had been patiently waiting. Here race rules were to pick up a ‘safety rucksack’ consisting of a sleeping bag and survival bag. My already heavy rucksack now was 1 kg or so heavier and much bigger. However the reasoning for this was sound. As race was autonomous between checkpoints if you broke a leg or something during the night the drill was to use these to keep warm till you got rescued.
The other thing I took was running poles. I am sometimes ambivalent about them but find when you are very fatigued they are a help esp. on climbs. Not being a Scottish Athletics race their use is OK.
Managed a pot noodle. Fluid intake and carbohydrates are essential but I was eating very gingerly. I feared my old problem, nausea, was starting to appear.
Leaving Glencoe a bit refreshed I said goodbye to Elisabeth. She was going to head home for some much needed rest. Plan was she would meet me Loch Lomond side in the morning. It was not easy for her as she had to drive, try and cheer me up for a few moments at checkpoints and then wonder how I was doing through the night. Had agreed that I would text when I left certain places. There were a number of people who wanted to know how I would be doing so she had set up a temporary WhatsApp group to keep them in the loop. It simplified things for her just using one point of communication.
It was now on to the old, cobbled military road and Rannoch Moor. A place of stark beauty in the early evening.
The day had been hot, in fact the hottest so far this year, so was not used to it. The field was well stretched out now but there were several people that I passed or was passed by and had chats with. Otherwise was getting very quiet as walkers or campers on the WHW had arrived where they were going to be for the night. My legs and feet were fine but was starting to get that familiar feeling of nausea and dizziness building up. I could only trust that it would not get worse.
Arrived in Inveroran (54km), a peaceful hamlet, and on to a tarmac road for a while. Confess to being a bit jealous of all the happy campers relaxing in the evening sunshine. I was starting to struggle. Left the road and then on over the hill and down to Bridge of Orchy (58.35km), the next checkpoint. As mentioned previously I had drop bags for each checkpoint, filled with foods I thought I might like. Unfortunately even the thought of eating was making me sick. That combined with the midges coming out in their millions. A small insect famous in West of Scotland for their bite and their abundance. All credit to those valiant volunteers sitting outside for many hours waiting for bedraggled runners to come in. I did manage before I left to wash my face in the toilets. If I couldn’t have any joy from food or drink at least cold water could be refreshing. It would be fair to say I was glad to leave at 2120. Only 5 mins later than my predicted time so despite how I was feeling progress had thus far been according to plan.
As I turned into the railway station underpass what should confront me but a swathe of luxury train carriages above. The well heeled occupants of “The Royal Scotsman and the Flying Scotsman” seemed to be settling down for the night in Bridge of Orchy station with accordion music. A surreal contrast to my circumstances as I set off.
It was now into the gathering shadows and time for using my torch. From previous experience the bobbing of the head torch would not help my dizziness or sickness. However little choice. My next milestone would be Tyndrum and got there about 2325. Few people around as I negotiated the route through the village, only a few late night revellers. I did meet another race participant who had got lost so was good to help. It was about 5km to the next checkpoint at Auchtertyre farm. Shortly out of Tyndrum and my turn to get lost, twice. At same time I had a bout of retching. Needed to keep sipping water as it was the only thing I could keep down. Clothing-wise I had now layered up. Despite the general mugginess of the night I knew in my condition that I could not keep my body temp. up with exercise alone. The volunteers on arrival at Auchtertyre (72.85km) were very attentive so had a very welcome sit down and tried sipping some hot tea and soup proferred. The next checkpoint was 21km away, at least 4 hours at my speed so main thing was to carry water. I was now 28mins behind my scheduled time. Not much in scheme of things.
It took an age to get to Glen Bogle above Crianlarich and by that time was experiencing micro sleeps as I moved. Was craving rest. In normal circumstances I would not do this on my own outside in middle of the night but thankfully ambient temp was warm. My strategy was to lie down in a prominent place so any fellow participants would see me, layer up with all the clothing I had and take max 10mins. The picnic bench at top of Bogle Glen came into sight, bliss. I lay down, strangely mesmerised by the tree branches overhead. Maybe it was my stress hormones but at 0200 the night was utterly quiet. Words can’t describe but I could ‘hear’ the silence and it was deafening. Strangely a guy then passed by and all he said was one word ‘hello’, nothing else. He looked like he was going through his own struggles.
Time to move on, still dog tired, but a little less dizzy. Keep sipping that water. The next checkpoint was Beinglas farm, north of Loch Lomond. By about 3am signs of a new day were appearing. Usually it is a harbinger of new energy and hope, the sun giving light and heat. However I still was feeling miserable and just focussed on staying awake and taking the next step. What I did sense was the overwhelming beauty at God’s creation of a new day. Practicalities were also pressing in. My mobile phone battery was low. Time to use my mobile battery charger.
A new day awakes.
In Beinglas (88.85km) I told the marshall my need to lie down for a bit. As we were outside he obligingly offered the passenger seat of his car where I had 10 mins. Managed to ingest a cup of diluted orange juice and it was off again. Some time after I caught up with Paddy whom I’d talked to earlier in the race. He was of similar age and experience of ultras as myself so we had been comparing notes.
He was also suffering from sickness but could only retch. Bizarrely we had this conversation about the merits of being sick as opposed to retching. For me being sick gave me a boost of energy and dizziness subsided. However after a time the fatigue always crept back with a vengeance. Enough of this for you the reader.
The bluebells in the hillsides both north and south of Inversnaid were glorious in the early light.
There is a very technical section of about 4km before you reach Inversnaid. Rocks and boulders taking up reserves of concentration and at times needing to use both hands and legs to traverse.
Arriving Inversnaid (98.85km) just before 0800 I lay down on the benches outside the hotel. Paddy was still with me but left early while I contended with, yet again, another bout of sickness. Eventually caught up with him and passed. Started to get messages from Elisabeth who said she was leaving home and going to head to Milarrochy, about 2km north of Balmaha and would run to meet me. However this was still some hours away and there was the checkpoint at Rowardennan to pass first. Before arrival Rowardennan caught up with another guy Kristopher whom I’d met earlier. Younger and suffering from foot blisters he was upbeat. My time in Rowardennan (109.85km) was short. I had given up on food and had not eaten anything that I could hold down for last 12 hours. I managed to nibble tiny amounts of crisps which gave some salt intake. Keep regularly sipping, not gulping, water. Planned target times were now slipping. It was no longer speed that was the challenge but plan B, just keep moving.
Being a Bank Holiday weekend as the day progressed it was getting busier with day trippers. What a contrast to the earlier sanctuary at the head of the loch!
Elisabeth accompanied me to Balmaha where she left and I started to climb Conic Hill. A strenuous 300m climb at any time. After 122km in 26 degrees heat and with no wind it became absolutely brutal. Was concerned that dehydration would mean I just did not have it in me to climb. Most of time I was leaning on my sticks to stop from falling and then move feet for a bit and then stop. Repeat. Slowly, ever so slowly, got to the top. Other competitors were equally shattered by the experience. All the while day trippers striding past us wondering what kind of race we were in.
Then a welcome decline coming off the hill. Had a nice cool down with stream water at the end of it. At this point I met another type of participant. A husband-wife team who were walking. They had started at 9am on the Saturday and were trying to maintain a constant pace. I was really impressed – to do that you virtually cannot stop at all. Don’t know if they made it but they were not aiming for a time, just to complete in their own time. I lay down on the trail for 5mins of instant sleep and felt refreshed.
After several km of the Garabhan forest the next checkpoint was at Drymen (133.85km). Only now could I entertain the thought of finishing. The race director, Jim, was there and asked me how was doing. Giving him my woes he said short term memory loss would occur Monday morning. Leaving at 1710 there was 20km to go and about 4 hours if I kept the pace. 2210 was cut off time.
Concerned for my condition Elisabeth had determined to try and meet me as much as possible this last stretch. She drove and ran to various points at Gartness, Beech Tree Inn and Carbeth to meet up with me for a few mins.
AT 8:56pm, 33 hours 46 mins. after leaving Fort William I arrived outside Milngavie town hall (approx. 153.85km) on a quiet Sunday evening. For once I was a ‘first’ as the oldest finisher! 64th out of 76 finishers (120 started).
Presented with a crystal goblet by marshall my main thought was at last I could sit down without thinking about moving. About an hour later my appetite started to recover and on my way to regaining the 2.5kg lost.
It is now 11 years since first taking up ultra running. As far as ultra races go I may or may not continue. Some reading this might wonder why put yourself through what seems painful and unnecessary suffering. I like my creature comforts as much as anyone and can assure you I try everything to make it easier. However after 20 such races my experience is that in every one the ‘wheels come off’ in different ways. You are left with one thing, endure. Through all these races Elisabeth has been, in one way or another, involved in supporting. She has encouraged me when assailed by self doubt. Thanks for being with me on both the inner and outer journeys.
Psalm 139 verse 14 declares we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully’ made. Fearful in that our lives are fragile, a gift and can be over in a moment. Wonderful in that we have been uniquely given physical, mental and spiritual resources beyond our understanding. The memory of pain or struggle fades away. It’s the finishing that enhances life, real life. Like the odyssey of our own lives we are each on a journey, but often caught up with present struggles. For me I live in hope of the ‘well done’ at the finish from Jesus, the Master endurer.
STARFISH ASIAFor a number of years I have chosen to do such challenges in aid of Starfish Asia. This run is no different. Specifically it is for the raising of scholarship funds for children of poor and marginalised Christian families in Pakistan who have completed school (16). Scholarships give the opportunity to gain vocational and educational qualifications. This gives the potential of better jobs so they and their family can escape the cycle of poverty. I have been greatly encouraged by the support and if you wish to donate please go to my fund-raising page here. It will remain open till end of June 2021. Thereafter you can go direct to Starfish Asia and find out more of their wonderful work.