Erik post hill race. photo: Jess Schulte
By Erik Schulte
On our first night in Scotland we rummaged through a stack of dvd’s at the cottage where we were saying. Amidst the plethora of UK rom coms and dramas lived one copy of Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail. Jess had yet to see the whole film so we popped it in and watched as we sipped on our gin and tonics. A steady drizzle blanketed the cool damp evening and we both dozed off, jet lagged, to the sound of coconuts clopping together as the comedians embarked on their endless journey.
We woke to low hanging clouds and the familiar grey sky, but we were here to see what the Scottish highlands had to offer, so we set our sights (figuratively, as we couldn't see them) on a couple local peaks. After a bit of GFB oatmeal, we set out from the shore of Loch Earn, up toward what was supposedly Ben Vorlich, although we had to do our best to imagine what the peak looked like. All we could see was the foot path that traveled up a valley past countless heard of sheep and bleating lambs, eventually disappearing in the dark grey clouds and the endless supply of light rain. As we ventured deeper into the hills our imaginations began to get the better of us. “What lies hidden in that cloud? A technical scrambley ridge? Perhaps a dragon guarding the upper reaches of the Munro (the Scottish term for their high peaks)? Did that tree just move?” Who’s to say? As visibility lessened our thoughts took control. “Am I even still heading in the right direction?I wonder what food I’m going to eat tonight.” We eventually could yet to imagine a more favorable outcome to just turning around and heading back to the warm car, so like a couple of wet dogs, we tucked tail and headed back down hill. Clip clop…
Jess on her way up to Ben Lawers lost somewhere in the cloud. Photo: Erik Schulte
The next day I toed the line of the Stuc a’ Chroin 5000 Hill Race. “This will be a breeze.” I thought. “I live at an elevation higher than any of these hills; I’m in my element.” But my reality check quickly came as I looked side to side at my fellow runners on the start line. None of them seemed to posses human legs, but tree trunks that more closely resembled horse legs. As my eye traveled down the line of centaurs, I arrived at the one and only pair of twiggy runner’s legs, my own. My “knight’s errant” journey was quickly turning comedic. I probably should have packed some coconuts to bang together. The race started up a gradual fire road, but, in true Scottish hill running fashion, soon left the comfort of the beaten path to venture off trail.
Following flags and ribbons we made our way down one steep slope, up another, down another, ad infinitum. I had dreamt of this before. Luscious technical off trail running over soft grassy slopes, and yet my current reality was not quite matching my dreams. Every other step I chose was the wrong one, placed into a wet bog or slick patch of grass. On the downhills I spent more time on my back than on my feet and on the up hills I did everything in my power to get my legs to emulate a horse’s, all while my fellow competitors gracefully floated past me. Local knowledge proved to be a distinct advantage, as just a basic understanding of proper foot placement meant the difference between running the race route or awkwardly flailing along. By the time I reached the finish I was covered head to toe in mud, sopping wet, and grinning ear to ear.
Erik wanting to run down that valley forever. Photo: Jess Schulte
Any time you travel somewhere new, prior to arriving, your head fills to the brim with the most perfect instagram pictures of light filled ridges and you can just see yourself gently prancing along unencumbered by any possible negativities. “Imagine how perfect everything will be there.” The ease of such dreams fill you with excitement, and unbridled enthusiasm creates such a wonderful story, where every romance of running and culture collide in the perfect trip.
Usually, it takes a little time for this rose colored film to wash away and the actual reality of a place to take hold, although on this particular trip we were instead thrust almost immediately into a quixotic world: part comedy, part epic adventure. Our initial romanticism was replaced time and time again with a more romantic and awe inspiring form of reality. Each picturesque climb up to the top of a Munro was followed by a comedic slip and slide of down hill running. We stuck out, as Americans, like sore thumbs with my wild hair and beard constantly eliciting murmurs of Forest Gump, and our insistence to greet everyone on the trail with a friendly “howdy”.
One of the locals. Photo: Erik Schulte
By the end of the first week we had finally gotten a few good days of sunshine. Once the hills become fully visible, the imaginary world of the unknown transforms into the endless “choose your own adventure” ridge line running that dreams are made of, and with clear skies, our newly formed imaginations took hold. At the top of each Munro when we had thought we’d found the most spectacular place imaginable, only a short glance in either direction would reveal the next valley leading to an even more exquisite alpine-esque peak and miles more of adventure.
The holy grail continued to elude us. Each night would end at whatever local pub was nearest our chosen adventures, with the same pub fair and beer. By the end of the second week, nearing the end of our GFB snack supply, and having only just scratched the surface of what Scottish hill running had to offer, we once again found ourselves dozing off in a seat. This time in an airplane as it taxied on the run-way. We awoke hours later en route back to reality. “Was that whole trip a dream?” I wondered as I scanned the cabin in a dazed post sleep grog. “Did I just imagine that whole place?” Maybe I did, but who’s to say?