You could hear the school bell ring from our living room in Stornoway, that was the sign to go. We lived across the road from our primary school so could pack, leave and be in class before the bell stopped. It was brilliant.
Then we went to secondary school. It was five minutes away, less than a mile but still we said to our parents:
“We have to MOVE!”
We didn’t. We had to walk and we had to watch the clock because, now, we couldn’t hear the bell.
So, we walked. And, every time I’ve moved, whether for university or work, I’ve always walked or ran or cycled home.
In Glasgow, I’d walk around the Westend at university. At work, during two spells in London, I’d run first from the City to West Hampstead and then, after a second spell, from the City to Battersea. I would time how long it would take me to run and, every time, it was always quicker than catching the tube or the train – and, despite running six miles, it was also less sweaty.
In Glasgow, I commuted from the city centre to the Westend and to the Southside. Now, today, I work in Larbert and have cycled to and from Glasgow along the canal, a 90 – 120 minute commute depending on which way the wind’s blowing.
I love doing this. If I’m in a car, or bus, or underground train in London, I don’t get a sense of where I am. Running or cycling helps me connect everything together.
Running through London I would start in the City, surrounded by offices, run along Fleet Street with it’s mix of sleek offices and 17th century pubs, past the church in Aldwych and the Courts of Justice, still scarred from bombs dropped in World War 2, along past Trafalgar Square, Number 10 and the Houses of Parliament. Tourists, red buses, armed policeman and buildings that define London like the Thames. On the south bank, reaching home, I pass new flats overlooking the river, Battersea Park, a golden Buddha facing Chelsea townhouses owned by the super-rich, a dog pound, a sense of dislocation, and a roar of a plane overhead every 10 minutes descending on the Heathrow flightpath bringing new life, renewal, like blood returning to the heart.
Without running I’d never know how the world is connected. Not just by location but also by time. Every time I run I remember the times I’ve been there before. Running through London last year while on holiday, I wasn’t just running through the streets I knew, I was running through the times I knew them.
Running is time travel. Going forward, going back.
I get that feeling most of all when I return to the Caledonian Etape, 81 miles round Tayside, from Pitlochry round Loch Tummel, climbing over Schiehallion and back through the valley of Fortingal, Weem, Aberfeldy and Strathtay.
Not just a race. A memory.
A memory of coming to Aberfeldy for two weeks every summer on our summer holiday. The only two weeks we’d leave home on Stornoway and cross the Minch and come to the mainland.
Aberfeldy was a foreign country.
It had shops open on a Sunday, you could read a paper on a Sunday, you could go to the playground and the swings would be open, not tied up. It was not Stornoway where the Sabbath was sacred. It was as exotic as Istanbul.
And every year through school we would return, and most years after we left for university too. It was a second home. Our place in the sun(day).
So, when I started riding it was the Caledonian Etape I wanted to enter. A chance not just to ride but to ride my summer, to ride the roads where Aberfeldy was always, when we asked how long to go, “around the next corner and over the next hill!”.
The first time we entered we had no idea of what we were doing. We had the wrong bikes, the wrong gear, the wrong training programme (none) and a backpack filled with water and a packed lunch. It took us over six hours to finish. We would have been faster but there’s no quick way of having a cheese sandwich.
The second time we entered we were better. Better bikes. Better ideas. Still no training but, with more of an idea of what we had to do, we could help go faster even if by faster we only improved our time to under six hours.
The next few times so a gradual improvement. We’d join other riders to form groups. We’d train harder. We’d get faster. We get round in under five hours.
But one thing was constant. I always won.
This time we were riding for the seventh time. Iain promised a “secret weapon”. He was going all out for the win. I knew it would be tough but I also knew that this was my race. I wasn’t just riding against Iain, I was riding with a peloton of memories – and I was going to win.
To be continued…