On May 30th 2021, my son Matt and I are running the Edinburgh Virtual Marathon to raise funds for the roof replacement of the 14th Perthshire Bridge of Earn scouts’ hut.
For those of you unfamiliar with the ‘virtual marathon’ discipline (which is a child of the Covid-19 pandemic), runners are invited to complete the full marathon distance (26 miles, 385 yards), recording their endeavours on a GPS device. These are later validated by the organising body. Some argue that there’s nothing to stop unscrupulous ‘athletes’ clocking the distance on a moped, but let’s face it, who’d want to boast a finisher’s medal carrying that burden?
As part of the training programme, a series of long runs (at least 20 miles) are required. Having run the streets of Bridge of Earn where I presently live at least 500 times, attracting suspicious glances from the neighbours as I often do this at night, there came the time for a change. On a Sunday morning a couple of weeks ago, I got out of bed shortly after 6.00am and drove to the beautiful, historic town of Dunkeld, where I was the first to arrive at Cally Car Park. From here leads a trail to Loch Ordie and back, about 12 miles in length, with several hundred metres of ascent. Needing to clock a greater distance, I referred to Susie Allison’s beautiful book of Scottish Trail runs and found that I could amble around, pleasantly lost in the hills for as long as I wished with the Loch as a reference point, to make up a distance of about 19 miles. Having the sense of direction of a drunk man in a field full of lampposts, I did manage to get genuinely lost for 15 sphincter-tightening minutes, but thankfully, survived my mini-ordeal.
The terrain around Ordie is simply indescribable. As one runs, there is a playground of babbling burns, overhanging crags and dashing waterfalls; a home to a dazzling array of mammals and bird life. One also passes fishing lochens and their accompanying lodges (which surely only the insane would inhabit in winter). The region holds the heavy magic of history and commands a deep sense of respect. It is a place to be taken seriously; I would truly rather not be caught here if the weather turned for the worse. Luckily for me, the day was glorious.
As I’d set off early, I had the privilege of being the first human to reach Loch Ordie that day, although the promising weather and the recent lifting of lockdown restrictions suggested that this would not last. After some time, I came across a mountain biker. He was sat at the edge of the loch, his face beaming with joy and wonder. He told me that he cycled there as often as possible. He held no shame in talking of the mystical spirituality of the place.
Eventually, I made my way back to the car, (with 20 miles in my wobbling legs). The scene was now very different. There was a queue for parking, and I felt many eyes watching me as I approached, knackered and car keys in hand. The sharks were circling to claim a precious parking slot upon my departure. As I annoyed my would-be predators by changing my shirt and having a drink, I glanced around my surroundings. Audi, BMW, Land Rover, Mercedes… These were the vehicles of choice. I guarantee that I was the only driver of a £500 Suzuki Ignis with a large patch of gaffer tape attaching a wheel arch and a missing boot handle. A family spilled out of a ‘Chelsea tractor’, complete with expensive-looking mountain bikes on the roof and clad in designer Gore-Tex (the family, not the car). Alexander and Phoebe looked the part.
Now let’s be honest. I’m taking the opportunity to drop a couple of cheap and somewhat inappropriate gags, but why is it that British sport still has an unmentioned class segregation? I know that many readers will respond by claiming their working class roots, but I’d invite those enthusiasts to do as I did: look around the beautiful trails of Scotland and ask yourself if you see a balanced reflection of the country’s social demographic. I think not.
This is not a judgement call of the middle-upper classes of the country. They’ve taken the time to find and benefit from the landscape, so hats off to them. It’s a free country (even with Boris in charge) and if a gift is there to be taken, then why not embrace it?
I am reminded of Simon Kupar’s fascinating stat-laden book ‘Why England Lose’ which asks the opposite question: why English football attracts a very high proportion of the working-class demographic. Let me tell you friends, this does not happen in other countries. Having lived in France for seven years, I saw a wide range of young people participating in handball (heavily funded in France), gymnastics, basketball, tennis, football and rugby. The tragedy is that there are probably hundreds of would-be Olympic rowers growing up on the inner-city estates of Glasgow, but a cursory glance at the crews of the last 30 years shows that these areas are not exactly fully represented. There is a lure towards football in tougher areas, where only one in a hundred thousand will make any kind of living, and where rejection is brutal.
Trail running, biking and walking can be inexpensive. I am a confirmed skinflint. Just ask my wife and kids. I’m the kind of guy who goes shopping at 7.15pm to get the yellow-ticket bargains in the supermarket, and my freezer is bursting with budget bread. I usually buy second-hand trainers, or those from specialist websites such as sportsshoes.com who sell off last year’s models at about 30% of the original price. All of my tops, shorts and jackets I acquired via Ebay for less than a fiver a piece. As for the Loch Ordie trial itself, even the parking is free. A trail bike is different to a mountain bike. This can be acquired second hand for far less than a few month’s subscription to Sky Sports. As football fans protest (some violently) about the mega-rich overseas playboys who use their clubs as vanity statements and debt horses, I suggest they walk away. Find the outdoors and a real challenge. Hit the owners in the only place that they love: their pockets.
We are running the virtual marathon to raise funds to replace the roof of the scout hut in Bridge of Earn. Scouts participate in a range of creative, physical and artistic activities, but the days they all love and remember are the ones where we walk in the hills, usually accompanied by a campfire and a song or two. Surely, we must install a love of the outdoors in our young people; scouting offers a safe way to do this. No-one has the right to complain about youth delinquency if we fail to offer them an alternative to the perilous waters of the internet and being idle.
If you are able, we’d be deeply grateful for a contribution to our efforts on May 30th. Our JustGiving page can be found here.
Thank you and keep running!