The Teacher (Running)

I wrote this article after spending the summer of 2004 in Kyrgyzstan. It marked a return for me to running, having just climbed for the previous five years.

Previously published in “The Fellrunner” magazine.

Defi first day

Defi first day

For me running uphill for several hours on end is an intense experience, something that burns a memory in your brain that no digital image could capture. I set off at midday, sweeping past Kyrgyz families enjoying a Sunday out; the smells of Sashlik, beer and watermelon drift on the breeze.

As a teenager I was a keen fell runner, competing around the country in local and national series races. Racing was an addictive and delicate balance of ambition and success, but, from time to time, when the high pressure atmosphere of competition became too much, I would escape to solo adventures in the mountains. By the time I was seventeen I had posted respectable times for the Snowdon horseshoe and the Welsh 3000s. Here I found release for my competitive side in the beauty and freedom of the mountains. I dreamed of record attempts on the Bob Graham round and the Cuillin ridge. Then, shortly after gaining my first international vest, I found climbing. Climbing offered a refreshing change from the increasingly up-tight nature of my running. Rebellious, without formal competition and with a strong ďanti trainingĒ ethic, the social scene of climbing was just the escape I needed. I lost myself in the intoxicating world of pushing my own limits, especially in winter.

The day is perfect, overcast enough to be cool but with the clouds not looking too threatening. I pack light, in the minimalist fell running style of my adolescence – a packet of sweets in a pocket and a light top around the waist.

Pic Uchitel – The Teacher – so called because under the old Soviet mountaineering system this was regarded as an ideal training peak, comfortable in a day from the Ak Sai glacier. To climb it from the road involves around 2300m of ascent.

The steep initial section soon gives way to pristine alpine meadows and beautiful runnable paths, leading me to a pretty waterfall where I drink a little and scoff some sweets.

This isnít my first time on the mountain. During our first week in Kyrgyzstan the locals had put my girlfriend and me through our paces. Following our glimpse of ďRussian styleĒ climbing with toast after toast of fine vodka in the Ratsek hut the night before, we could do little more than stagger in the rarified air.

After the waterfall the going gets really steep. The path crests the moraine of the Ak Sai glacier, gaining 500m in few kilometres. Here the surface deteriorates from firm ground to loose scree. This terrain characterises the upper part of the route. When we had first walked here there had been the clatter of rockfall from the cliffs above, large rocks smashing right on the path a few metres below us. The recollection makes me eager to get through this section as fast as possible but running for more than a few steps at a time proves problematic. I resign myself to a hands on knees power-walk. The sweat stings my eyes and blurs my sunglasses.

Approaching the hut I am able to break into a run again before stopping at a stream for a drink. The Ratsek hut; once the most important Soviet mountaineering camp in the Tien Shan. On I run, savouring the last flat section before a large memorial stone marks the beginning of the final 1200m climb to the summit. Here photos, plaques and occasionally flowers pay tribute to those who have lost their lives in these mountains. I ponder the idea that, if I were a Kyrgyz Muslim I would cup my hands here, accepting a blessing from the dead or Allah (Iím not sure who), before symbolically washing it over my face. Instead I resolve to try my utmost to avoid ending up as a plaque on some rock at the bottom of a glacier.

The next hour is spent head down, hands on knees and gasping. I pause occasionally to marvel at large, bright-green, cushion-like mosses, clinging defiantly to the constantly shifting slope. Colourful, hardy little flowers grow around these oases creating a bonsai alpine rockery. My sister once asked me whether running didnít mean I missed out on the views, these being central to many peoples enjoyment of the hills. Maybe I do see fewer views. But those I do see are all the more beautiful – enhanced by a heady cocktail of endorphins, dehydration, low blood sugar and, at this altitude, oxygen starvation.

I join the ridge that marks the final stretch to the summit. The cloud closes in and it starts to snow. I exchange my light cotton shirt for a jacket. I canít afford to stop if I am to keep warm. There is something exquisitely liberating about survival in the hills with only the bare minimum. The knowledge that everything will be fineÖ so long as I donít mess up.

Iím at around 4000m now and my pace really begins to slow. I havenít been this high since the beginning of our trip six weeks ago. The air feels thin.

Time is drawing in on my randomly assigned target of three hours and I become obsessed with my altimeter. What had been 16 or 17m/min on good paths, fresh legs and thicker air has slowed to 10m/min up here. My mind juggles the figures, 300m to go – thatís 30 minutes at this pace. After perhaps ten minutes of doing it, it strikes me as stupid. I have been checking the altimeter with increasing frequency; stumbling each time I do so as my focus wanders from the rocks. The compulsion to check on my progress gains me nothing and loses me valuable time. The parallels between this and the end of my previous running career strike me as the Vaseline squidges between my toes. Here I am a slave to the altimeter just as then I was a slave to the stop watch, training schedules, pulse monitors and weighing scales. Then, as now, technology that could be a useful tool encroached on the passion and exhilaration of simply running fast. Ultimately it slowed me down.

The summit ridge resembles a Welsh or Scottish hill in spring (with requisite mist!), bare loose rock on one side and resilient winter snow on the other. The memory of other hills run, enjoyed or dreamed about creates in me a strong desire to return to some of my old ambitions. Older, wiser and with a greater appreciation of my own strengths and weaknesses. As I hit the summit I know that success is there for the taking.

The clouds clear.

Two hours fifty-five.

Iíve done it!

From the summit, at 4527m, it is easy to see why this peak was dubbed The Teacher. Having arrived here by a route with little technical difficulty I share the exclusive, above-cloud world with much less hospitable peaks: Semenova Tienshanski, Svobodnaya Korea and Korona. Peaks on whose faces were played out great battles of endurance, suffering and camaraderie. Uchitel allowed young recruits to the Soviet mountaineering system a glimpse at the achievements of their predecessors. Importantly it provided a stepping-stone for their own future battles.

The sun is warming and I enjoy fifteen minutes of lucid north face gazing, dreaming of future adventures to be had. Running and climbing no longer appear as opposing forces in my life: Kyzyl Asker, these faces in winter, the Ruth Gorge, the Cuillin ridge record. They all blend seamlessly as simple ambition. The descent passes quickly. From time to time one foot dislodges a large rock. The time it takes for the other foot to hit the ground and the rock to roll onto it is just long enough to wonder: ďIs this it?Ē ďIs this the time I crush my ankle and have to hop all the way down?Ē

I slow to a walk at the road head.

Five hours after leaving.

I already know I will go below four next weekend.