Friday, May 5, 2023

The First Proxy Endurance Run

With a form as simple as the proxy walk, one of the delights is how it is redefined and expanded by each participant. As a reminder, this is how I first defined the form:
for a proxy walk we refer to the participants as 
the walker, the recipient, the artist
on the same day, for one hour, 
the recipient remembers a walk 
in the place they have nominated,
and the walker describes that place, 
making notes as they walk through it: 
the result is a proxy walk
the artist composes a collage text
from the remembrances of the recipient
and the walker
the texts belong to the participants

When I first envisaged the proxy walk, it emerged from my own sense of limits and possibilities, as a walk lasting an hour, in whatever location the recipient chose. A 'proxy endurance run' wasn't something I'd envisaged and I'm curious how the experience of running, time, distance, and terrain, as well as chronic fatigue, will inflect the resulting texts.

This Spring I’ve been sharing a slow email discussion with Katie and Brighid who, like me, have had Long Covid since 2020. Explaining her experience of limited energy and chronic fatigue, Brighid spoke of her former life and the privilege of health.
‘… I was extensively in the wilds – hill/mountain walking, running and swimming. In the few years before I got ill, my wild outings were increasingly solo, often for more than a day, sometimes remote camping. Those solo journeys in the Highlands and islands were hugely important to me. I had planned many more, not knowing, of course, that illness would come & mean losing all that.

Brighid and other endurance athletes have a wry approach to Long Covid as a new endurance challenge. Despite my own limits, I’ve always been fascinated by the experiences of active people in wild places. The underbelly of climbing is mountain rescue, and I’ve used the accident as a metaphor for the fall into chronic illness. There is a touching vulnerability in the illustrations with their craggy backgrounds.
By good fortune, I have been working with a new collaborator, Bill, who mentioned his passion for endurance running in the Highlands. We were returning from a site visit in a wooded glen where I’d had to use my e-scooter, as the walk was beyond me. I mentioned Day of Access and ‘proxy walks’, and Bill accepted my invitation to extend the form, creating the first proxy endurance run. 
It isn’t a simple thing, to be walked or run for as it confirms what someone can no longer do, whether that is a for now limit or, maybe, forever. Endurance runners share a particular blend of the arduous and ardour; I think that made the gift seem possible, as Brighid was sharing a landscape she’d traversed, which is, I suppose, also sharing a state of mind, prompted by exhaustion and exhilaration.
This proxy walk asks just how different the journey is, from bed to a garden or nearby park, when you have chronic fatigue, or making a 30-mile run in the hills? 
Brighid wrote to suggest this route:
An A to B off the West Highland Line train, from Corrour station to Spean Bridge, via the south end of Loch Treig and the Lairig Leacach (optional detour up Stob Bàn). I think it’s about 30-35 km and mostly on landrover tracks, with some single track that’s mostly good running (there might be a bit of mud). Mostly valley / lower hillside & gentle slopes, not hill tops (except the optional Stob Bàn. Which I highly recommend).  
Not envious at all ;)

This is a poem from Brighid’s recent collection, ‘Just Give It Time’. 

Long way to run

Look how far I've come. 

The longest, hardest run of my life. 

I thought I was an ultrarunner before 

Now I know 

I'm elite at being ill. 

This is endurance. 

Relentless forward motion. 

I get up every morning 

Care for myself 

Experiment on myself, find my own cures, my own route. 

This race is self supported 

So I keep going. 

Focus on what I can do, 

Not on what I can't 

Make the best of things 

Live with not knowing what’s wrong, not knowing if I’ll ever recover. 

But I’m still here.

Still running, in a new way.

I still don’t know

If there’s a finish line.

Maybe this race is its own destination. I keep moving.

I, too, will run my last hill

a proxy endurance run from Corrour station 

to Spean Bridge

runner: Bill Breckenridge

recipient: Brighid Ó Dochartaigh  


it was 2 October 2019   I’d run in

to Loch Ossian hostel from Dalwhinnie 

a couple of days before   following 

a route I loved   it’s a long journey 

by train   3 hours just to get to the start

time to reflect   anticipate what lies ahead

why I’m doing it   calm before the storm

sitting on my own until I’m let out the trap   

the day after getting there I ‘rested’   but   

oh god   the irony of what I thought then 

was rest   the day after a 7-hour   35 km 

hilly run   I stuck to ‘just’ a flat walk 

of 15 km   on a good track around the loch

I’ve got a picture in my head of Brighid   

although we’ve never met   rest for me

now means lying down for at least 16 hours 

a day   every day   wondering what she 

looks like   what type of runner she is   

what she thinks about when she’s running

what she looks at when she’s running   

how fast does she run   what she eats

and drinks when she’s running 

why does she run   no days off from

resting why does she not run now   

that morning I was up before the others

at the hostel and set off with excitement   

I’d wanted to go this way for a while

I remember the conscious joy   to be 

doing this   out into a glorious morning   

clear sky-ed and still   bursting with promise

she’s asked me to run for her   in the hills

on one of her favourite routes   up round 

the side of the hill as the golden autumn 

sunrise light crept across Rannoch Moor   

throwing shadows on Leum Uilleam

(William’s Leap)   from the hills behind

still in morning shadow   that tells me 

we have things in common   not every-

one enjoys this type of running   it

 involves lots of fast walking   running 

from A to B   rather than a loop   has 

a unique appeal   it adds purpose 

to the activity   as if it goes beyond 

the act of running  as if it needs to be

done   as I jogged westwards the sun 

rose higher   the light slipped lower 

down the opposite slopes until it

reached the West Highland rail line 

in the bottom of the valley   reflected 

bright off the station building of Corrour 

behind me   and eventually reached me

a journey with a destination   not just 

exercising   but going somewhere   

I stopped and turned   stared straight 

into the morning sun   took a selfie 

to remember the moment   for one day 

at least we are connected   that makes 

the run more focused   in the photo 

my face and hair and eyes glow

I look happy   in-place   right   running 

in the hills is never mundane   but 

today’snarrative is different   I’m on 

a mission   under instruction   this is

Brighid’s route   that changes things   

I’m telling myself it’s just another 

working day   travelling on the train 

from Glasgow to my starting point  

Corrour Station   Dun Corrie

when you run a lot then you start 

to look for additional reasons to go out   

or run a certain way   a race   

or a challenge   running can be solitary   

obsessive   self-indulgent   maybe 

even selfish   sharing the experience 

can liberate you   the fact Brighid 

is ‘with me’   at the top of the brae

and has instructed me   makes this 

run a unique partnership   based on

Brighid’s need to run   past tense

I followed the track   down to the deep 

valley of Loch Trèig   (Loch of Death)

dropping back out of the sun to chill 

morning shadow   her incapacity 

facilitated my opportunity   this is 

not lost on me   the sense of privilege 

is strong  I’m 56   aware of my own 

mortality   I too will run my last hill   

this isn’t the first time I’ve thought 

what life would be like without it   

I didn’t choose the route   but 

I managed to plan the weather

when I step out the train in Corrour

it’s bright   sunny and warm   

the hills are peaceful   a firm breeze 

blowing across Rannoch Moor

from the southeast   a tailwind 

all the way to Spean Bridge

after an hour of running   approaching 

Loch Trèig   I’m aware I’ve slipped 

into automatic pilot   the act 

of running   even in partial wilderness   

is meditative and therapeutic   

when the terrain and weather allow

halfway down I saw my first people

of the day   a woman and a man 

walking up the track leading 

two horses   stopping for the quick 

friendly greetings you share 

with the few others you pass 

in the wilds   she said they were 

on their way home from a night’s 

camping in a nearby valley   

the man a client of her business 

taking people into the wilds with horses   

my thoughts turn to why I’m here 

and what Brighid would do   how 

low the water is in Loch Trèig   

smell the nutty gorse in full bloom   

chat with a fellow runner recceing 

a Ramsay Round   contemplate 

getting into the river to cool off!   

in the years before   out in the hills   

I’d never encountered another woman 

journeying solo and it was good 

to see a woman   not solo   but leading

I jokingly convince myself that 

because Brighid is an ultra-runner   

she will only be motivated by mileage   

so I plod on towards Stob Bàn   

at the bottom of the hill there’s frost

 the first Id seen that year   on 

the foot-bridge across Abhainn Rath   

(Ring-fort River)   where it flows 

through a shallow gorge just before 

running into Loch Trèig   the sun 

hadn’t reached the water   and when 

I scrambled down for the swim 

I couldn’t resist   the rocks on 

the bank where I left my clothes 

had little patches of ice   a quick swim 

in the deep strong cold river   

gloriously life affirming   between 

the dark rock walls of the gorge   

looking up to the blue sky   and down-

stream   to the opening of the water 

into the loch   back into the sunshine 

and Lairig Leacach  (Slabby Pass)

the sun and running help warm 

me from the cold water   a grassy 

beautiful valley   with a few precious 

trees – rowans   such bright berries 

against the blue sky that day

small birches   with leaves turning 

yellow   on along a single-track 

by the west bank of the river   

which is shallow   rocky   and not 

so wide in places   tumbling down 

small waterfalls made from

stacked shelves of infinitely layered

schists   looking across the valley 

to spot the ridge I came down 

from Stob Coire Easain (Wee Waterfall 

Peak)   a few years before    on 

one of my first solo running journeys 

through this part of the world

higher up the valley widens out

becomes boggier and more barren   

in places there was messed-up ground 

from the tracks of heavy all-terrain 

vehicles    eroding the soil below 

the grass and moss   the single track 

became a landrover track   I heard

an engine coming   stepped to the side 

and it stopped   the driver leaning 

his elbow out the window   a young man   

I guessed an estate ghillie   with 

another similar lad next to him 

and in the back   two other older men   

the driver looked quizzically  and said 

'you’ve come from Corrour’?   I agreed 

I had   he raised his eyebrows   ‘och

you’re hardy’   I laughed   pleased 

he thought so   but I didn’t feel hardy 

for what I’d done that morning  

none of it felt at all hard   or 

challenging   it was well within 

my fitness   and experience   and hill 

knowledge   it was such a beautiful day  

such gorgeous country   such easy 

paths underfoot   easy pathfinding   

pure pleasure    I didn’t feel fast   

or gnarly   or hardy   but today 

his words are louder   living for years 

with Long Covid & ME   is far and

away the hardest thing Ive done in 

my life    the biggest   longest   endurance 

challenge   with no prospect of an end   

Im finally taking his words to heart   


och you’re hardy   

yes   I am   


they drove on    the two men in 

the back grinning broadly   probably 

paying clients   who are being driven 

to a place they could shoot deer   

they seemed very happy   but I was 

equally happy   my experience 

of this valley   this landscape   was 

mine   not theirs   at the top 

of the pass I stopped to chat with 

another ghillie waiting on the track    

his job seemingly to keep a far eye 

on the shooters   I wanted to go up 

Stob Bàn  (Fair or White Peak)   towering 

over us temptingly   but didn’t want 

to get shot    when I reach the summit 

I’m hot!   I stop for a bite to eat 

and drink   he assured me it was safe 

there was no-one on that side 

of the valley today   so I headed up 

the lovely ridge   to run along a beautiful 

balcony path to the summit   where 

the sun was shining bright off 

the white quartzite that gives the hill

its name   views for miles in all 

directions    the top of Ben Nevis   

with pockets of snow on its eastern 

slopes dominates.  that tailwind has 

disappeared   I’m slowly poaching 

myself in sweat   it hasn’t rained much 

for over a week   the ground is as dry 

as I’ve ever seen it   in my diary 

for that day I wrote   the ecstasy 

of coming up into the tops, onto 

a peak   surrounded by those hills   

those views’   I remember the joy    

standing up there in the sunshine 

and clear air looking south across 

hills I’d been up before   and ones 

I plan to explore in future   

it’s been an houror two since I’ve seen 

anyone   most of the time I run 

with others   but I’m regularly out 

in the hills on my own  I wonder 

if Brighid enjoys running in solitude   

the power of the landscape is undeniable   

and addictive   I lived in the lowlands 

of The Netherlands for ten years   

and realised then   I couldn’t exist 

without this sort of primitive exposure

to a greater force   down the mountain 

again   first over scree   then into 

the muddy valley   back to the track   

I stopped to look in the bothy   curious 

to see inside and met a couple who’d 

walked in the way I was about 

to run out   I return to the valley floor 

and the last stretch on track and tarmac   

its approaching 3 pm and very hot   

I’m running alongside the river Spean   

having to resist the temptation 

to wade in and cool off   I ran on down 

that way until I met the same watching 

ghillie from earlier   and stopped to 

tell him I’d got up Stob Bàn and ask 

about the stalking   he said it was nearly 

the end of the stag shooting season   

by now the stags were tired from all 

the rounding up and protecting 

of their herds of hinds from rivals   

and they tended to stay lower down 

the slopes instead    so they were easier 

to stalk   I asked if that wasn’t unsporting

cheating even?   he got a slightly 

embarrassed but amused glint in his eye   

tried to hold back a grin   didn’t answer

I laughed and I headed on down 

the track   what would Brighid do?   

I decide to wait until the bridge at the end   

on down the track   through the gate 

in the deer fence   detour through

forestry plantation   along some 

mountain bike trails   down into 

the Spean valley   onto the tarmac road 

and round into Spean Bridge   I must 

have been tired in body   but it’s not 

what I remember   I remember how 

good I felt   and how the experience 

of being tired from exercise is totally 

different to   actually   it’s not ‘tired’ 

now   it’s constant   crushing fatigue   

and exhaustion   from doing nothing   

Spean Bridge Station is quiet and im-

maculate   after a quick rinse in the river 

I made my way back to the station   

plenty time to have a well-deserved 

pint before my train arrives   apparently 

not   my timekeeping lets me down

and I watch on powerless from the wrong 

side of the track   as the 5.55pm train 

for Glasgow departs!   thankfully it’s not 

the last train   and I manage to blag 

my way on the aptly named ‘Sleeper’ 

to Euston   earned tiredness   that 

beautiful drag on healthy fit muscles   

after hours of pushing yourself physically   

is a whole other world   I miss it  

not quite as much as I miss the mental 

and emotional exultation of being free 

and alive   moving through the hills   

but yes   I miss that healthy earned 

tiredness a whole lot   the only bad 

thing I remember about that day?   

arriving in Spean Bridge and not being 

able to find a hot meal   on long runs 

I used to spend an inordinate amount 

of time thinking about what I was going 

to eat at the end   usually pizza   if 

I could get it   but that afternoon I couldn’t 

even get a baked potato   I still remember 

the disappointment when the only cafe 

was serving cake and coffee   not the best 

either   but a day when substandard 

cake and coffee is the worst thing is 

going to be a good day   and that day 

was one of the best   2 October 2019 

stats from Strava   35 km   total ascent

c.1060 m    moving time 6 hours    

total time on route 8 hours   today

8 June 2023 stats   lying down 17 hours

steps 1500   so, what’s it like not being 

able to run anymore? hard to imagine   

I’m old enough to understand this 

won’t last forever   I’m already slower   

sorer than last year   and the year before

how do I feel about Bill out running today   

while I lie in bed with my laptop rem-

embering?   I’ve imagined where he 

might be   at a particular moment 

pictured him running over the same ground 

I ran   over the same rivers   past 

the same trees and hills   felt some envy   

conversely enjoyment levels have never 

been higher   and I can still do it   

since I’ve been ill   I’ve wanted to be 

able to run in the hills again   probably 

more than anything else I’ve lost   but 

I’ve not felt as envious of Bill as I thought 

I might be   and thankful for that   running 

is an absolute privilege   and today 

is testament to that    adjusting   accepting 

that it’s over   that you have run your 

last run   can wait for another day   

in terms of a proxy run   today I haven’t 

felt that Bill is running ‘for me’   I don’t 

feel like this is a gift he’s giving me   

not meaning that in any way curmudgeonly   

or ungratefully!   actually I feel this is 

a gift I’m giving him   a prompt   and excuse   

for him to have a potentially fantastic 

day out on a beautiful route   and it’s 

a gift I’ve given myself   the permission 

to relive such that amazing day   for 

the first time since I got ill   looking 

at my photos   re-reading my diary   

I couldn’t bear to before now   I found this   

written on the train journey home from 

Corrour   ‘what I enjoyed / valued / gained

physical exertion   and the outdoors 

as a cure for stress and (over)emotion

space   escape   freedom   no pressure   

opportunity   challenge   proving myself 

to myself   talking to interesting nice people   

peace    earned tiredness   lucky to live 

here   to have time and money to come 

here   to have the fitness   and experience   

and get-up-and-go to get out   the desire 

to do more’   looking back   I’m happy  

and relieved   by how much I appreciated 

it all while I was doing it   appreciated 

my privilege in being able to do it   but 

I’m struck   and dismayed   that I didnt

mention my health in the list of things 

I felt lucky to have   by how I had no 

conception I could ever become so ill 

that I wouldn’t be able to do those things 

again   I took my health so much for 

granted that I didn’t appreciate it   

because it never occurred to me that 

I could lose it   today   remembering 

the day I ran this route   coming back 

from multiple rest breaks to my memories   

photos   and diary from that time   writing 

these notes   it feels like the day has 

flown    whereas the day of the run 

I remember being so long and full   

most days now go by fast   probably 

because they’re all very much the same

days when you have new experiences 

feel longer   because they’re fuller   

that’s a sad thought   and today 

I’ve also   probably   even more than 

usual   been feeling huge grief for my 

lost life   all the things I loved to do   

and that I’ve been remembering   that 

are now only memories   I’ve little

or no prospect of doing them again 

in reality   that’s hard   but experience 

has helped show me there’s little point 

my trying to avoid how hard it is   

pretending all will be well   when 

everything indicates it probably won’t   

hasn’t helped   today there’s been 

much comfort   and yes   I think 

even happiness   alongside the sadness   

grief   in reminding myself   knowing 

I did experience all that   not being able 

to do it anymore doesn’t take away 

the happiness that I did do it once   

I’m proud of all I did   and thankful 

that I got to do it   I’m not going 

to stop grieving my lost life   but 

I hope I can keep remembering that 

past freedom   and joy   thank you 

too, in huge measure   to Bill and Alec   

for making this happen   thanks Brighid   

for letting me loose in your footsteps


Photography: Brighid Ó Dochartaigh and Bill Breckenridge

This proxy endurance run, the first event of its kind, was supported by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to 'day of access'.

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