The world is flat (except in Scotland)

The view from Edinburgh Castle, Scotland.
The view from Edinburgh Castle, Scotland.

Anyone who lives in Berkeley knows well the kind of tolerance for hills you need if you’re a runner there. Actually you need a decent tolerance for them just to go to football games, or classes, if you’re an engineer. I spent most of my freshman year on the phone whining to my mom about how sore I was and waking up in the middle of the night to vicious calf cramps. But after two years, I had learned to ignore them — or at least to remember that there was usually a good view from the top.

So when I received emails from the Edinburgh running club’s committee members prior to the team’s Sunday hill run warning us it was okay to take the hills easy, I kind of scoffed, to be honest. These people clearly don’t know where I’m from.

As we approached the Pentlands, a nature area just south of the city, by bus, I asked another runner to point the “hills” out to me. He gestured to a few mountains that wouldn’t have looked entirely out of place in a Colorado ski range and told me that the steep part at the start of the run would probably be running up and over one of those.

Suddenly, I experienced clarity regarding all the memories of my Scottish high school cross country coach’s sadistic penchant for hill training.

When we got off the bus I opted along with most of the new runners to go with the “easy” six-mile group. We started with a light jog up a not-entirely dreadful incline, and I relaxed a bit, thinking the guy on the bus just wasn’t clear when he described the run. Then we turned the corner. I can’t really describe the steepness of the hill that sat before me, but perhaps my earlier comparison to the Colorado mountain range and the fact that there actually was a ski lift on the adjacent hill helps illuminate things a bit.

What ensued wasn’t so much running, but a sort of imitation of it — like high school P.E. class when you didn’t feel like running around the track so you just walked and sort of moved your arms and pumped your knees as if that was fooling your teacher into thinking you were trying? Except this walk wasn’t for lack of effort.

I used what felt like every muscle in my body to drag myself up the hill, fighting against an incline that felt more like a vertical wall and mud that worked against my progress like a treadmill. Not to mention the winds that were seriously threatening to knock me off my feet, growing in strength with each increase in elevation we took.

However, we were lucky to have made our trek on an unusually sunny and clear day (they say summer is the best day of the year in Edinburgh — this wasn’t quite summer, but it was close). We stopped at the top of the fourth or fifth mountainous climb, and after a few minutes catching my breath, I took in my surroundings.

Arthur’s Seat, a somewhat famous viewpoint in Edinburgh looked a little like a tiny hill in a diorama model of the city. We could see the entire city and the North Sea for miles to the north. To the south, I gazed at a seemingly infinite green expanse and blue sky (no smog lines up here). It was the highest “runner’s high” I’d ever achieved.

Lessons learned in today’s study abroad adventure:
1. Life’s most amazing experiences are at the top of its most treacherous mountains.
2. Scottish runners are crazy.


Image source: Alex Matthews/Staff