In praise of the mythical old guy

There is a vibrant and burgeoning ultra running community in Scotland at the moment. Races like the Highland Fling have become ridiculously popular and are introducing lots of new runners to the sport. Some of these are enthused by all of the good things which go with ultra trail running, some are intrigued by the severity of the challenge and some are drawn by the facebook driven fear of missing out.

Race records are being broken. The front is getting faster, the back is getting slower and the middle is getting fatter.

In all walks of life, it used to be that you had to serve your time. It didn’t matter whether you were the office junior who  made the tea or the apprentice being sent for a “long stand”. You watched, listened and learned how to behave.  You might not agree with the rules, or have the experience to understand why they were there, but you picked up the rules. Eventually when you had served your time you got the chance to change the rules. Even in the early days of the internet, in the pre Facebook world, when Forums and Newsgroups were the order of the day, the first rule in Emily Postnet’s book of Nettiquette was be a lurker.  Watch, listen and learn how the community operates, who the players are, who speaks sense and who doesn’t, and then when you are confident that you won’t be making an arse of yourself, contribute and say your piece.

It is great to see so many people enthused about running long distances on the trails. Lots will do it once, some will do it several times, a few will do it lots.

With so many new people coming into the sport, where do you look for support or advice when everyone else is also a newcomer. What happens to the traditions, culture and ethos of the sport?

In the midst all of the excitement and the population explosion, it is sometimes easy to forget that the ultra community has been going a long time.  It is a community based on respect, humility, hard work, a spirit of adventure and a real affinity for wild places.

As a relative newcomer myself, to the new ultra runners, I offer this advice:

If you want to be a good ultra runner, watch the old guys.

Run with your eyes, ears and your mind open. When you run past that old guy, do it without conceit because chances are that Old Guy (or Girl) has probably covered more miles than you can count and has had adventures of which you can only imagine. That same old guy is probably also the person who puts in countless hours in the background to make sure the race can take place and that you the energetic runner can be safe. That old guy might well be giving up his own race to help someone through. The old guy will have spent hours nursing beginners through training runs, teaching them how to survive and enjoy. The old guy will gently poke and prod online or with a well chosen private word help keep the masses moving forward within the ethos of the community.

Go to the pub and listen to the stories. You will hear tales of the old guys. You will know who they are because they will be referred to by just their first name. They might be called Stan, or Donald, or George,  or Murdo, or Ray or one of many others, but when you hear someone being referred to by one name then listen for you will learn.

The old guys are not boastful, there are too many tales to tell in one sitting and they have had too many misadventures to be arrogant. They don’t post every run on Facebook. Other people tell their tales. If you ask, they will share generously. If you approach quietly they will show you the ropes, if you respect the sport they will teach you the secrets and they will be there for you at 4am in the middle of nowhere when you are crying for your mummy.

As a relative newcomer to the ultra community I am still serving my apprenticeship. I am definitely not one the Old Guys yet, though maybe one day I will be.  I do count myself very fortunate to have learned some of the lore from a few of these old guys. They in turn tell tales of even older guys and of deeds and misdeeds in the past which laid the foundations for the sport as it is now, and without whom there would be no ultras to run.

These Old Guys are setting a really good example of how to train, compete, enjoy and nurture the sport.

The best thing the new runner could do is watch and follow that example.

One of the most satisfying sights for me is the new runner, who sits with a pint, wide-eyed and open-mouthed soaking up the stories and then over months and years grows into the community and finds they too can work their way up through the challenges.

Change is good. New blood is good. But here’s to the Old Guys who have seen it, done it and worn the damn t-shirt out.


  1. Caroline

    Not that I am calling her an ‘old guy’ but in the 2011 whw race I was about 100 yards behind Fiona Rennie for a long time after Drymen and I just copied what she did in terms of when to walk and when to run. If it was good enough for her it was certainly good enough for me!

  2. Rhona RWR
    Rhona RWR

    Cannot like this enough, John. You speak the absolute truth with a clarity and succinctness I only wish I had!
    Here’s to the old guard; long may they guide us.

  3. Laurel Grasset
  4. Amanda H
    Amanda H

    Brilliantly written as usual and some sound words of wisdom. I’m in no doubt you’re well on your way to becoming one of those great old guys/girls that others can only aspire to be. Running/ultra running is a great apprenticeship and full of wonderful tales and legends created by fantastic and humble folk.

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