The Hill

I don’t know how many times I’ve cycled up Essich Hill to the south west of Inverness. More times than I can  remember for sure. Enough times that if I sit and close my eyes I can pedal up it in my mind’s eye, feel my way round every blind bend and sharp rise, muscle my way to a memory.  At this time of year the gorse will be at its most unapologetic yellow, though its too cold for me to catch its coconut scent, even on my imaginary cycle. The lambs will be fat and full as they dance in the field beyond the Bunachton turn and at the top, distant Meall Fuar-mhonaidh will still have a crown of snow on its domed head.

As I trace my way up the stripe of tarmac and rise above the city, memories bubble to the surface. I hear the ready laughter and easy conversation of the many good friends I’ve cycled this hill with including Geoff who used to glide up, a hot knife through butter, ‘til he lost his fight with cancer, shocking us to the core that supreme fitness didn’t ward off mortality. It was just after we’d topped the hill one time that David hinted we might become more than good friends and I pedalled on, speechless, pink to my toes, wondering if he could hear the thump of my heart against my ribs.  

As I picture coaxing my legs up the final stretch, where the pine woods huddle close to the right side road edge and you can find a rhythm to ease you up the last rise, I remember the first time I rode up Essich Hill.  It was a whole other lifetime ago when, just like now, I was piecing myself back together following surgery, searching to shape myself against the landscape in my recovery.

When B was born I damaged my lower spine, I never discovered how but I’ve always assumed that, as she was lying facing the wrong way, I must have somehow pushed her against my lower back causing discs to displace. Having spent the first year of her life dependent on painkillers for my sanity, I eventually had an operation on January 13th 2010 when B was 15 months old. Slowly, carefully, I learned to cling to the painkillers less and trust my body more then, at the start of 2011, I bought my first road bike in the Halfords’ New Year sale.  It was a white, pink and black Boardman Fi Road Comp and I blinked at its lean and lithe lines, astonished that I owned such a beautiful thing.

To begin with I was embarrassed to be out cycling, I was 40, what was I thinking. But I’d grown up with bikes, cycled everywhere as a kid, and the sheer joy of leaping on a bike and just pedaling swiftly returned. After getting bored with the 10 mile circuit of the city, I set myself the challenge of trying to cycle up Essich Hill.  Essich was my Everest, that was the sum total of my goal, to climb the hill on my bike. So I did. One day I set off and cycled the 3 miles up and out of the city then, sweating and utterly triumphant, I turned and free-wheeled down again whooping with delight as I flew through the fields!

For a while cycling up Essich then turning to fly back down was as far as I went then, over the years that came, Essich quickly became just the appetiser for 30 then 40 then 50 or even 100 mile rides and I’d laugh at the idea that I used to be so easily satisfied, that such a short distance should leave me full. Sometimes I even used to long for the days when cycling just 10 miles would feel like a massive achievement, long for those baby steps which felt so rich and rewarding.

Careful what you wish for.

Here I now am, some 15 months since I last got on my road bike (no longer the Boardman but a treasured full carbon Scott which my brother built up for me), 14 months after major cancer surgery, facing the challenge of climbing Essich Hill once more when I join my local Cycle Club for a ride. 3 mile long Essich has grown and stretched back into that 5.5 mile high Everest and I’m standing at base camp, battle-scarred and a bit scared.  Scared of what my body can’t do set against what it once could and how I’ll cope if I have to turn half-way up.   So I’m trying hard to only look back in order to see how far I’ve come and to remember that baby steps can be amazing and just as satisfying as the huge leaps.  What I want to do is focus on celebrating every single turn of pedals.  I’ve no idea if I’ll reach the top but I do know, when I finally do, it’ll be just as sweet as the first time, possibly sweeter, and the whoop of delight as I fly back down the hill will be louder and longer than ever before!

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10 thoughts on “The Hill

    1. Aw Rosemary thank you for this. I did it! On Monday evening and I didn’t even turn to go flying back down but let out a whoop of joy then continued on round the rest of the route. 18 miles. So chuffed with myself I could be made of chocolate!!

  1. Heading up Essich tomorrow with Fiona and a friend, first cycle outdoors this year and in Scotland, I will certainly give you guys some thought as I head up it (slowly) lol. You guys are doing great, keep writing Pennie, its a talent.

  2. I feel your fear & excitement but however slowly the climb will be I’ll ken I can do it because I have with your help & encouragement. Thank you.

    1. And I did Mark. How could I not when I’ve got all you guys alongside me, my imaginary peloton of support and friendship, giving me a wheel everywhere I go these days. x

  3. Chapeau!! Well done Pennie. Not sure if “enjoyed” is the right word to describe being your blog audience but it has opened my eyes to the pain, struggle and total disruption you have endured and filled me with respect and admiration for your courage, determination and literacy. Of course I had to break cover for the hill conquest as I relate to the feelings so closely and have both exercised and exorcised my body and demons on various gradients & lengthy of tarmac in my time. Onward and upward my friend. X

    1. Tim thanks for this, you’ll have to bring that bike of yours north and have a play on Essich (which is really only a baby compared to our other climbs)! Good to have you along for the ride, even if its a bumpy one at times! x

  4. ‘That hill’ lives somewhere in all of us. The steepness, relentlessness…tease and at times, momentary terror. But that’s why it’s there. To teach us that the best rewards are hard won. Keep winning. Keep taking yourself to ‘that hill’. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

  5. You are blinking fabulous! Essich Hill is definitely an Everest and you did it no bother 💪 well done! I’m looking forward to catching up with you on our next bike ride 🚴‍♀️🚴‍♀️

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