John Buckley, running in the Wicklow Mountains
The apparent thinning of air whilst exerting. A mist is surrounding my eyes as water begins to fall. Gasping for breath as my mind tries to figure out that final piece…no, it’s not me attempting to summit some revered peak above the clouds, but the tears of realisation as I shower after my final preparatory training session.
A night not dissimilar to tonight, twelve years ago, Irish, damp and blustery, I lay in bed, looking up at the plastic glow in the dark ceiling stars, wondering when my Dad was going to be home. My Dad (Dave) had been to, what 6-year-old John felt at the time, was the most coolest meeting of all time. Dave was meeting Dawson Stelfox, the first Irish person to climb Mount Everest. I strained to stay awake past 8.30pm, with steely child-like determination that ultimately gives way to sleepy snoozy time. But Dad woke me after 10pm, when he arrived home with something rolled tightly in a cylindrical tube. Yawns and rubbed eyes brought me to the land of the living to find the most treasured possession of my childhood; a map of Everest, but not only that, Dawson’s autograph ON IT!
The house I grew up in was a house that supported our connection with nature. Dad was a member of Glen of Imaal Mountain Rescue, myself and Sarah (my sister) were in Beavers, Cubs and Scouts and Mum always taught us of the gentle beauty of nature and how it should be respected.
That poster, proudly blue tacked to (and silently destroying) the wallpaper, was a focal point of many childhood days for me. That mountain from my wall cast a shadow on me at dawn and drifted away into the night. It was the stuff of childhood dreams. Dreams of summiting, of exploring, of pushing boundaries, of escaping danger, of living free, without care on the slopes of such a gentle but hardened part of nature. That Everest poster opened my eyes to Mont Blanc, to the Andes, the Rockies, to ridges and traverses that dreams could never do justice and waking would leave me wanting.
As with many childhood dreams, they faded away in the complex valleys of adulthood and the reality of life, until about four years ago. For a number of years (and at present, sometimes) I struggled, as many of us do. Struggled with identity, self worth, complex emotions and feelings of darkness. Struggled with wanting to be alive. Times in which those childhood dreams were far from consciousness, until I found running (or running found me). Four years ago I started to tread on trails again, with a renewed reason, to feel and be alive, literally. And those trails, worn out of struggle and depression, led me back to my childhood dreams. They led me to trail running. To Croagh Patrick, the Wicklow Way, Djouce, Carrantuohill, my first trail running leagues, my first trail running ultra races. These trails saved my life and continue to instil life in my existence.
Whilst running I have also started to dream again. That Everest poster is back hung and etched on the wallpaper of my mind. When I was six, I didn’t have YouTube, but at 29 I sure do. Dreams are now the 2.0 version when you spend hours watching the awe-inspiring movements of Kilian Jornet, Anton Krupicka, Anna Frost and Emelie Forsberg moving through the Alps or the Sierra Nevada. While it sounds trivial, I very much place the movements and stories of Kilian, Anton, Anna and Emelie as a telling part in my recovery journey. Helping me to dream again of mountains that we don’t quite get in Ireland. The mountains permanently dressed up in snow, with ridges like fangs and forests clinging desperately to their sides.
On Friday I’m heading to Chamonix, the town nestled below Mont Blanc. I can’t believe that I’ve just been able to type that. Six-year-old John, waking up, sandy-eyed to Dad coming home in that life-affirming moment is about to realise one of his first and only reoccurring dreams. Twenty nine-year-old John is getting to complete a journey of recovery on new trails, by practicing that beautiful natural art of mountain running, that has saved his life. I’m not going to race, I’m not going to compete, I’m going to be part of that dream, I’m going to live a childhood dream. I’m also getting to visit this dream because of a wonderful empathic and loving partner, Claire. Without her impulse flight ticket purchase, I wouldn’t be writing this.
Those tears of realisation are back with me again as I prepare to tread the trails below the revered Mont Blanc. It’s the first time in my life a childhood dream has come true and I’m truly humble.
Je vais courir (I will run).