Kiwi running legend, Mal Law, is about to undertake the most audacious feat of his life… the High Five-0 Challenge: fifty marathons, fifty mountains, fifty days. Before that it was the 7-in-7 and the Coastal Path Challenges with a bunch of other cause-related runs packed in between. On the eve of his biggest challenge to date – and biggest fundraising effort with almost $300K raised for Mental Health Foundation of NZ (MHF) – we thought we’d re-run a very personal piece he wrote for the magazine a while back, exploring the motivations that drive his obsession with trail running which can be traced back to his parents. Here, Mal writes a letter to his Dad in a conversation that sheds some light on the man and the passion. Check his mission out in real time at www.high50.org.nz. We wish Mal the best on the coming days, which will be huge, tough, but full of inspiration.
I should have written this letter to you long ago, but somehow I never got around to it. I so wish I had, because then you might actually have got to read it.
The doctors said it was pneumonia and maybe that’s what it was in medical terms. But in human terms we know it was a broken heart. Just a week earlier we had said goodbye to mum. Your job on this mortal coil was done. You had loved her for more than 60 years and cared for her so touchingly in her final months. There was nothing left for you to hang around for and so at the same time as being devastated by losing you we were pleased that you didn’t have to struggle on in a world devoid of purpose and meaning.
You were a man of your generation. You kept your emotions in check and didn’t outwardly express your love, yet I was never in any doubt about just how much you did love me. This rubbed off on me and until close to the end I hadn’t mustered the courage to say what should be the simplest thing to say to your own father – “I love you dad”. I’m so glad that I eventually did but I also wish I’d also told you how grateful I was to you for shaping the person I have become. That’s what this letter is about.
For today, Dad, I am a happy, fulfilled person who has found a passion that both defines my life and gives it meaning – trail running. I love everything about it. The physical and mental challenges that it provides, the amazing places that it takes me, the adventure that is inherent in every run, the massive reward I get from running for good causes, the people that I do it with and the wider community of friends and acquaintances that I feel so very much a part of. Trail runners are my tribe and I’m happy being one of them. That sounds almost trite but the sense of belonging and fulfillment that this fringe pursuit brings me is central to my concept of self worth. And without that we are nothing.
So how is it that you – a man I never ever saw running, except as a referee on a rugby field and a devilishly sly tennis player – had such a heavy influence on what I am today?
Perhaps the most obvious way that you rubbed off on me was through your own love of mountains and wild places. Some of my earliest, strongest and most poignant memories from my childhood are of rummaging around in cupboards at home amongst your hiking boots; ferreting in your steel-framed rucksack looking for leftover boiled sweets; the musty aroma of your anorak and waterproofs. I can almost smell the dubbin and the leather as I write this; the peaty smells that emanated from those clothes even months after your last trip to your beloved Scottish mountains.
It’s all so vivid and feels so connected with, responsible for, what I have become. Which makes it hard to believe that the few times you succeeded in getting me on to a mountain you did so with me kicking, screaming and moping, bribed by the promise of a measly square of fruit and nut chocolate if I made the summit.
Given my obstreperous attitude and seeming indifference to thick Scottish cloud, you’d have been surprised if you’d ever caught me doing something that I did regularly – sneaking glances at your mountain walking photo albums. But Dad, even without realizing it at the time, I think I always loved those boring black and white pictures of misty ridges, stark corries and dark rock walls. They left in indelible impression on me and with hindsight it was inevitable that I would one day be drawn back to such places, freely and of my own will, to experience the sheer unmitigated joy of pitting myself against gravity and bagging peaks. Thank you for planting that seed and sorry I wasn’t better company at the time.
I also recall you telling me stories about your adventures. Catching the night train from your RAF base in the south of England hundreds of miles north to disembark on the bleak expanse of Rannoch Moor so you could bag a few peaks before catching the train back the next day. Taking the mail boat from Mallaig into the wilds of Knoydart to knock off the most remote peaks in the British Isles. Hearing of your fear on scaling the Inaccessible Pinnacle in the Cuilin Range on the Isle of Skye. Each story seeped into me, crystallising into an unquenchable thirst for adventure that would surface many years later.
But it was more than just your passion for wild places that has shaped who I am today. You had a personal quest and after roaming all over the Highlands for some 30+ years you became one of the first people ever to summit all 650 or so 3,000ft-high Scottish ‘Tops’. I never told you at the time but I was so proud of you and I loved the look of total incomprehension in the eyes of friends when I attempted to explain to them what you had achieved. I’m sure this is one reason why I am such a goal-oriented person, and why I love attempting things that are beyond the comprehension of many.
So through you I discovered mountains and I discovered hiking. I started bagging the Scottish peaks myself and found adventure and solace in those high places. Then I moved to New Zealand and my love of the outdoors was magnified by the wildness of our landscapes here. I took to multi-day tramping trips like a duck to water and this eventually led me to trail running. It may seem like a circuitous route to finding my true calling but I know I would never have arrived here at my ‘happy place’ without your quiet unassuming influence. Thanks dad.
But all this was just the start. I was trail running for many years before I really started to think of it as a defining part of who I am. Before I became obsessed. The tipping point came when I decided (ironically enough during a long solo multi-day hike) to attempt running the 7 mainland Great Walks in 7 Days. What was to become the 7in7 Challenge. This as you know was my way of belatedly dealing with the event that forty years earlier had shattered us all – the death of your other son, my brother Alan. I wanted to honour his memory and I wanted to raise money for families that were facing the same battles that we had to face when Alan was sick with leukaemia.
But I also wanted to do something that would make you proud of me. Crazy I know that at the age of 49 I was still looking for that, but there you go. As it turned out, when I told you of my plan you simply said: “You’re off your rocker, that can’t be done!” I know you were simply worried for me (or at least about my knees), but I have to tell you that did rather stoke my fire and make me even more determined to succeed. So once again you were highly influential in creating what has now become my true passion – using trail running to benefit great causes.
So much for the past. What of the future? Dad, I so wish you were still here to share in the next great adventure planned. This one is special because I’m coming ‘home’ to do it. I wanted to tell you about this when the idea first hit me but it was just days before Mum’s funeral service, you were sick, and the time seemed wrong.
Do you remember that Sal and I took off to Cornwall for a couple of days, under orders from Hilary and Jacky (the Sisters That Must Be Obeyed), to have a couple of days to ourselves? Well, the first morning we were there I awoke very early. It was pitch black and freezing outside but I needed a run to clear my head and make sense of mum’s death. So I took off on the South West Coast Path along a section that I knew you and mum had walked and loved. The frigid air chilled my bones but gave me a sense of alertness that I’d lacked for days since stepping off the hastily booked flight from Auckland.
For the first hour I could only see what my head torch illuminated but gradually dawn seeped through the sky and struggled in vain to warm this stark morning landscape of huge cliffs and wild seas. I could see you and Mum walking hand in hand along the cliff path and I cried as I ran, trying to find the right words for my eulogy to Mum. This is when I knew that I wanted to run the entire 1014 km length of this fierce but beautiful trail. It just seemed so right and it became even more so when just a week or so later you too passed away.
[Mal did end up running the length of the South West Coastal Path, having teamed up with runner Tom Bland]
Yes, I know you would have appreciated the irony of this and most likely would have come up with some fitting pun to make light of the situation. You’d have tutted, shaken your head and asked “Why?” But I can’t help but feel that deep down you’d have been very proud, just as I know you were when I completed my 7in7 Challenges.
From the Mountain
By George Sterling (1869-1926)
Let us go home with the sunset on our faces:
We that went forth at morn,
To follow on the wind’s auroral paces,
And find the desert bourn
The frontier of our hope and Heaven’s scorn.
Let us go home with the sunset on our faces:
We that have wandered far
And stood by noon in high, disastrous places,
And known what mountains are
Between those eyries and the morning star.
Let us go home with the sunset on our faces:
Although we have not found
The pathway to the inviolable spaces,
We see from holy ground
An ocean far below without a sound.
ED’S NOTE: As Mal does, we here at Trail Run Mag have a great belief in the power of being active in the outdoors – including trail running – to help heal and manage mental health issues. So we encourage anyone who can, to donate to the cause through Mal’s website or the Mental Health charity he’s raising funds for. Or, we encourage anyone experiencing mental health issues to reach out, contacting a mental health assistance organisation wherever you are, and maybe even hook up with one of the many social trail running groups out there – friendly bunches one and all, welcoming of newcomers and great to connect with.