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A year of running-research: Some reflections

Off-road running.

Immersive, multi-sensory, thrilling, aliveness, embodiment, tough, technical, engaged, relaxing, adventurous or even, ‘natural’. But 12 words doesn’t quite do the activity its full justice…

A single word simply cannot capture the true essence of how it feels and what it means to go for a run off the road and on some variable more natural terrain. I struggled to capture and represent this phenomena in a 12,000 word dissertation. It was a week before my dissertation deadline and I was 3000 words over the limit but I felt connected to what I had written. It felt cruel to ‘cut’ the “waffle” and the material I had collected through a lot of enjoyable research around the activity.

Some ‘findings’

Place is important. In an ever moving world, places are changing, getting reformed and re-interpreted.

Place attachment wasn’t fixed but was instead an affective collection of connections to experiences and environmental features, co-produced and experienced through movement. In several of my research runs I noted how I felt incredibly connected to other people, despite being totally on my own, I felt as though the landscape intertwined with my own memories of trail runs to connect me to others and their thoughts or experiences

While on a trail run, one is always somewhere but this somewhere is always on the way to somewhere else; places move with the body. Human existence is not totally place bound but is instead constituted through place binding as existence unfolds not in specific places but along paths. Each mover (in this case a runner) along a path lays a trail where many movers meet and these paths or trails become entwined as the life and experience of each becomes bound up with the other.

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Moving through places, the body’s senses become attuned to particularities, interacting with the mind and muscles to connect the body to the physical world in an affective place-binding journey.

Being out in the open often contrasted with the presence of trees for many runners. The surrounding trees or forests that several go-alongs took place in often provided feelings of happiness, shelter and security for runners. A special connection to trees was apparent with several participants. Trail runners connect to place through physical markers affected by experiential, performative and embodied feelings that become part of our runs.

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If anything my research project allowed me to explore my own understandings and performances whilst out on the run. It afforded an ability to recognise the meaningful engagements that can be formed through activities often perceived as mundane leisurely practices. I feel more connected to the environments I run in and appreciate why so many others loving the sport and cite it as an escapism through outdoor relaxation. I understand too that its hard, a level of physical fitness is required to get out there and fully experience what nature can offer. But I guess thats part of the satisfaction, part of the thrill, that in a way you’ve earned this enjoyment.

Home. Security. Attachment. Immersion.

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A screenshot from dissertation; a creative chapter on ‘immersion’

Performative movement in the natural environment can foster increased sensory, haptic and meaningful connections to the physical entities, memories and meanings of landscapes travelled through by trail running. My research has shed some light on how trail running affords a natural sensibility. One which can foster genuine connections to the natural environment and bring about a renewed sense of belonging for runners.

Landscape engagements can allow for understandings of our world’s meanings which are altogether less cognitive, more embodied and sensed. Movement can afford immersion. A genuine connective immersion that brings us closer to the natural world. Of course, this is possible through other forms of movement than trail running. But I hope my dissertation has demonstrated the possibilities outdoor performance or activity can offer for reawakening our senses and becoming more connected to the living world around us whilst offering an interesting, engaging avenue for enlivening cultural geographers to the world out there.

 

(All photos are my own)

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Geography and running?

Some thoughts and questions…

Why geography? Why running?

Two thoughts I’m faced with almost everyday. One is not so easily defined whist the other can be demonstrated or explained in an instant. On the surface the two may appear incredibly distant but over the past year I have begun to understand how the two are as interconnected as anything else out there.

Both are significant passions in my life, one as my undergraduate degree, the other as an obsessive hobby. As part of my dissertation research I am undertaking a ‘geographic exploration of trail running’ and an analysis of social media and Blog posts related to running in the wild. So I thought why not have a go at this blog thing.

Many studies have been conducted on road running as well as competitive track racing and run commuting. However little literature has focused on trail running and those who run in or through nature and the experiences garnered from such exploits. That is one of the reasons for taking on a 13,000 word project about the two. Another lies with my love of the outdoors and appreciation of this thing called nature – one of the most difficult-to-define words in the English language. It is within this western notion of running in the wild that I aim to explore the meanings, experiences, connections and affects that runners encounter whilst on the run in wild landscapes.

Geography is fundamentally about space; analysing the world we live in – through various mediums and perspectives. Why is that so? How is that so? Two questions at the core of the academic subject. It is through geographical analysis’ that I hope trail running’s possibilities and meanings can be uncovered…

The experiences generated by running are incredibly interesting and valuable to Geographers. My dissertation’s primary aim is to investigate, contextualise and situate these experiences, feelings, affects and motions that take place during a run into Human Geographical inquiry and theory. As an embodied experience, running is a highly accomplished sensualist activity as its exploratory nature adds to its terrestrial kind of attachment. My research and discussions will focus on running in ‘natural environments’ something often referred to as ‘trail running’ – essentially forms of running that aren’t done on a pavement or in a predominantly built urban environment. Using alternative and new forms of methods, my dissertation will aim to explore the interrelationship of space, the natural environment and runners’ embodied experiences in these environments.

Sensory Geographies are a growing part of the Geo-cultural take on the world. Our (dis)embodied experiences around us are at the core of everything we do. Running is or should be as embodied an experience as any. Except in the midst of rapid technological growth and Richard Askwith’s ‘Big Running’ – are we losing our engagement with the natural landscapes we run in? Scholars have noted how people in the west are losing their sensory abilities and connections with nature – smell, touch, hearing, tasting the natural environment have all been replaced by our reliance on the visual. These are just some of the issues I hope to explore in my research.

Part of this experiment is to show how beneficial experiences in the outdoors can be and get more people running (long term ambitions!). Nature offers so many benefits and is under massive threat from various actors – now is the most urgent time for us to reembody our senses and reconnect to the natural world.

I am by no means an expert trail runner or even a very fast one either but it is through this blog that I hope to convey how Geography and trail-running are closely interconnected as I aim to reveal some areas of interest for further research. SO: how are Geography and running related? The Environment, space, place and the senses…. ?

Run for the Hills Wallpaper

The great outdoors

Ah yes, the great outdoors, everyones* favourite topic.

When you’ve gone, very suddenly, ‘full circle’, from enthusiastic football-crazy, basketball charging, mountain bike loving teenager,  into a wheelchair bound teenager who’s nye on 100% reliable on others to get around, then gradually growing up into a lanky ‘lets run up that hill’,  twenty something, your experience of the outdoors feels pretty different.

When recounting the ‘I fell off my bike story’, people usually tell me how lucky I am. To be alive, to have done, and do, what I do. Yeah fair enough.

Am I lucky that my helmet saved my life, that the 15% chance to survive odds got overturned (mostly thanks to the NHS), that therapy worked and I’m “normal people”, that I can now run/cycle/scramble/paddle to my hearts’ content? Yeah absolutely.

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But I think what I’m most thankful for, is the way being without has now fostered a deeper understanding of the why.

Why it is so incredible, so enjoyable, so scarily wondrous.

Being able to move in and be mobile across landscapes that are bumpy, technical, exhausting and natural is actually quite something. Mobility is quite something. Being mobile enough to get up a hill is outright phenomenal.

Standing at the top of a hill, whatever the height, be it Arthur’s seat or Ben Nevis, pausing and appreciating what’s just happened, offers a profound sense of recognition.

A recognition that what you are capable of doing is quite extraordinary. Yeah fine, physically there will always be someone faster/fitter/stronger than you. But independent mobility, in whatever form that is for you, really should not be taken for granted. To have that ability to physically move up, across or down a stretch of land is wondrous.

I remember being out in my wheelchair (I’m sure we gave it a name but I cant remember), getting ‘some fresh air’, my mum pushing me round a local riverside walk and feeling an incredible sense of frustration, a horrible confinement.

But the sound of the rippling river that flowed next to us, eased anxieties of being different and of being disabled. Somehow my thoughts embodied that river that flowed freely. There is an inherent escapism that engulfs us when ‘out there’, it’s very difficult to put in to words but an innate sense of freedom overawes most of my time spent in our incredible natural environment. Nature is wonderful for me, because it never judges you. 

It rarely invites, it just is. It is, what it is.

I lost the full use of my legs for what felt like quite a long time and I think now being able to lug my pasty spaghetti legs around has given me an, at times, overwhelming appreciation but also a fragility about how easily things can be taken away. A miss-placed steer of your bike and you’re off. There are no masculinised feelings of heroic domination, just a quiet inward appreciation of what is, what you have and what can so easily be lost.

I run up Arthurs seat several times each week, ascending on different footpaths and each time that sense of appreciation, of wonder at what has just been done, never quite goes away. There’s always a little inward nod of recognition and sensibility. An inward gratitude of what is actionable for my legs.

It is wondrous. I really feel that, I’m in awe when I’m in the mountains, cycling along a coastline or paddling along a loch. That magical wonder returns most times I’m ‘out’, but there is a fear. A vulnerability. A sense of uncontrollability, truly.

I think that is why it’s so special.

Wonder can be a grinning smile, a thrilling whoop or a leap of joy, or it can be a sinking feeling of angst, of feeling insufficient, that the journey is a step too far, that you’re not capable. Wonder is joy and fear at the same time.

Intermingling and overlapping.

Recently I’ve been riding my bike a bit more**, and this empowered feeling of independent mobility is there.

Pedalling is a simple act. It sounds trivial and obvious but it’s incredible how such a simple thing can give you so much confidence, enjoyment and freedom.

At a time of global confinement and a societal yearning to ‘get back out there’. Now is perhaps a nice time to reflect on the why.

Maybe after such reflection, an understanding of the why can help with the how.

How do we ensure the natural world thrives alongside us? How do we get people re-connected?

One cant be sure of all the answers.

But I imagine wonder might have something to do with it.

 

 

*by everyone I mean white, able-bodied, middle class males

** how great are quiet &/or closed city roads at the moment?!

Earth

A stride, a bounce, a skip.

A bump

A bounce

We glide and trundle, flowing with the grooves and folds of the landscape

The earth beneath us bending, unfolding and merging

Suddenly, horizons are no longer visible, a change in angle as strides become steps

‘Tops’ become the focus

Ascending, we become one with the incline.

The gaze narrows and blurs. Thoughts emerge from us, and return to us

Up and over.

We glimpse the view but then

Down,

Down into the roots of the earth. A different kind of step.

A quick step, no longer laboured and irregular.

But a fast two-step, a beat to the groove of breath.

Down and under,

Then over

Back on top of rock, grass and root.

 

Traces

We wander but we follow.

We follow lines,

markings,

indents,

traces of prior movement.

We trace trails, remnants of hooves, footpaths, lines, markings

And topographic grooves, all created by the humble foot.

Where did they come from, how did they begin?

Was the ground too boggy, did a rogue dash across the grass create a new trace-line? Are we following the original follower, or a scent, a sound or a stride?

Where do they begin?

Where do they end?

Regulated by cartography. What constitutes a footpath? What gives a path an official designation. The width, depth, fold, usage or potential?

Or

Prominence.

Over grassy hills, parklands, heather clad moors, rocky mountains, muddy mounds and football fields.

We trace traces. Historical but contemporarily reworked.

A static inscription on the landscape yet they move, flow and undulate. A line often created out of a barrier to movement, enabling more movement.

Created by imagination and an urge to explore but now a symbol of safety and reassurance.

Traces

 

 

Reflections on the Marmot ‘Dark Mountains’ Mountain Marathon and running in darkness.

It was 11pm, I stood in a gazebo with its sides flapping violently in the gale-force winds, rain thundering off the roof. It was a strange scene for a Saturday night at the stunning Lowther Castle, in the Eastern Lakes where nearly 350 runners prepared to set off on varying courses for the Marmot ‘Dark Mountains’ Mountain Marathon across a section of the Eastern fells, near Penrith.

By the time my partner and I stepped outside and dibbed our timer, it was nearly midnight. As we left the start line, a sense of incredible nervous energy overwhelmed. To be quite frank, I think we were both sh*tting ourselves (this being our first night time nav-running ‘race’). The snow hailed down onto us as we set off into darkness, with our map and compass poised for action. The first few controls flew by as we started off confidently, following bearings and faint bridleways. All we could ‘see’ aside from our map and compass was the terrain a few feet in front of us. The wind and snow soon picked up and winter engulfed the fells. After a while we both settled down and I really began to enjoy what we were doing. The unexpected simplicity of it all was fantastic; all that mattered  was getting between two points, focussing solely on a small section of map and our compass bearing. The lack of intervening technology (first time I’ve ran without a GPS watch for a long long time) was truly liberating. I believe this is what people call being alive. The total darkness was transformative. No longer could you focus on distant landscapes, all that could be seen and thought about was the few metres lit up by your head-torch in front of your feet. We were freezing, wet and tired by the time we passed the half way mark but we were loving it. As soon as you feel a sense of safety and reassurance that you are going to make it, you totally relax and enjoy the journey.

The course mixed faster runnable sections of ‘path’ with slower s(l)oggy sections of open moorland and grassy fell. We made good progress on these more runnable sections but got caught in a few bogs on several occasions. Ascending some of the longer ascents allowed us to really knuckle down and push on up whilst the decent felt invigorating and it was nice to really get the legs moving, by far the best way of keeping warm. The sheer simplicity of what we were doing was fantastic, on a few occasions I felt like my survival instincts kicked in: food, water, movement and warmth became the  priorities.

By the time we reached the final few checkpoints our legs were really throbbing and we began to tire but what an incredible journey it had been; 20 miles and 4000ft (*ish*) of running later we were back at that same marquee, 7 and a bit hours later, which now acted as a refuge and place of collapse for us all. We were satisfied we hadn’t made any major navigational errors, although we maybe picked the wrong line for some of the legs, we were relatively efficient in our movement and timing. Being without a watch and not knowing what the time was for the entire night was incredibly freeing, adding to the sense of ‘wilderness’ and ‘adventure’. My favourite moment came when we looked back on ourselves across a valley and saw about a dozen lights bobbing along, descending in the darkness, beneath the stars, not a streetlight to be seen.

My mud splattered 1:30000 Harvey map hangs on my wall. A true work of art.

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Lessons learnt 

  • Eat! Drink! You expend a lot of mental energy as well as the obvious physical expenditure so nutrition and hydration are essential (3 Nakd bars, 2 Cliff bars and a Trek bar did it for me) I think you need about 1.5lites of water which is tricky since its so bloody cold but crucial to stay hydrated as you are sweating even though it doesn’t feel like it!)
  • Have your food and water handy, in your backpacks waist pockets. The same goes for spare batteries
  • Stay warm! There were a couple of points were I was very much at a borderline for becoming too cold to continue. As soon as you feel yourself shivering and cooling, put an extra layer on and stay dry, especially your hands!! Once you get really cold, you’re seriously screwed.
  • Take your time and talk about it. Constant communication was essential in keeping our navigation on point. Yes we could have made better choices but overall solid and steady did us well.
  • Trust your bearings. You have little else to go on so your compass is crucial and rarely wrong.
  • Listen for clues, especially regarding water features. We navigated to a stream at dehydration point about 6hrs in and only found it once we stopped and listened out for the trickling water: saved!

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Moving at night

In the weeks prior to this event I spent quite a bit of training time out in the darkness with the head torch on the local trails and hills, sometimes with the map and compass to to help with feeling more relaxed during the MDM and getting ‘a feel’ for running at night.

This was a new-ish experience, riddled with learning curves and exciting discoveries. Running regular training routes in the dark reconnected me to the landscape in new ways, as I noticed the environment around me in different ways, feeling the bumps, hearing the sounds of the natural world and ‘smelling the smells’ of more poignant features. I felt as though my body as a whole was more in tune with my brain, more embedded in the landscape, my less used sonic, olfactory and tactile senses were reignited by the darkness. Movement was  felt not seen. I felt incredibly alone in the silence of the woods yet I felt more in tune and more alive, better connected to myself and the world beneath my feet. The landscape becomes a blend of geology, geography and nature. The environment doesn’t change in physical form but it does in emotional  ways. Familiar features and affects become strange and otherworldly, you become transformed into this alternate light-less place of sensory dimensions: time and space are transformed by the absence of light.

It’s interesting that although a lot of these feelings and affects were experienced during the ‘Marmot’, having a map and compass to focus on did change things (for another blog maybe? Orienteering…)

In a world where true darkness is unfamiliar and rare, the feelings of the unknown generated by the absence of light can penetrate the body, leaving one feeling immersed, alive and ‘switched on’ and probably a bit scared..

 

Beinn Resipol Hill race

Beinn Resipol. A 845m Corbet that sits on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. The race costs £8 to enter and only has route signage on the first half – the ascent. The mountain itself is a rather nice one! The second half route is entirely up to yourself, you can choose which grassy-heathery sections you throw yourself down.

The way up was wet, boggy, very narrow in places and truly absorbing. I loved that you had to concentrate 100% on where you were putting your feet and the narrowness of the path relaxed my mindset, knowing I could only go as fast as the person in front. After coming out of a forested section that beautifully ran parallel to a stream, the summit towered ahead as the flag began to move in. A steep and even muddier ascent to its top flanks preceded a short scramble to crest the peak and turn to head back to the Caravan park.

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Views on the way down of Loch Sunart

After an initial technical and slippy decent off the summit, we began bombing down the hill side of Beinn Resipol, limbs flying everywhere, middle aged men falling on their arses, waist deep in mud, getting up and grinning a giggle. This is what it felt like to be truly alive. To be stripped bare and to just have fun, immersed in the environment. Nothing else mattered, you didn’t (and couldn’t) switch your attention. No egos, no technology, no outside intervention or route markings, just a rapid descent of survival and childlike madness over the slippery rock and grassy tussocks that make up the side of the Resipol Mountain. A real hidden-gem low key race and a fantastic feel to it, the Beinn Resipol hill race was about as ‘Scottish’ as it gets with regards to the weather, terrain, route and friendly-low key feel of the day ensure a well spent 8 quid. Unique.42090063_1779651678799160_5185546301177069568_o

Photos: Beinn Resipol HR facebook page

Glenshee 9 race review/reflection

A very late reflection on my first Long classic hill races. I had signed up to these for a few reasons. Mainly as a new challenge: a totally different type of race to anything I had experienced before. Consequently this also meant a focus in training on my biggest weakness – leg strength and hill endurance as well as descent technique. At the time of signing up, I was just returning from serious illness and a non-existent month of training. A focus on hills, trails and long distance afforded a total move away from the quantified training I had been following in the run up to the road racing season.

The Glenshee 9 race also allowed me to experience a stunning new part of Scotland in an incredibly immersive way! (and offered a quick way of bagging 9 munros!!)

The race felt very low key, with a friendly registration and excitedly nervous atmosphere at the ski centre. After a warm up and kit check we were off. I was a bit disappointed that it felt like most of the field were happy to follow the leaders after making a very big attempt to get the nav and map ingrained in my head, but up we all went…

I felt great on the first climb up to Creag Leacach which followed a narrow ‘path’ and onto open moorland. It was an anticlimax in reaching the munro summit, a simple cairn tap and on we went. The next few tops involved some shorter ascents and steep downhills over the Heather laden Deeside hills. Pacing felt good and began to move up after losing places on the technical descents.

Coming off Tolmount was a fast descent to a beallach before a water refill and long slog up to Carn an Tuirc Here’s where the muscular fatigue began! A welcome relief at the top of munro 6 (little did I know that the next hour and a half would be even more of a long slog) 2018-08-05 12.44.18 (The top of Tolmount. Photo: Russ Valentine)

The descent down to the road was probably my worst section as I really struggled on the rocky technical steeper descent. Once off that I began to make up time and places that had been lost just after Carn an Tuirc.

At the road I made a bad mistake in not taking any water as I only had 400ml for the remaining 3 munros and I didn’t realise how sweaty/dehydrated I was…

A long 30min slog up to Carn Aosda on steep heathery hill sides. 7 done! I was chuffed but the next two were embarrassingly slow progress as I became dehydrated and bonked hard. Mentally I collapsed as I struggled to Carn a’Gheoidh (hill of the goose), only saved by a stream and finally doubling back to Cairnwell. Really annoying as this was perhaps the most runnable section.

A short steep finish back down to the ski centre ensured a delapidated Ben upon crossing the line and I began to take in the previous 4hrs, in awe of these awesome mountains and all the finishers. I had no expectations of my performance but was annoyed at both my time and position, feeling as though at least 10-15mins was lost and a good 10 positions, unnecessarily.

But, a phenomenal day out and fantastic race was all I cared about. Really enjoyable experience and highly recommended race with great food provided at the cafe post race!

Trail running: Chamonix

Within minutes of starting an easy post bus-flight-bus 5 hour journey to reach Chamonix I knew. I sensed the wonder of this trail running mecca.  The rocky-rooted trail that wound its way through the lush Alpine forest swallowed me in. Id watched and listened to the endless ‘hype’ and praise that surrounded Chamonix as a destination for runners so I was incredibly excited to get out there for a few days to experience the trails. The combination of the crisp pure air and the pungent alpine smell of the trees drew me in as my highly uncoordinated feet ‘danced’ over the roots and rocks. 40969550_2084433131600813_1683152272613179392_nThe ‘Vallée du Trail’ is a special place. Hundreds of kilometres of well maintained yet ruggedly technical paths weave through the mountains and forests. They really are rollercoaster like, with a distinct mixture of slopes and surfaces. Once you are in the trail you feel like you have teleported to another world, completely unaware of anything else in such world other than where your feet are landing and the sensorial experience of the immediate environment. Only one thing matters – movement (and not falling over). The rustles of branches and occasional tweets from birds pierce your internal concentration as your body rolls with the trail. You have to be unbelievably conscious of where your body is in relation to space as the proprioceptors in your limbs guide your body through the ornate forest. Despite being well kept and highly obvious, the trails of the Chamonix valley remain technical, unpredictable in their texture but fun in their micro-topography. 40893100_2084433054934154_8597017426862800896_n (Photo: Jacob Adkin)              41123016_2084433168267476_5047200662929014784_n                                                                                                                  Ascending the valleys’ steep sided trails can offer a simply exquisite panoramic view of the  valley: Le Brevent, Mer de Glace, Aiguille du Midi, Aiguille du Grepon, Les Droites, Point de Lapaz, to name but a few of the surrounding peaks. With endless mountain path options spread throughout the valley, this really is the trail running mecca. Winding paths pull you in as your body and your senses become absorbed by the multi-sensory kinaesthetic movement that is simply putting one foot in front of the other. I smiled, laughed, grimaced on some of the more technical descents and huffed and puffed up and along the terrain of the valley. This was an experience I would never forget. I had never felt so alive.