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Wild running – on the road?

A recent Geography field-trip took me to the stunning island of North Uist, in the Outer Hebrides. Our research themes centred around conservation, historical and religious geographies as well as Gaelic culture  and identity.

Having never visited the western Isles, I was excited to get stuck in and learn about this remote island on the ‘edge’ of the Scottish Highlands. Equally, I was as excited about getting out on some nice runs whilst out there – I had been imagining the long unspoilt trails that would cut through the remote landscape, rolling hills abound with wildlife and peace away from the hubbub of fieldwork.

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Nope, sadly this was not to be. Turns out my wild running fantasy was nothing more than a slog along some long undulating B-roads, being battered by the wind. Views of sheep and island inlets dominated the visual narrative as I battled the gales.

Don’t get me wrong, the views were breathtaking at times but I was disappointed at the lack of trail paths within the vicinity. But I was confused as to why I wasn’t enjoying it anywhere near as much as I had anticipated. I had the peace and quiet: no cars or people. Breathtaking views of the island and its natural (but humanly managed) landscape. Calls of rare wader populations all around me. Yet i still felt surprisingly urban…

The surface –

Our haptic sensing even through cushioned shoes is surprisingly powerful, my feet knew exactly what type of environment I was running on, even if I didn’t. I was on a road, a well maintained smooth tarmac road and even though I wasn’t looking at it or paying attention to the asphalt beneath my feat, my body knew, through the receptors in my feet and legs. My mind and body knew I wasn’t in the wild.

It sounded like I was, looked like I was, smelt like I was but, crucially, it didn’t feel like I was.

This for me is the uniqueness and breathtaking intelligence of our senses – they plurally engage in our surrounding environment, touching, listening, smelling, seeing and even tasting (salty air!) the environment around us. They don’t act individually or separate from our mind. The mind body connection is very real; something that became incredibly obvious as I ran on a road in the wild landscape of North Uistdsc_8325

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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

A Keenyan Experience

I’m not too sure where to start with this post. The two weeks I spent in Iten in late July/early August were an incredible sporting and cultural learning experience in a fascinating part of rural Kenya.

For a long time now it had been my dream to visit this country, to try the famous Ugali and more recently to learn about Kenyan runners and the ways of the Kenyan training system.

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With Adharanand Finn (Author of ‘Running with the Kenyans’ and Godfrey Kiprotich, former World Half-marathon championships Gold medallist)
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Elite Kenyan runners during a trail fartlek

Iten, a small rural town of around 40,000 people would be host to this incredible experience. A place where elite Kenyans (& others) live, train and breathe running in what is surely the world’s most jaw-dropping running ‘mecca’.

For myself as an average recreational runner, there has been nothing more fascinating, more inspiring or more interesting than visiting this awesome town and getting fully immersed in the lives of those who live and train here.

The one key take away: an African way of both running and lifestyle; relax, enjoy the moment and tune into your body. Forget splits, paces, rep times, rest times, exact weekly mileage and all that stressful detailed stuff. Be a kid again – if you feel like running easy and ‘slow’ (most Kenyans run 9-10 minute miles on easy runs!) then do it. Feeling good half an hour in? Push the pace. Run up some hills, run down some hills, go off road into the forests and trails, listen to the birds around you and focus a lot on the rhythm of your steps and the feeling as you breathe.

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A relaxed 20x400m dirt track session, led by Wilson Kipsang (in Orange)
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Tambach track – A stunning setting to train in

When it’s time to go quick, absolutely go for it. But when you need to go easy, just chill!

For me, being in Iten has shown or reminded me that running is ultimately incredibly simple – forget the science and percentages, the scientific tables and pace zones. You can probably forget your watch too (I love Strava too much, soz). Run by feel and by effort in training…

That was what struck me the most – how informal and un-uniform this Kenyan way of training was. Watching sessions involving world champion marathoners and record holders showed us how at ease and comfortable with the running and, crucially, their body these Kenyan runners are. The stride looked unbelievably smooth and ‘natural’ as they effortlessly floated across the trails and dirt tracks.

A ‘relationship with the ground’

Barefoot running has steadily risen in popularity recently in the west, as it promises to cure injury issues and ensure a more natural running style. Its supporters argue that barefoot or minimalist running automatically produces a more natural style and connects the human body and mind stronger to the environment it is running through.

Being fortunate enough to chat to some of Kenya’s finest coaches, we learned about a crucial component of the Kenyan way – a positive mutual relationship with the ground beneath their feet – something developed from their very first steps as a child.

Nearly all Kenyan athletes ran barefoot as young children, running several kilometres to and from school across the fields and dirt tracks. This enabled them to connect better with the earth and this has been carried forward. Elite athletes now have completely assured foot strike and a totally smooth and rhythmic stride over the often-uneven ground, allowing significantly lower injury rates resulting from more assured form. Kenyan coaches highlight that this enhanced relationship with the earth beneath their athlete’s feet has contributed to the Kenyan dominance in long distance running.

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It would be curious to find out whether this connection or relationship is developed through the running or from a more nature-society based life, where the natural environment is treated totally differently to here in Europe. Most Kenyan’s who live in the rural areas eat a predominantly plant based diet, rarely if never touching packaged foods, with walking the primary mode of transport and a childhood based on agriculture rather than indoor technology. Does this contribute to the special relationship runner’s and coaches emphasise?

Why or How do we value Nature?

A further point of discussion is the debate that nature or nature’s sublime beauty is predominantly a western concept. Could research on the senses and a connection to nature be done in non-western societies, in a similar way to how it is, here in the UK through a lens of natural appreciation? Arguably we value our natural landscapes totally differently – emphasising their value in aesthetic or leisurely ways rather than for its ability to sustain a healthy lifestyle. One of my main observations from 6 weeks spent travelling Africa was that visual aesthetics of landscapes are seen in totally different ways compared to here in Scotland. In Africa, land is mostly valued through its ability to provide for community’s – food, water, household items, tools and so on. Thus, it is a more interactive relationship. People are within their environments rather than gazing from the outside. They have a tactile immersive experience in natural environments (everyday) rather than interacting with them through a camera lens or a television screen (every so often). Nature is a crucial significant part of and key to life in rural Kenya, and indeed much of the continent. A disconnected relationship with nature has been born out of a technological lifestyle that can’t engage people in the same way as a dependent multi-sensory lifestyle lived by so many of these elite athletes as they grow up. Perhaps our most disconnected sense – touch is incredibly important in young athletes as they feel their way over the natural ground, emphasising the importance and significance of the earth in relation to their health, life, heritage and culture. I wonder if only those who fully experience nature by being part of it, by being in it daily, can truly connect to natural environments.

I got the sense that Kenyans have a real dynamic relationship with the environment, manifested through the senses – predominantly touch and feel as well as a body awareness in situ, and arguably this is developed from their childhood spent in nature and consolidated further through running on the wonderful trails found across rural areas.