The state of running

I started the running-research journey as a naive undergrad, exploring how running afforded runners a deeper connection to the natural environment they often ran in, through and on. I loved it, and results were positive and exciting. Research highlighted some of the ways in which running connected bodies to environment, owing to its multi-sensory and immersive character.

Before going ahead with this research, I had read running free by Richard Askwith. A thought-provoking book that surfaced an academic curiosity with running. Askwith detailed his own personal journey with running and how a return to a ‘purity’ of activity, through barefoot, technology-less runs reignited a passion for the sport. He had turned to what he termed ‘free running’ ? after growing frustrated with the failure of shoes, watches, online platforms and coaching technology in helping him improve, and stay injury free.

During this journey Askwith uncovered a growing trend within the running world: its commercialisation and neoliberalisation. I returned to this dimension in my Masters research, attempting to expand, explore and critique this idea. The Masters research used ultra-marathons as a lens through which to explore the relationship between economy, western society and (natural) environments. Research used the Cape Wrath Ultra-marathon (CWU) as a case study from which runners’ motivations and expectations, as well as event legacies and experiences, were contextualised amidst a growing commercialisation of running and commodification of nature-based experiences. The CWU is an 8-day expedition race that starts in Fort William and takes participants to the most north-westerly point of Scotland, finishing at Cape Wrath. The route covers over 450km. It attracts participants from Australasia, North America, South Africa and across Europe, as well as the UK. It costs around £1800 to enter. This year’s race sold out in 3 minutes.

I understood the event as a form of global adventure-tourism. Theoretically, tourist events are facilitated through the commodification of ethnic and environmental difference, as tourists are invited to safely consume organised encounters with an environmental and/or cultural other. Such consumptive practices commodify place and direct tourists’ actions towards phenomena with hedonistic or transformative potential. The CWU can be understood as a branch of adventure tourism that relies on a narrative deeply woven into society and the psyche of modernity that, through ideology and the glorification of an adventurous mentality, has seen it become a popularised form of adventure tourism. Carefully marketed images of fit bodies and aesthetic landscapes bestow identity labels and signify cultural capital and social status. Ultra-marathons offer a new form of adventure travel that ties together fitness, adventure and health.

Running, as a popular mass hobby, emerged in the 1960’s in the USA, primarily because of government concerns with widespread sedentarism amongst the ever-expanding urban middle class and a concern for the declining health of the working population, especially surrounding heart attacks and obesity levels. Both ‘health conditions’ are now seen as ‘treatable’ by buying some trainers and going running. Higher living standards, urbanism, and the rise of white-collar employment led to a sustained rise in heart disease cases across America in the 1950s/60s. These changes were exacerbated by the reducing physical effort required in most jobs and the increasingly indoor nature of working life. Running offered a cheap and simple ‘fix’ to public health issues and over the next 50 years running as leisure activity, and health policy, would rise dramatically. Large road-running events, such as marathons emerged from the jogging boom, attracting thousands of participants, springing up all over America and subsequently western Europe. Crucially, the practice of running allowed government individualise responsibility for health. The marked rise in runners paralleled the implementation of neoliberal economic policy throughout the 1970’s. Running subsequently became commodified through expensive shoe technologies; fitness watches; technical training programmes; specialist clothing and more recently fitness tracking apps; websites; and increasingly expensive race events.

Since the early 2000’s ultra-marathons have overtaken the marathon as the primary event of running. The majority of ‘ultras’ take place off-road on trails, with many recreational athletes fed up with ‘pounding the pavement’ and seeking new, more multi-sensory experiences. The ‘post-marathon age’ represents a desire to ‘look for more’ as road races feel unfulfilling in comparison to ultra-marathons, which offer a uniquely enjoyable but arduous challenge.

German ultrarunning website DUV has plotted a 1000% increase, globally, in the number of ultra-marathon races now on offer. In the UK, the sport has fed a strong desire to reconnect to, and encounter, natural environments. At the turn of the millennia there were only 595 ultra-marathon finishers in the UK. By 2017, this number had grown to 18,611. Ultra-marathons are an increasingly popular, celebrated and intensely mediated form of cultural tourism that emerge from a new experiential economy presenting experiential consumerism as a form of self-help, and physical exercise as an aspirational device. An industry of self-improvement, communicated by speakers, books, podcasts, and expensive self-help technologies (e.g., fitness watches, exercise apps, training plans, GPS trackers) all converge in products or experiences for self-improvement. Running has become a material and discursive extension of the neoliberal presumption that biological improvement can be acquired through self-optimisation, via the marketplace.

Healthiness has become a desired and prescribed state, one which is more an ideological position than a biological condition. Health is used as a lens through which a variety of other values – discipline, civic responsibility, family and stability – are articulated. Globalised markets have arisen out of this health discourse as fitness technologies and consumer goods become inculcated into the culture of long-distance running and self-help. However health is mobilised, it is assumed to be an unambiguous and universal good, and is especially appealing to corporations, who see economic value in employing healthy productive bodies. Running has become a medium through which businesses and corporations can increase profit through having productive, self-governing and resilient bodies in the workforce.

Developing from the commodification of movement, research configured bodies as becoming increasingly tied to corporate ideals and projects of self-transformation. Such projects are actualised through testing the body’s limits and encountering topographic otherness. Understandings of the ultra-marathon as the ultimate endurance race for those aspiring for an ideal neoliberal body, that which is healthy, civically minded, autonomous and resilient, evidence the changing culture of distance running.

I love running and it is a sport/activity that has given me a lot throughout my life. It was out of this appreciation that a curious concern grew… there is, undeniably, an issue with the current state of running. It sadly has succumbed to globalised, neoliberal capitalism. The fact that there are so many now exercising and running in a variety of stimulating environments is undoubtedly a positive. However, running races are becoming increasingly expensive and the expansion of technology and apparel is excluding a lot of people. Running is marketed as expensive, complicated and requiring of significant investment. If we are to keep or return running to its core principle of accessibility, we must decouple this simple form of movement, an act of placing one foot in front of the other, from individualised pursuits of status and health. We should support the local, the small, the un-commercialised, the parkruns, the act, the freedom and above all else the simplicity. *Any* pair of trainers will do and some shorts (maybe not just now!) and a t-shirt (optional sports-bra) is all you need. Honestly. Running can be one of the most inclusive leisure pursuits, lets keep growing the participation and route finding, not the capitol-value, of going for a run.

(if you would like to read the full 15,000 words, do let me know!)

Lockdown running

This piece has been created thanks to an array of varied contributions from friends all over the world. Responses were received from experienced runners and those who had used part of this year to try out a new hobby. The structure is deliberately random, aiming to replicate the lack of structure many of us have experienced during 2020. I hope there are bits and pieces you can relate to, whatever activity provided a solace during the pandemic. I hope you enjoy…

Running during lockdown:

A love affair with my local acre;

an old flame reignited,

during extended lunch hour flings.

Running makes me feel invincible and happy in my body,

it’s the best way to move through any space.

The only freedom



An escape

One which grounds.

An unchanging constant during strange times,

giving comfort to us,

as we are forced to re-evaluate

life

Liberating,

as the weeks ticked by, comfort and normalcy emerged.

Un-replicated by anything else,

mirrored only by memory

when everything else in the world still feels so weird

But this movement became a way to expand a suddenly shrinking world

A grounding release

A cathartic re-centring

An act of regeneration that has heightened awareness of nature and flowers

And things.

Just wandering round more wild areas

When lockdown was at its strictest,

a reason was found,

to get out and be on my own.

Although my motivation was a little broken

The shrunken confinement briefly and joyously

Expanded

Quiet

Neither bad nor good

An act now full of clarity yet devoid of companionship

We run because we can,

for to run with others, is to is to truly feel

To fully be

Beautiful

Liberated

Refreshed

Offering rhythm amidst a blurry stretch of life

A consistent escape

That gives time for healing and rest

Lifesaving

But, lonely.




A poem by Ben Murphy ( and many, many contributors)

All but one line is from a someone other than myself. I received contributions from over 30 people, ranging from single words, to sentences and entire paragraphs. This poem represents a collection of experiences and thoughts on the activity of running in 2020, during a global pandemic and societal ‘lockdowns’

Thank you for reading. I wish you all the best for 2021.

Happy running!

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.

wheelchair

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.

Hill running or trail running

It was during a recent running race that I questioned the distinction between trail and hill race. Some called it a hill race, others tagged it as a trail run. Inevitably the race went up a hill, involved a series of off-road ascents and descents and was attended by a variety of runners, ages, sexes and experience/fitness levels.

The thing with distinguishing between these two branches of ‘running’ is that it is more about what they are not than what they are. The natural environment plays a crucial role; generally people are doing it for the experiential joy, as the natural landscape that envelops routes of trail & hill races is integral to the feelings associated with trails and hills. Crucially the surface is not a road or track, they fundamentally reject this quantified aspect of the sport. At their heart they represent a rejection of road running and the commercialisation of our sport (even though both contain races that are big, commercialised and more in line with road races).

The very joy or thrill of trail running is encapsulated by the ascent, the uphills and the downhills. It is in these moments that feelings are most affected by the terrain and topography. Both trail and hill running share two critical common elements. Something they involve: undulations, hills, ascents. And something they don’t involve: manicured ‘man-made’ surfaces. We don’t always realise it but the surface has a huge impact on our emotions and feelings as the proprioceptive receivers in our bodies are signalled by the terrain that we are moving within somewhere more natural and ‘green’. It may not always be the most picturesque of places but if there is dirt, rocks, branches, roots, grass etc then we know, consciously or not, where we are and what experiences are being generated.

Its interesting that in any advertisement or review of either a hill race or a trail race, people usually mention ‘the view’ and its attractive features in making the race or run more enjoyable and enticing. But  because you are running you have little time to pause and admire this ‘view’ so the aspect that is often billed as the most appealing for runners and main draw of either branch of running (the ‘view’) is actually a very small part of what gives people a more holistic, multi-sensory and enjoyable experience.

For me, both are all about the thrill, the bodily engagement with the environment and the activation off all the senses and proprioceptors within your body. That is what makes them what they are. That is what makes them of interest.

The differences

Distinguishing between the two has little practical importance but the differentiation offers interesting caveats about what they are and the draw of either of them.

For sure, trail running is more of American thing, and Hill running is more Scottish (in England its called Fell running). As with many things national differences will occur. For here in Scotland the main aspect is that hill running is supposedly more raw: often no set route, no race package and a more ‘pure’ experience for those with higher experience levels (physically, I’d argue hill running is harder…) whilst trail running is perhaps more an entry level or ‘less hardcore’ pursuit than running off the beaten paths in the Scottish hills. However, there are many trail races where the terrain can be just as challenging.

Perhaps a key difference talked about is the route; hill races often have no set route and ‘a day in the hills’ rarely follows a designated path on the map whilst trail races often have marked routes, following well marked, set paths (hence its potential to be more beginner friendly). But there is often cross overs and what is classed as a path is vague and open to interpretation.

One thing I have noticed from reading a lot on the subjects and being a part of both communities is the gendered side of the two. Engagements with hill running and their spoken narratives often come from a male voice, talking about his heroics of conquering the tough rough terrain that serves as a justification for the outing and generally, (speaking from personal observations), hill races are far more popular amongst men than women in comparison to trail races. This gendered aspect is fascinating but I believe is too large a topic to tackle here

Trail running and hill running have many similarities and some differences but both are based around the fundamental notion of having enjoyment in a natural environment, away from the quantified road running scene. Both are individually defined (and that’s ok).

Oh, lets not even mention ‘sky running’….