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. The ‘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. (Photo: Jacob Adkin) 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.
The surrounding trees or forests that several go-along interviews took place in often provided feelings of happiness, shelter and security for runners. A special connection to trees was apparent with several participants, – ‘I like how you’re open but also in the trees, you feel quite connected but also enclosed yet free’. Trees facilitated more internal reflection when running. It felt far more natural and easier to be more attuned to my own haptic feelings, bodily movements and inner thoughts compared to more opened areas where increased light and distanced views allowed for more happy feelings emanating from the visual enjoyment. In some ways, it can feel as though trees have a special affective power. Trees have always been and will remain key aspects to places and our connection to the world’s environments. Places must be understood as a series of embodied relationships with the world. Their affective meanings and the embodied feelings generated from our engagement with them are constituted through people’s movements– they are never finished but are constantly being performed. For me these feelings were embodied best along a section of trail in the woods above Crieff; weaving in and out I became connected and more aware as I performed, ‘dancing’ with the trail’s trees, lightness fading but flowing.
In Robert Macfarlane’s critically acclaimed book, The Wild Places, woods become ‘places of correspondence, of call and answer’ for many of us . They contain unique memories, and unique forms of thought and just as other natural or wild places can, they ‘kindle new ways of being or cognition in people, can urge their minds differently’ (99-100). Trees have an undeniable but secret affective nature, as they transform our regular notions of time, drastically impacting our experiences when moving amongst them.
The darker light protruded by forests can illicit new orders of connection – sonic, olfactory and tacit. Our sensorium is transformed, writes Macfarlane (2017), you become more aware of the landscape as a medley of affects, a mingling of geology, memory and movement – life. Environments exist as ‘presences, inferred, less substantial more powerful. You inhabit a new topology’ (193). When you are in a forest, you could in many ways be in any forest in the world: time and space are transformed. Woodland areas had an ability to transcend the locational place of the moment. A magical, enchanting feeling was experienced with trees when running within or alongside, and they became akin to a physical signifier of positive experiences. Trees affected us through an embodied connection: as ‘the trees are really close to you; it sounds really silly but it’s like a wee security blanket. It’s just you and the trail and the trees around you pushing you up the hill’. Sense of place isn’t fixed by physical characteristics but instead by what Buttimer & Seamon (1988) term ‘environmental synergy’ – human and material parts unintentionally foster a connection with their own spatial rhythm and character. People, time and place can become joined in an organic whole, as place becomes a dynamic entity with an identity as distinct as the individual people and environmental elements that comprise it (Buttimer and Seamon: 1988).
The most important relationship between environment and people is not being in it but it being in you; landscapes can imagine and reimagine themselves through the awareness of the perceivers (Ingold: 2012). As environments open out so do we, fostering a phenomenological connection to our environments. Our bodies become entwined with the trees, the hills and the terrain of a trail. Distanced views or perspectives are not necessarily limited to vision, they can, argues Tim Ingold (2012), extend to tactile and auditory perceptions. When running, people become part of the landscape; a mind-body connection with their surrounding environment takes precedence as you move with and through the environment. Environmental engagement is exacerbated through the touch of the terrain, the movement of the body, the feel of the plants as well as the visual impact of the landscape and the presence of trees.
Buttimer, A., and Seamon, D. (1980). The Human Experience of Space and Place. London. Croom Helm.
Ingold, T. (2012). Imagining landscapes: past, present and future, Farnham. Ashgate.
Macfarlane, R. (2017). The Wild Places. London. Granta.
(Non referenced quotes from interviews)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Uist
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…. ?