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’….

Trees

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.

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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.

 

 

References

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)

We like hills

“Oh come on, get to the top and the view will be amazing!”

This is usually how it goes; the tough, physically draining movement of running uphill justified by the gazing view that awaits you at the summit. The enjoyment or pleasure only reached once we can crest the hill and outwardly appreciate the landscape.

However what I found through the ‘go-along interviews was a real pull of the landscape when ascending. It wasn’t the non-embodied gaze that afforded positivity or connection but the gradient that immersed the runner in(to) the landscape.

There is something magical about hills. Their affective capacities and embodied climbs engulf the runner ‘through the experiences of descending and climbing and their different muscular entailments, the contours of the landscape are not so much measured as felt – they are directly incorporated into our bodily experience’ (Ingold: 2000: 203).

Uphill sections of trail runs are perceived as the hardest, most exerting moments, however on nearly all the climbs I experienced with my interviewees, few negative comments were made; amidst the shortness of breath often hid a smile and immense feelings of satisfaction.

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Experimental narrative of ascension in my dissertation. Photo’s cant do the immersion justice though.

Pain and discomfort of uphill running is negated; the body and landscape become mutual as kinaesthetic sensations are stimulated. Because practice frees us from representation, movement becomes our primary form of consciousness, so our participation in the landscape brings with it a very different sense of place from one which is disembodied or contemplative (I.e. the outward gaze). Through the production of rhythms, the re-embodiment of the visual and the intense muscular feelings of a kinaesthetic burn, hills become part of you.

The internal-external relationship of hills shifted my awareness; internally I naturally focused on the present. My legs and senses became more attuned; the surface became an extension of my movement rather than a passive surface.

The gradient of the uphill tunnels our thoughts, as thoughts become narrowed, a sensory focus on the immediate, the touch and feel of the hill:

‘to become so absorbed by effort, there can come a point where it all becomes effortless… the gradient is ever present but proves no real impediment to passage, paradoxically even becoming an energizing force, propelling the body upwards’ (Lorrimer: 2012: 258).

Hills afford ‘a truly terrestrial kind of attachment’ (Lorrimer: 2012:255), reinvigorating the mind and the body to become an embodied dimension of the landscape. Several of the runners involved in this study, including myself, noted how the uphill sections offered positivity, I noted how there was ‘something about running hills and trails that relaxes and puts mind at ease, calms you down and allows you to be more open.

Uphill climbs engage more of the lower body muscles such as the quadriceps, glutes and calves as well as significantly altering stride patterns and posture resulting in a sensory-kinaesthetic overload of uphill running. In Wylies’ (2002) ‘Ascending Glastonbury Tor’ paper, he notes how subjectivity produced and performed via practices of ascension and elevation moves towards a new understanding of visible landscapes in terms of sensuous practices. New engagements with these embodied, multisensorial relationships offer avenues for ways of better understanding environmental connections, reinforcing conceptions of landscape relations beyond simply visual and aesthetic.

Hills affect and are affected by our movement. Through the kinaesthetic sense and the pull of the terrain, our bodies become immersed. This connection helps foster a more acute bodily awareness and heightens all of our senses.

This exploration still doesn’t make running up-hill any easier though!!

 

References

Ingold, T. (2000).The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. London. Routledge.

Lorimer, H.(2012). Surfaces and slopes: remembering the world under foot.In: Jones, O.and Garde-Hansen, J.(eds.) Geography and Memory: Explorations in Identity, Place and Becoming.London. Palgrave, 83-86.

Wylie, J.W. (2002). An essay on ascending Glastonbury Tor. Geoforum. 33(4): 441-454.

 

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)

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.