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.
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…. ?