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.

50832934_2293789437331847_7060716266557800448_o

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!

50916998_2044540485654122_3443882267456307200_o

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..

 

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!

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.

DSC_2102

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)

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.

Screen Shot 2018-05-22 at 10.55.29

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.

Screen Shot 2018-05-22 at 10.49.50

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.

Screen Shot 2018-05-22 at 10.50.46
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)

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