People often ask me, “why do you run?”, and quite simply, the answer is “because I love it”. What’s not to love, being in the great outdoors, away from the office, escaping day-to-day life and routine? Yet, they don’t always understand.
Each day, sat in the office I gaze out of the window at the beautiful Derbyshire countryside, my playground, and long to be out running the trails. Rain or shine, the lure is there, beckoning me to pull on my trainers and run. But, with bills to pay, running is often sacrificed. And what’s more, I know there are many more people making the same sacrifice every day.
Many people who run, simply run on the road. On the boring, hard, monotonous pavements, surrounded by the noise and fumes from passing traffic. For some, it’s unavoidable. For others, it’s what they choose to do. For me, it’s a temporary means to an end.
After 6 years of trying unsuccessfully through the ballot, I finally got a place in the London Marathon with a Good For Age qualifying time. After completing my 3rd marathon last spring, I claimed “never again” – not due to the distance or intensity, but due to the nature and type of the running involved, and sacfrices made during the training. I longed for the trails, for long days out running in the mountains, exploring new terrain. But, in order to ‘tick one off the bucket list’, I begrudgingly accepted my place, and I’m now back on the road, training for another marathon, counting down the days for it to be over. This will be my last road marathon… if I go sub 3!
What is there to love when running on the road? It gets you fit, yes, but can you enjoy it? I don’t think so. Anyone who has run off-road has experienced the joy and freedom that it brings, and once you’ve tried it, surely there’s no going back? When running on the road, you fall into the same old loops, constantly dodging cars and people, going up and down countless dropped curbs which can only lead to injury.
Compare that to off-road running. The freedom to explore, the opportunity to find new trails and seeing where they lead, and in some cases, going completely off path for the unique fell running experience. Every run is different. Conditions underfoot change all the time, colours change with the seasons, views continuously change with the weather. Through the winter when the days are short, running with a headtorch completely changes your perspective on the surroundings. Running off-road allows you to be at-one with the great outdoors – is there anything better?
For me, I love to plan, and I get just as much a thrill planning my run, as I do whilst running. Studying the OS map of the area I am about to explore, I picture myself on the ground, whilst plotting the perfect route, getting as much height gain as possible, pushing myself to the extreme. Whether it’s the Peaks on my doorstep, or further afield in the Lakes or the Brecon Beacons, you never get bored as the world is your oyster and it’s there to be explored.
Then there’s racing. Fell racing is at the opposite end of the spectrum to road racing as far as the pomp and ceremony of the event goes. Without the big sponsorship deals and extortionate entry prices, the majority of fell races are under a fiver and entry on the day. Whether in a school, scout hut or local pub, registration is as basic as it comes – at the Buttermere Shepherds Meet fell race last year, registration was in the back of a sheep trailer, and the entry fee was a donation to a local trust. Then before you know it, you’re lined up on the start line and you’re off. No mass warm-up or blaring music, sometimes you don’t even know the race is beginning.
Fell races don’t just vary in distance, they vary in nature. Ranging from way-marked routes, to point-to-point self-navigation, to orienteering style events such as mountain marathons – you are kept on your toes, continously being tested in every way, and that’s one of the things I love. It’s not just running mindlessly down a straight road; you have to think. You have to think about your next step, avoiding rocks and boulders, but you also need to think about where you’re going. With my love of planning and map reading, I love having the option to race while navigating, picking the best and fastest lines whilst trying to outwit my rivals. Following others, whilst a gamble, has worked in my favour in the past though. At the Totley Exterminator fell race last year I followed a local runner through some technical terrain on a non-existant path, but he took me on a lot faster route than the one I had previously reccied.
Put all the above together, and it’s perfect. On the self-nav races or mountain marathons, you get it all. From the planning to the exploring, whilst racing competitively against others, nothing can compare, and there are certainly no equivalent road races.
One of the best aspects of fell running is dealing with the elements. Whatever is thrown at you, you have to embrace it and rise above it. Yes, you could argue this is the same when running on the road, but how much fun is it running down a grey, urban street in torrential rain and driving wind. But, imagine that same weather whilst being up high on a remote mountain ridge, in the clag, finding your way with map and compass, staying dry in a OMM Kamleika Race 2 jacket. Some would call this a nightmare. I call this perfection. Yes, I love running in the dry, enjoying the views on a glorious spring or summer day, but there is something special, alluring, about being isolated on a mountain side in extreme weather.
From an early age, mountains have been a part of me – although I’m told I was sometimes adverse it. When I was 5, I had to be bribed up Cat Bells in the Lakes with Opal Fruits by my Grandad – this is the Cat Bells, that according to Wainright is “a family fell where grandmothers and infants can climb the heights together”. I might not have agreed then, but it’s since become the first peak on one of my favourite Lakes District runs.
Come the 25th April, when London has been and gone, I will be back to where I belong. Local fell races in the surrounding area and the Peaks will be coming thick and fast, with the Yorkshire 3 Peaks race the next ‘big one’ on the agenda – the week after London. Whilst I have been dabbling in fell races during my road training, I’ve not done as many as I would have liked. Hopefully the legs will forgive me for neglecting the hills for the last few months, but I can’t wait for that unique pain and torture that is experienced slogging your way up the steepest fell.
This year, the fell season promises to be exciting, and one of the best yet for me. Being a competitive runner and constantly striving for improvement, one of my goals this season is to improve on my race placings from last year, including hopefully getting a race victory. With the frequency of local evening races, the need for ‘training’ seems to go out the window, although there is something magical about being out for a casual run in the hills on a warm summers evening as the sun is setting. Alongside multiple evening and weekend races through the summer, the highlights for the rest of the season include the Yorkshire 3 Peaks, Man vs Horse, Saunders Mountain Marathon, Holme Moss, Borrowdale, and the Lake District 3 x 3000’s, but I’ll talk about these in more detail in future posts. As someone who has run multiple ultra marathons, the 3 x 3000’s is the perfect climax to the season. It’s going to be tough, 80k over the three highest peaks in the Lakes (Scafell Pike [3209ft], Helvellyn [3117ft] and Skiddaw [3054ft]), but it’ll be something to aim for towards the end of the year. That’s something else other people struggle to grasp – why would you want to run 50+ miles over the mountains in one go? That’s for another day…
Then there is the dangling carrot of the Bob Graham Round – the 66 mile, 27,000ft circuit of 42 of the highest peaks in the Lake District within 24 hours. This is something that I became aware of a number of years ago, and originally thought was an insane idea, out of reach, and for people other than myself. However, the more I’ve run and the more I’ve improved, I know this is now something I’m capable of. Last year, various trips to the Lakes were taken to reccy the sections, with more scheduled inbetween races this year. The aim is for a 2017 attempt, although there is a slim chance it could be this year… especially if the prep for the 3 x 3000’s goes well. I love a challenge, and the BGR is again perfect, especially with all the preparation and planning required beforehand. A very long day out in the high fells, pushing yourself to the limit, with the adrenaline and rush of going against the clock – tell me how you would experience the same feeling running on the road?
It’s not all about racing or challenges though. One of my favourite ways to spend a day, is spending the day running in the high fells with my girlfriend or other fell-loving friends. It’s less intense, yet just as enjoyable and we’re all doing what we love.
I run for the journey, and the experience, not just for fitness. The mountains are there, and they need exploring – that thought is what drives me on; that is why I run. I can’t wait for 5:30pm!