Learning to dance with the trails

Costa Brava trail running

I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m a timid trail runner.

There’s so much to love about being on the trails: the sense of space; the ever-changing scenery and running surface; the fact that it’s acceptable – nay, expected – to stop, eat cake, and enjoy the view. Such a difference from the monotony of tarmac and concrete. And yet, they still scare me.

Why the anxiety? Maybe it’s my phobia of falling over. Steep downhills are my kryptonite at the best of times. Steep downhills on a slippery, uneven surface? Eek!

Or my fear of twisting/spraining my ankles, something I’ve made a bit of a habit of since I was a kid, and which nearly derailed my ultra-that-wasn’t.

And then there’s my dodgy eyesight, which messes with depth perception, and at times makes it hard to see where my feet are landing.

Since coming back to training after my enforced break last year, I’ve mostly stuck to the roads or easy footpaths. But a family hike in May around the Staple Fitzpaine Herepath trail in the Blackdown Hills, and a rush of blood to the head, inspired me to sign up for the Herepath Half.

This is a 13.7-mile off-road event around the Herepath route, organized by my running club, Running Forever. I’d walked, run, and marshaled the course. Why not race it? It seemed like a good idea at the time, and besides, the end of October was ages away.

I thought I’d better give my rusty trail running legs some practice before race day rolled around, and the Haselbury 10K in early August seemed like the perfect event.

I’d run the Haselbury a couple of years earlier and loved it, in spite of torrential rain and howling gales. Just the kind of weather you expect in August. I ran/walked the first lap with my son, who was doing the ‘fun run’ (he was the only one who braved it that evening), and it was a really friendly, well-organised event.

This time around, the experience was a little different. Joel was now a seasoned 10K-er and disappeared off ahead early on. And after a hot, dry summer, the ground underfoot was hard, rutted, and ankle-twisty.

First tactical blunder: I trusted in the dry weather and ran in road shoes.

Second tactical blunder: I’d got used to running without my glasses and thought I could do the same here.

Queueing for stiles at the Haselbury 10K

I ran most of the route in a state of mild panic. As we negotiated steep downhills, complete with gnarly tree roots, and hard-baked uneven field tracks hidden under long grass, I just prayed my feet would land safely. As the evening light faded, the second lap got even more ‘interesting’. I felt a huge sense of relief to make it slowly and hesitantly to the end, ankles intact. It was a friendly and enjoyable race, but it hadn’t done a lot for my trail running confidence. Clearly, I needed more practice. A bucket-load more practice.

A Chi Run Club 10-miler out and back along the Herepath in September gave me a little more hope that this wasn’t a completely stupid idea. But to get a whole lot more comfortable off-road, I was really pinning my hopes on a trail adventure I had booked with my friend Gray Caws in early October. Three days running through the hills and coastal paths of Costa Brava. I’d watched the videos and this wouldn’t be easy. Kill or cure time.

I arrived in Girona full of trepidation. I’d never run three days back-to-back before. How would my body cope with the experience? Would I be holding everyone else back while they skipped through the trails like mountain goats?

I think Gray realized he had his work cut out that first morning in Girona. We walked/ ran up into the hills above the city, and even on slight descents with a few roots and stones, I was moving hesitantly through the ‘technical’ bits. Little did I know what was coming!

But by the afternoon, as we ran the nearly 7 miles from Canapost to Torroella, something strange happened. I began to feel more comfortable and at ease. Pablo, our guide, had a lovely relaxed running style, and I found myself falling into step with him. I loved his whole ethos of running as just a really efficient way to travel and enjoy the scenery around you.

This was only day 1, however, and I was still pretty nervous about the second day’s adventure: a longer, much more technical run of around 12 – 13 miles through forest and coastal paths.

I needn’t have worried. Yes, there were lots of steep stony down and up bits. But there was no pressure. I could walk when I needed to. Gray’s advice to ‘look for the flat bits’ helped me focus on landing my feet safely, when the going got trickier. And the more time I spent on the trails, the more comfortable I became.

When we arrived in Llafranc, around 6 hours after we’d set off that morning, I felt a mixture of pride and relief. The hard bit was over. Or so I thought.

Saturday meant a much shorter 7-ish miles along the coast to our final destination in Begur. Easy peasy after what we’d achieved the day before, surely? Maybe not.

The route took us across beaches strewn with boulders and rocks, and up and down even more technically challenging inclines and declines. Sometimes it seemed easier just to get down on my hands and knees. And to top it all, we were following the same route as a trail relay ultramarathon. So I was keeping one eye on the path behind me, to avoid getting in anyone’s way. It was way outside my comfort zone.

Trying to keep out of the way of the ultramarathon relay runners

But each time we reached a more open stretch of path, I realized how good I was feeling. Running just seemed like the most natural way to move. At times, I felt as though I could keep going forever. And in my mind was the thought that the Herepath was nowhere near as challenging.

By the end of the third day, I felt like a different runner. More at ease on different types of terrain. More fluid and relaxed in how I moved. And much more in love with running on trails.

Home again, and three weeks to recover from my adventure before race day.

A week before the race, I ran the full Herepath loop, just to remind myself of what lay in store, and to see what conditions were like now that the weather had turned more autumnal.

It felt really good to be back on the trails again on a glorious October morning. Conditions were pretty perfect – the ground was softer, with just a bit of mud. There was one particularly tricky steep downhill that I ran with care, and I tip-toed gingerly through the well-named Field of Doom, where I’d twisted my ankle a few years ago, training for the ultra-that-wasn’t, but I told myself I could just walk anything that seemed too scary.

One nagging thought: I’d run just a little over 12 miles – where did the extra mile-and-a-half of race distance come from?

But overall, I felt much more confident. The route was challenging, but easier than what I’d faced in Spain. Fingers crossed that the weather would stay as it was until the following Sunday.

It didn’t. Of course.

The Friday and Saturday before race day brought heavy rain, and field tracks became soggy, sticky, mud fests.

Yikes.

My confidence started to wobble. I’d had in my head that I’d like to complete the race in under 2.5 hours. Now, I decided not to put any kind of time pressure on myself and just run to enjoy the experience. The Field of Doom was going to be particularly hard going and I’d hit it at around 11 miles. Nice.

Plus I’d discovered that the ‘missing miles’ of the race came from a detour or two. So there’d be bits of path that were completely new.

On the bright side, the weather had done an about turn and race day morning was fabulous: lovely, crisp October sunshine. Waiting at the start line, I just decided to relax and enjoy the experience. A run on the Herepath can never be bad 😊

After a fairly brisk downhill start, where I tried to let everyone go ahead and avoid being dragged along, we soon hit the start of the long climb that makes up a large part of the first 6 miles. This would eventually bring us to Castle Neroche, the highest point in the Blackdown Hills.

As the long uphill dragged on, runners around me started to stop and walk. I debated whether it would be a better idea to do the same, and save my energy, but I felt good and running seemed like the quickest way to get to the summit. I kept passing people all the way to the top.

As we emerged from Piddle Wood at the end of the long ascent, the route took us along the top and then down the side of a big field. The downhill bit is slippery and uneven at the best of times. With added mud, it felt particularly tricky, and I picked my way down uber carefully. Runners I’d passed came speeding past me, and I began to fall behind the group in front.

It was a relief to reach the bottom with no major mishaps, and I began to mentally prepare myself for the next long steep climb to come, at around 4 miles, which would take us to the top of Staple Hill.

The route up to it is a lovely forest trail, and I eased in to a steady pace. I had that Costa Brava feeling of easy running and was beginning to really enjoy myself.

Herepath Half – photo credit Lou Mackley

We turned right off the forest track onto the start of a steep-ish stretch of road, and I was looking forward to seeing the ‘Rest Awhile’ bench half way up. Then suddenly I noticed that we were being directed off the familiar road route and left onto a muddy track. Hang on a minute!

This shouldn’t have been unexpected – I knew there were detours. I just hadn’t been expecting one right now. Feeling thrown, I just tried to follow the runners in front of me. We traversed a tricky path through Mount Fancy Farm, a butterfly reserve. I’m sure it’s lovely if you have the time to stop and enjoy the view. I was too busy trying to stay upright as we ran down (and up) steep muddy banks, over streams, and across the odd log or three.

Coming off a stile, my foot slipped in the mud and I landed hard on my rear end. I picked myself up, tested how I felt, and everything still seemed OK. My bum felt bruised but otherwise no harm done. Back to running.

The detour loop seemed never-ending, but at last we turned back onto the Herepath proper. A steep incline on slippery stones would bring us to the top of the hill. Bright sunlight on the wet ground made it difficult to see where I was stepping, but it felt good to be back on familiar territory and I knew we had a nice long stretch of open running coming up.

At Staple Hill, there was a second detour, but this time along easy forest trails. No mud, no logs, no stiles.

All the way around the course, the cheers and encouragement from the Running Forever Running Club marshals lifted me.

As we headed into some technically more challenging downhills, where the ground underfoot was slippy and uneven, I just kept thinking of looking for the flat bits.

Danny Dreyer, founder of ChiRunning, talks about ‘dancing with the trails’ – staying light on your feet and reacting to what’s happening underfoot. This image popped into my head, and I found myself more able to relax and go with the flow. Suddenly I realized that the steep and scary downhill that I’d found so challenging the previous week was already behind me and I’d barely noticed it.

A pretty stretch of woodland and we’d reached Castle Neroche, the highest point of the course. It was (mostly) downhill from here.

As I headed down the hill, I just kept thinking of dancing and looking for the flat bits. It didn’t transform me into a super speedy fell running type, and once again I was slower than everyone around me, but I felt more comfortable and at ease.

As we emerged from the woods for a brief stretch along the main road before turning right, onto a long footpath, I could start to picture the finish. The next few miles were fairly straightforward – a section of the Herepath has been closed since winter floods several years ago, and the route took us on a detour along the road through the village of Bickenhall.

I was starting to tire, though, and running felt harder going. Was it the miles we’d already done, or the thought of what was coming next? The road climbed up a slow slog of a hill before at last we took a left turn back into woodland. This was a lovely stretch of trail, but it was over too quickly. A sharp right, and there we were at the start of the very well-named Field of Doom.

By this point, my legs felt very heavy. The field was everything I’d been expecting and worse. Sticky. Slippery. Uneven under foot. I ran where I could, and walked when I needed to, and very slowly inched my way through it.

The Field of Doom seemed to last far longer than was entirely necessary, but at last it was done. We’d survived. The path headed up into the woods again for one final little sneaky hill. There were some awkward muddy puddles to negotiate, and my legs were feeling heavier and heavier, but after this stretch was done, it would all be easy breezy back to the finish.

I kept looking ahead, willing the gate at the top to appear. And then finally, there it was.

A short bit of road, and then the last run back through Thurlbear Woods to the village. I’d be been dreaming of this lovely long downhill stretch, and now here it was. I’d made it, with only one minor mishap.

At the bottom of the hill, my friend Val was there to cheer me home. A very welcome sight 😊

One final little pootle through the village and I was done, in 2 hours and 16 minutes.

Now it’s all over, and the Field of Doom is long behind me, I can say that I really enjoyed the Herepath Half. Running Forever make it one of the friendliest, well-organised races to do, and running in my club shirt, the support was fantastic.

My downhill running definitely needs work. While I’m constantly passing people on the uphills, they speed past me on the descents.

But my confidence off-road, even on those tricky steep bits, has grown enormously. I’ve learned to dance with the trails. And OK, I dance like a middle aged parent at a wedding. But I’m working on my paso doble…

2 Comments

  1. I call that first detour the ‘butterfly loop’ and its a regular feature on our dog walks and runs and I can see why it would be a surprise to the uninitiated ! But if you come back in the spring it is drier, full of bluebells, butterflies and is far more pleasant….. though lovely in the autumnal colours too…

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