The start of a new learning curve: trail running

I have a big goal for next year, and I have about seven months to build my fitness up.

For me, one of the things that makes outdoor adventure so beguiling is that everything is a learning curve. As a hillwalker, you have to figure out how to safely be in the mountains, how to navigate, what kit you need. Wild camping adds many more variables, and then for some of us comes the most beguiling learning curve of all – lightweight or ultralight backpacking.

We’re all lifelong learners, and no learning curve is ever fully mastered, but we do reach a plateau. I know how to do hillwalking. Ultralight backpacking, too, is something that I feel I’ve worked through to its logical endpoint for me – I know how to make my pack weigh what I want without too many unknown variables.

But there’s a new learning curve ahead, and it has the potential to transform every other outdoor pursuit I enjoy. I’m talking about trail running.

I first started running on a very casual level in June 2019, about a month before I headed out to the Pyrenees to hike the Haute Route. This wasn’t long enough before the trip for it to have much of an impact on my fitness, but it did stick and I’ve been going out for a 2km (road) run once or twice a week ever since – sometimes more often, but there have been long gaps in which I haven’t done any running at all. I’ve kept up my daily 8.3km (5-mile) walks too, of course, but overall my fitness has hit another one of those plateaus. Frankly, living in the flatlands makes maintaining hill fitness a lot more difficult! I haven’t felt unfit on hillwalking or backpacking trips lately but I’m well aware that my fitness is far from the level I’d like it to be.

That’s because, next summer, I’ll be heading to the Alps for a big 1,000km route on foot over a lot of high passes. It won’t be as technical or remote as the Haute Route Pyrenees, but it will test my fitness with up to 2,000m of ascent a day – often a lot more. I need to be at peak fitness for this.

So, I have a goal, and this time I have about seven months to build things up. More runs, and longer runs, will feature as a key part of my training.

Mental hurdles

I think I’ve long had a mental hurdle or two to overcome. Perhaps it’s because I was an overweight and unfit teenager and have bad memories of PE classes. Whatever the reason, I’d never ventured beyond the odd 5K run – I’d just assumed that I wouldn’t enjoy it. I also struggled with motivating myself to put the running shoes on, even for a 2K, if the weather looked anything short of perfect (and this is why I’ve struggled to turn it into a proper habit). So, there were two problems: confidence with longer runs, and confidence in wet or windy weather.

The other day, I took to Twitter to outline the problem, and a lot of people came forward with advice. One of the best tips was this: ‘I try as much as possible to blur the distinction between a run and a walk – the same outing could be an energetic walk or a gentle run. Once you get over how you categorise it you’re very much freed up to enjoy it.’

Maybe that applies to a lot of things in life.

Anyway, it gave me the confidence to put running shoes and tights on one morning instead of walking boots and Páramo trousers. I ran my usual 8.3km Gunby route, and I enjoyed it, despite the darkness and the mud – and I didn’t find myself having to walk! The mental hurdle had been overcome. Turns out that I can do this after all. The next morning, I went out again in a brisk headwind and a bit of drizzle, and it was fine.

I’ve now recruited a friend to help with motivation and encouragement, but my hope is that I can turn this into a proper habit now – a daily morning run where once I walked. Later, as my fitness increases, I can begin to extend distances, maybe find a hill or two. Maybe even go out for multi-day runs (although let’s not get ahead of ourselves). The long-term benefits for my hill fitness should be dramatic.

Be the bird

I’ll finish with a moment from my 2018 traverse of the Mercantour National Park in France. Towards the end of the trail, I entered a spectacular section of high Alpine that required crossing several cols in a day. I’d found my flow and was moving fast and free. Then, on my way down from one of the cols, it happened: I started to run, and I kept running until I hit the next climb.

I don’t think I’d ever felt so alive, so in tune with the mountain and with myself. Sometimes when doing big days in the high Alpine I can sense a delicate, unnamed emotion – the feeling of being a bird moving over the landscape, efficient and unencumbered, liberated from the grinding toil of big packs and hot boots and slow progress and old ways of doing mountains. The feeling of seeing a peak on the far horizon and knowing you’ll be there before day’s end, that you’ll feel good, and that everything will go right for once. Worries melt away and it’s just you and the mountain. An elevation and an ascension. The wings that only grow with great care and patience over many years.

Running down through the cirque felt like that, but even more. I want to feel that way again.

Heading up to the Pas du Mont Colomb, the first challenging col on the GR52 section of the Mercantour Traverse

By Alex Roddie

Award-winning outdoor and nature writer, editor, author, and photographer.

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