The Metaphorical Trail Runner

‘Leaps and Bounds’ by Elisabeth Grant**

Long distance trail running has informed other areas of my life. It doesn’t apply just to running. The same can be said of many areas of human endeavour. They can teach us wider lessons than the activity itself.

Over the past 15 – 20 years I have read books on both the science and art of running and tried to put into practice various techniques. Some have stood the test of time and others have been discarded or superseded. Some have been inspirational and challenging. However probably the most influential voices for me in terms of running technique have been the writings of Phil Maffetone and in recent years ‘The Lost Art of Running‘ by movement coach Shane Benzie. Here are a few ways that over the years trail running has informed me about the art of living. Some thoughts may speak as much about my own age and stage of life. Please note in life as in running I am learning! I fall short physically and metaphorically.

Keep head upright and look ahead.

Too much looking at my feet or just one or 2 steps ahead gives poor posture. It also doesn’t inform where I am headed. Focusing on being in the mud or on how steep the trail is saps mental and physical energy.  

I easily ruminate and become absorbed in the difficulties of the present. Doing so stunts vision or nourishing hope of the future. At the same time it is important to be aware of what I need to do in the present. Life’s challenges are not meant to paralyse me to inaction. Seem to me they are an invitation to do something practically, mentally or relationally. 

Watch that step

Feet should land below centre of gravity. Make contact with the ground like a tripod – ball of big toe, just under little toe and the heel.

This gives good proprioception (maximum sense of where the foot is). Especially so if you have shoes with little or no cushioning. The ‘tripod’ is a good position for impact and loading. On tricky runs downhilł keep eyes several paces ahead. Use running poles downhill to have 4 points of impact and not 2. This means that slips are less likely to lead to falls. Put faith in my feet to find the right places. Foot/ eye and brain coordination is faster than my conscious awareness. 

Life needs to be grounded in reality. Easier said than done. However one aid is to acknowledge to myself how I feel about experiences. The good and the not so good. If I absorb the things that happen to me appropriately then I can be resilient. Not to get hung up by daily ups and downs but press ahead. 

The road ahead

Try to keep a cadence of 180 steps/ minute. If wish to go faster increase stride length and not step turnover. Similarly to go slower or climb uphill, shorten stride.

Research has shown a step frequency of 180 steps per minute is the most efficient use of energy. Feet should ‘kiss’ the ground and not thump it.  

Sticking to regular routines help me adjust to and absorb the changing challenges of daily life. In times of storm good, healthy habits weather well.  

For endurance, train according to heart beat, at a low aerobic rate.

Recording heart rate is the best single indicator of combined mental and physical stress. This form of ‘bio feedback’ is very helpful. It is insightful that a negative thought will within seconds increase my heart rate (HR) by 5-10 beats /minute. Cold weather with not enough upper body layers also greatly increases heart rate. The torso needs to be comfortably warm. Conversely wearing full body leggings when it’s not cold enough increases my HR. An incipient cold or infection will also raise HR above normal for activity. I should take it easy or stop running. Running can help to cope with other stresses in life but paradoxically there are also times when the best medicine is a gentle walk. 

I need objective feedback on my life. Another kind of ‘bio’ feedback. Honest friends can help. Wisdom gleaned from sources such as books, culture and art can also be helpful. As a Christian the Bible has become for me a ‘go to’ source of feedback on matters of the heart and life. 

Every once in a while take a mental scan from head to toe of how I feel. If something not right what can I do about it?

Is head upright? Am I looking ahead? Is head cold/ hot? Tension in neck? Shoulders and arms relaxed? Any lower back pains? Am I taking in and enjoying the landscape I am moving through? Does my HR reflect the degree of effort? If high, why? Consciously lower shoulders, elbows down at waist. Hands unclenched, fingers lightly touching each other. My legs are doing the running. The top part of my body should assist that. It’s a waste of energy being tense.

Travelling through life requires some reflection and self awareness. Problems and stress often come from my wrong attitude, a faulty posture, a lazy approach to life. There is usually something I can practically do? Are there also areas I need to be more relaxed about and not worry?   

Try and keep a relaxed facial expression and smile at people.

It amazes me how many runners have gaunt or expressionless faces. Some do not even acknowledge your presence as you meet them. Running should be fun. Some people really don’t look like they are enjoying themselves. It’s hard to have a high HR and a relaxed smile!

It takes effort to enjoy life as it is. Doing so is good for me and maybe also for those I meet.

** elisabethgrantart.com 

Cow Shed Backyard Ultra 16th April 2022

Field in Wheelbirks farm

My last blog ‘one yard at a time’ shared the plan to participate in a ‘backyard’ run. Decided to do the Cow Shed Backyard Ultra which took place in Wheelbirks Parlour, a farm in Northumberland, England. As Sat 16th April drew near I found myself going through the familiar routine of what running gear to take, food to eat etc. Some things never change! The difference this time is that it was not so logistically complicated. Every hour I return to where I began. It is easier than in a single stage long distance race. In such races the challenge is to anticipate what clothing, food and drink might be needed at a particular time and in places many km apart. For a ‘backyard’ it seemed you just brought everything I conceivably need (!) and have it at my pitch near the start line. Also not needing to carry anything other than adequate clothing whilst running would be a help. 

Once again Elisabeth kindly agreed(!) to support me. The prospect of her sitting in our car in a field was not very comfortable. In addition supporting me for a few minutes every hour for an unknown amount of time would be a challenge. Also there was my need for some degree of comfort to sit, rest and/or eat and drink each hour. These issues prompted us to hire a small campervan for the event. 

We motored down on Friday the day before to stay in the aforesaid field belonging to Wheelbirks farm. There was no running water but organisers provided portable toilets and a few other basic facilities. The field filled up with an assortment of tents and vans as well as those roughing it in cars. The following morning more arrived. 

The main twin-peaked tent beside the start/ finish line had a pavilion feel to it. It got me thinking it was the kind of place to watch a medieval jousting tournament. 

Start and finish

As with other ultras I tapered off training in the weeks before. Planning for a race of unknown length and duration had been a novel experience. My maximum training length was 7 laps, rounds or ‘yards’ as they are known. A ‘yard’ being 6.7km. The actual route was not known so could not be surveyed beforehand either. However we were told there would be approx. 150m climbing and descent each yard. The race involved doing 1 ‘yard’ every hour on the hour starting at 12 noon. Why this distance? If one continued for 24 hours you would cover exactly 100 miles (160 km). In retrospect nothing really prepared me for it more than actually doing it. Pre-race I naively had some thoughts as to what would constitute a good effort. What would happen ‘on the day’?

Competitors also included men and women representing teams from the 4 UK nations – Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. It was nice to meet some of the Scottish team both before the start and during the race. As ‘backyards’ are very new to the UK long distance running scene most had never done this before. However several were very experienced in 24 hour lap races.

Scottish team
All smiles, ready to go!

12 noon arrived and 115 of us set off. First round went well and had some good chats with fellow competitors. For most like myself it was our first ‘backyard‘. The route was very varied. Pathless routes round clumpy soft fields, gravel farm tracks, soft forest trails and muddy inclines and descents. It took me 50 mins which was what I had expected. On reflection I now see that my training rounds had not been on as rough, varied and often trackless terrain. I see now that 1 round in 50 mins. involved more effort than I had actually trained for. It felt hot on the trail yet the hourly ‘rests’ were chilling in comparison.

Garmin map of the Cow Shed round

Walked from finish line the 50m to my ‘aid station’- a table and chair outside our van. Elisabeth proferring food but didn’t need. Just a sit down and rest. The routine for each hour was that a whistle blew three times at 3 minutes before start of next round. Then two whistles at 2 mins and one whistle 1 minute before 1pm. Rules were you had to be in start corral by 10 seconds before or you would be out of race. The other way to be disqualified is to take longer than an hour for a round. This pattern would be repeated each hour. No supporters were allowed on the course, they had to remain in the start / finish field. 

Rounds 2 and 3 went by with roughly similar timings to my first round, 50-51 mins. This afforded me similar ‘rest’ times. I would start about 1/3rd back in the corral and let others speed off. Why do they do that? This race is not to the swift but to the consistent. By round 4 fatigue was setting in as my time slipped a few mins longer.

A few moments of bliss but oh so short?

There is a lot of psychology involved in a race like this. Robert would always be right at the front literally jumping around at the countdown to each start. As if to emphasise how easy he seemed to find it he also carried a rucksack. Each to his own. I had heard that a key strategy with the elite in this type of race is to give others the impression you are doing fine when you are not. Anyhow Robert would usually speed off at a sprint to be a few hundred metres ahead of everyone, then ease off. For hour after hour he was usually first back in 40-45 mins. Impressive but as said speed is not what is required. 

Back to my own race. Each hour became very hard to distinguish. By round 6 the effort involved mentally and physically was taking its toll. It was like starting a new race every hour but each time progressively more exhausted. Each round was becoming indistinguishable with the same views, people and similar emotions. Reminded me of the film ‘Groundhog Day’ – destined to relive the same experience over and over. 

This is not as straightforward as I thought!

The peculiar knock out nature of the event was obvious at the start corral. Towards the end of each hour some were coming in to complete their round at a sprint. They were being cheered in by the other runners getting set to start again. Remember especially one guy who gave his all to make the hour sprinting very fast. As he crossed the finish line the 10 second countdown for the next round started!

Round 7 and think it took me about 56 mins. My margin for rest was getting very small! Think Elisabeth saw I was pretty spent and revived me by dousing in drinking water. It reminded me of a boxer getting battered by a better opponent (in my case the clock). Each round retiring to the corner for a few minutes only to get up and battered again until finally knocked out. 

I managed to complete the 8th round in 58 minutes. Maybe I could have done another or maybe have failed to complete in an hour. However at that point I could not envisage a 2 minute break and doing exactly the same as the previous hour. It was enough and joined the 33 others who ‘did not finish’ at that point. These 33.3 miles (53.3km) left me more ‘done in’ than in 26-30 hours of running a ‘normal’ long distance race. To complete the humbling psychology of the event I was duly awarded a wooden spoon. It was marked DNF (‘Did Not Finish’). Also given a ’Cow Shed Ultra’ mug. The double meaning of the mug was not lost on me either! Elisabeth reckons that if I start to regularly make soup the ‘DNF’ on the spoon will go away! Not sure the psychological scars will disappear so easily (only joking!).

In most races the winner comes in first and is applauded by everyone present. In this ‘last person standing’ event the winner comes in long after just about everybody else goes home. We stayed Saturday night in the field with our slumber punctuated each hour by the 3, 2 and 1 minute bell. Leaving the campsite sometime after 1pm the following day we watched the 4 remaining competitors battle it out. 3 men (including Robert) and 1 woman moving through their 26th lap.

After 29 hours and 29 rounds there were 2 left; Sarah and Paul. They fought together for 3 more hours until Paul decided he could do no more and didn’t start round 33. The rules are that the last person starting must finish another round, otherwise there is no winner. So Sarah Perry set off on her 33rd round. Delighted to say that this English primary school teacher completed a staggering 137.5 miles or in metric terms 220km. The one and only finisher and winner of the 2022 Cow Shed Backyard.

Sara’s feat is extraordinary. Her resilience beating all the guys who thought they were tougher. It was completed not to the fanfare of crowds. Instead she was greeted shortly before 9pm on the Sunday evening by a handful of people and her dog in the dark. All patient enough to wait 33 hours for a champion. A big thank you to Mark and Hazel Marchant, the volunteers and Greener Miles Running. Their stamina and good humour throughout made this an amazing and not to be forgotten event. Once again a big thank you to Elisabeth for supporting with the discipline required to support me in this endeavour.

It will take a while to know what I have learnt from the experience. Afterward on Easter Monday we visited St. Mary’s Church of England in Barnard Castle. Inside the church there was something I had never seen before – a labyrinth. The ‘Instructions for use’ included the following…

“unlike a maze, it is impossible to get lost. There is only one way in and one way out. The only choice we have to make is whether or not to follow.“

No logic to the twists and turns of the labyrinth. Neither is there any reason to going round and round the same farmland.

…children have abounding vitality, they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say “Do it again”, and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.”

‘Orthodoxy’ by G.K. Chesterton

Why I Am Blogging

There is hope! (sunrise run on Ben Vane, West Loch Lomond, Scotland. 9 Dec 2017)

Shortly will be the first anniversary of this blog. It seems appropriate to share how it’s gone as well as my aspirations and thinking behind writing about life, faith and running. 

I started with not much of a plan, just a sense of wanting to say something. Each blog has been different and unpredictable with varying lengths of time between each blog. The creative process involved has been surprisingly enjoyable. Thank you to those who have taken time to read and given encouragement. In our media saturated age I am well aware there is competition for your attention. Choosing the broad themes of life, faith and running has suited me. It has given freedom to write about most things. Some say a blog should be focussed. My decision has been to incorporate the broad (life and faith) as well as the specific (running). To keep the blog within a narrow framework doesn’t appeal to me. Also not sure I could sustain writing about similar things for long. 

So a ‘life’ theme is sufficiently wide to cover most things! You can’t get much more general than ‘life’, a great catch all that gives me freedom! Sharing parts of my history has been helpful personally. Helpful in the sense of becoming more aware that all of my life experience needs embracing. I am being challenged to own my history. As Henri Nouwen says…

“many of us have lost our sensitivity for our own history and experience our life as a capricious series of events over which we have no control“

Reaching Out, page 68.

To the extent I share my hope is to be honest. The bad as well as the good. Sorrows as well as  joys. Living with regrets as well as fulfilled ambitions. My experience and perspectives belong to me. The hope in sharing is that some of that may resonate with your own life. 

Nouwen again…

what is most universal is most personal and indeed nothing human is strange to us

Reaching Out

When it comes to writing about my faith as a Christian it is personal but also I hope relatable. The Bible describes the coming of Jesus as ‘good news’ (‘gospel’). The call to follow Jesus is part of life itself, precious but not always easy to share and express. Nevertheless it would be dishonest of me to separate life and faith. It would also not be right to paint a picture that trust in Jesus leads to the removal of doubts, fears or anxieties. Dark days and sometimes confusion is part and parcel of being human, whether Christian or not. There is also brokenness and a gap between what I say I believe and what I actually believe (i.e. do). What light there is I only reliably find in the Bible as God’s Word to mankind.

The great paradox is that despite struggles there is also great joy and encouragement. I am on a journey with a promising destination. Speaking of journeys and destinations leads me to running.

To write about running could mean a non-runner will not readily relate or share the same enthusiasm. However as mentioned elsewhere (see ‘about’) I view running, particularly endurance running, can serve as a helpful metaphor in travelling life’s path. A path we are all on.

Gingerbread muffins – currently don’t bake but greatly appreciate the results. 

I have never done hot air ballooning but might be interested in giving it a go. Thus far I have exhibited virtually no carpentry skills but admire those who can make beautiful things out of wood. Not sure if assembling Ikea flat pack furniture counts! Nor do I share my wife’s ability and enthusiasm for creating colours and abstract art. My life though is enriched when I am enabled to enter into ‘their’ world as they communicate their passion and demonstrate their abilities or creations. A window of opportunity may be opened to me or my imagination is sparked. That is my justification for occasionally rambling on about long distance trail and mountain running! Pushing yourself to discover your limits is a discipline that demands both the physical and the spiritual.

Thank you for reading and trust you will continue to join me in the future.