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Tobias Mews | The joys of trail running, Outdoor Enthusiast, Autumn 2013
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The joys of trail running, Outdoor Enthusiast, Autumn 2013

The joys of trail running, Outdoor Enthusiast, Autumn 2013

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The following is taken from the Autumn 2013 issue of Outdoor Enthusiast and is not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright with Target Publishing.  You can read the magazine online here.

My journey into trail running in the UK

On a beautiful sunny afternoon in early July 2012 my eyes were opened to the joys of trail running as dramatically as the first time I fell in love!

I was on a mountain path just north  of Font Romeu, a charming town nestled in the French Pyrenees, with  several dozen international journalists and bloggers.  Invited by  Salomon to meet some of their athletes and  discover more about what they were trying to achieve, we’d gone for a two hour run through the mountains, passing stunning lakes and snow capped peaks.

Looking  around at my fellow companions, I felt like a complete rookie.    It wasn’t because I couldn’t run fast enough, but because compared to these people, I felt as if I’d not fully embraced the spirit of trail running.  Until then!

As we neared the edge of a long ridge line, someone made the decision it was okay for us to run free down to the rendezvous point where we would later be collected.  Around me, there was an eruption of whoops and yells, as everyone sprang to life.  Being in the company of some of the best trail runners in the world, quite a few of us, me included, felt like dogs on a leash, desperate to be let free to run at their own pace.

Suddenly, it was as if we’d all become children.  With smiles to match the Cheshire cat, we careered down the mountain side as though we didn’t have a care in the world.  It was truly one of the most magical moments of my life and it was the day I finally understood what trail running was all about.  I would return to the UK with fresh eyes, determined to spread the trail running word.

So where do we start?

Before this dramatic epiphany, had you asked me if I was a trail runner, I would have said ‘Of course,’ with the certainty of someone being asked if they’d ever drunk water.  After all, I’d run across the Sahara Desert, through the Jungles of Peru, across the Alps, much of the South Downs and even along the coastal trails of Cornwall.  And on some occasions, I’ve been lucky enough to stand on the podium of various trail running races.

But if I  were to mention trail running to many of my friends, there’s a good chance they’d start to shudder with  thoughts of cold and wet afternoons,  standing in nothing but a singlet and a rather unfashionable pair of shorts at a school cross country race, during one of our ‘coldest winters in British history’.

However, that’s probably because, up until 20 years ago, trail running in the UK was not a concept that had really been discussed, in the same way as  we talk about walking or cycling.  Of course, fell running, the preserve of gritty, gnarly and windswept individuals, has been around before our grand parents were even a naughty wink in their parent’s eyes.

With 90% of the UK population living in a city, including myself, it’s easy to see why we feel obliged, though often unenthusiastically  to take to pounding the pavements.  Although road running isn’t exactly ‘fun’, it is jolly convenient.

However, there is no reason why we should have to run on the road at all. Of course, there may well always be a road or pavement on our doorstep.  But if we were to do a tiny bit of research, then we’d soon discover we’re always within a 40 minute drive of a National Trust location

And if we were to devote a little more of our precious time into taking a cursory glance at an Ordnance Survey map, we would soon discover a new world of pink dotted footpaths and orange contour lines that will take our running to fresh pastures and new heights.

A world that could one day, have us climbing hernia-inducing hills, leaping across mountain streams and scrambling over heather strewn valleys – all of which are in short supply of if you’re living in an urban jungle.

The wonderful thing about trail running is that you don’t need much in the way of specialist kit, unless you’re a confirmed gear junkie.  Most of your usual running kit will work.  But one thing that will make a difference to your experience, especially if it’s muddy underfoot, is a sturdy pair of trail running shoes.

Being able to test out their virtues on a treadmill isn’t always ideal which is why Salomon have been touring cities around Britain throughout the summer, allowing Joe Public to try their shoes on an urban trail – a park or woodland –  without any pressure to purchase.

Perhaps as a result of sponsoring international athletes such as Kilian Jornet, Jonathan Wyatt, Anna Frost and Ryan Sandes, Salomon have been leading the trail running movement.  Recognising people’s desire to run off road, they have produced inspiring videos and blogs.  In this way, they’ve began to do something few traditional road running brands have previously achieved. They’ve somehow managed to make running sexy.

But it’s not just Salomon who are in on the action.  Swedish brand Haglöfs, known for their quality outdoor equipment, have recognised that the trail running market, although still small, is growing!

‘Its not a huge market, but it’s getting bigger and bigger,’ Bruce Duncan, Marketing Manager of Haglöfs UK told me.   ‘I think people are looking for that extra adrenaline release after being tied to a desk all day, so the off-road side gives you that.  And with the huge growth in adventure runs and obstacle races, I can’t see it slowing down any time soon.’

Bruce, who is also an elite international adventure athlete, says,  ‘I can switch off from the world, escape the rush of normal life with no vehicles around, and settle into my own thoughts.  It’s a cheap, easy escapism from daily life.  You don’t have to go far to find it, be it the local park, or into the mountains, but there is always a trail nearby to explore, and every step is different to keep you strong and enjoying every run.’

‘But take it steady, if you’ve  run on roads all your life, your ankles need time to adjust and get stronger.  After that though, the world is your oyster.  No where is off limits from towpaths, to country parks, to forests, to mountains.  Run without the worry of cars or lorries near you, and enjoy the fantastic surroundings many people never see.’

I certainly agree.  Last week I was competing in the inaugural Race to the Stones, an ultra marathon that follows 100kms of the Ridgeway, the UK’s oldest national trail.  Considering that the trail runs through what is probably the most populated area in the South of England, I found myself completely alone, passing landmarks such as the Iron Age fort of Uffington Castle, the giant 110m-long White Horse carved into the hillside, and Dragon Hill, where Saint George reportedly killed his dragon.  I felt as if  I was retracing the footsteps of my ancient forebears.

The Ridgeway as many of the walkers amongst you will know, is just one of the 15 national trails that collectively provide 2500 miles of maintained footpaths, begging to be run along in England and Wales.  Add to this the 1700 miles of Scottish Great Trails, walking or trail running, you’ll be busy for an entire lifetime.  What’s more, the whole family can join you at a pace that suits them.

So if you’re looking to find a new lease of life, to re-discover your running mojo, then maybe, just maybe, trail running might be the answer.  There’s a whole, new magical world to feast your eyes upon.

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Tobias Mews

Adventure Sports Journalist, Filmmaker and Athlete