We’re very excited to present Gill Bland, our new guest blogger. Gill won the Lake Garda Marathon in 2015 and recently joined the sub-3 hour club. We’re going to follow her progress as she ventures out onto the trails and looks to go beyond 26.2.
Leaving the road behind . . .
Having started running properly 5 years ago and with a box full of ageing finisher’s t-shirts, 9 marathons and plenty of training miles underfoot, you’d think that the days when I worry about what to wear or whether I’m going to be the odd one out at a race would be long gone. Wrong. Enter trail running.
Through winter months of pounding pavements in preparation for spring marathons, I’d heard many running friends talk enthusiastically – even evangelically – about the lure of the trails. Running magazines and online articles kept popping up about how running shouldn’t be all about hitting paces, how chasing times takes away from the experience, and how connecting with nature and feeling the terrain under your feet makes for a more holistic running experience. I love road running and the competitive part of me loves chasing those milestones, but the enthusiasm of those around me and a few sneaky off-road runs over the summer had planted the seed in my mind. Once the London Marathon was over there were no more excuses.
I’d heard good things about Maverick races and the idea of running around Studland and the Isle of Purbeck appealed, so on the 28th May I turned up in a field somewhere near Corfe Castle, totally unsure of what to expect. 23km later, here’s what I learned about road vs trail from my first off-road outing.
You don’t need special kit
Having seen pictures of people with hydration vests, buffs, knee-high compression socks, compasses and special shoes I wondered if my road-race wardrobe would cut it. After checking with friends I discovered that the only kit really advisable is trail shoes. You can pick these up pretty cheaply if you’re not fussy. Out of all the people running I’d say that 50% actually had trail shoes and I probably would have been fine without, though it might have been tough if it had rained closer to the event. Knee high socks could have been pretty useful, not for performance purposes but to ward off the stinging nettles.
Sandbagging happens everywhere
After all the chat about mindful running and not being slaves to times I was surprised how much sandbagging went on in the loo-queue. In a road race you’d hear complaints about niggles not having hit certain training session, here it was all about not having put in enough time off-road, or not having the right shoes.
Starting lines can be fun
This was a far cry from bangin’ choons, hyped-up aerobic warm ups and standing around for hours being corralled into pens. We arrived to find a cluster of converted barns in the middle of a field. A stall sold home-made cakes and freshly brewed coffee whilst families set up their picnic blankets by the side of the starting line. As we hung out near the start line the stereo churned out 90s classics from Smashmouth, Offspring and New Radicals. Eventually we pootled towards the inflatable arch, and after bit of chat about looking out for orange arrows and road crossings we were off.
It’s both harder and easier than you expect
Within moments of setting off we were running through knee-high grass with an uneven track beneath it. When you’re used to knowing exactly how your foot will feel as it lands and ensuring economy of stride by not lifting the knees too high, this feels like hard work. Add a slight incline into the mix and after only 5 minutes of running I was questioning whether I could even make it around the course. Unlike road races where once you’re in the race not much is going to change (and the aim is to keep pace and consistency), the trails are a rollercoaster of effort levels. A pause for a stile here and picking your way over a fallen tree trunk there gives you a break. Each burst of effort will always give way to a spectacular view or a grin-inducing downhill. I turned my watch to silent but I was genuinely surprised to see how far into the race I was the first time I looked. The miles fly by when there’s so much variety.
There are queues in the countryside
Country paths are often narrow and everyone will want to take the beaten path. I got stuck in a queue on many occasions when waiting to get through a gate or avoid a particularly unfriendly looking bit of undergrowth. It was worth letting more experienced people go ahead as it meant I could follow their route and learn from their navigation.
Getting lost, falling over and hills are all part of the fun
These three were my main fears before starting the race. They were also a major part of what I loved about it. I only went slightly wrong but it didn’t matter; what’s an extra km when you’ve been dodging sheep and scrambling up sandy banks? The organiser was hugely apologetic though, so maybe not all trail runners are as laid back as I’m led to believe.
It’s as beautiful as they say
Wow. So many times during the race the views took my breath away. The bleak heathland, the high cliffs, the smell of the wild garlic as we charged home through the woods. Passing over Tower Bridge in the London marathon is an incredible moment, but this race has left multi-sensory memories imprinted in my mind. There really are some amazing places out there; to run through them is a whole new way of experiencing them, and one that I’d heartily recommend.
It’s not superior, it’s different, but it’s great
I’ll admit, I’ve got so into the ‘pace mindset’ that I had to make an effort to look up and enjoy the moment. I agree that this kind of running gives experiences and stirs emotions that the road can’t. The views were stunning and there were moments when I couldn’t stop grinning like mad as I let my feet loose down another chalky slope, but this doesn’t mean that the road has nothing to offer. The pitter patter of trainer on tarmac has its own meditative quality and there’s something quite mind clearing about having one simple thing to focus on. The trail can bring unrivalled surges of joy and adrenaline as you run over the crest of a hill and breathe in the nature around you but it can’t give you the post-race adrenaline hit as you watch that gantry clock and cross the line having squeezed every last second out of yourself. The trail race is emotionally and mentally refreshing, it helps the control freak in all of us to let go and enjoy the moment. The road on the other hand keeps us motivated and driving forward and is a useful tool for day-to day life.
I had an absolute blast and the first thing I did when I got home was to work out when I could do another. I’m not ready to turn my back on the road completely but the balance of the two feels like a way to a more sustainable life of running. I want to get out there and run new places and distances. I want to see how my feet react to new terrain and I want to see how far they can go. I suspect this is just the beginning. Besides, it’s an excuse to buy more pairs of trainers.
You can read Gill’s full write-up of the Mavericks’ Dorset race at blandontherun.com