“Slow running” doesn’t mean running slowly, although that often happens! To me it means running with the minimum of kit and gadgets and enjoying – and feeling part of – the environment. It sometimes means incorporating an adventure into running, and most importantly it means running for its own sake.
When I did my long run in Aosta, my one luxury was to take a kindle. The first book I read was Running Free by Richard Askwith. I wasn’t even meant to be running in Aosta: I was meant to be running the course of the CCC, the 100km race I did round Mont Blanc. But I decided that even though running the course would give me an edge in the race, I’d rather just discover a different area of the Alps and have an adventure. At the bus stop in Courmeyeur the score of other trail runners all left to run the course whilst I ran off in the opposite direction.
In Running Free, Askwith partly rails against the big industry that running is, and partly celebrates the joy of running in natural settings. I totally agree with him – isn’t it incredible how an activity that has been enjoyed by humanity ever since we came down from the trees has become the fastest growing sport industry on the planet? Big running companies are brilliant at persuading us that we need all this kit. I find it very hard to resist too. I have a basic altimeter which my wife gave me for my 30th birthday – a necessary bit of kit for navigating in mountains. But Suunto have since brought out several new watches. I have several times had to almost physically restrain myself from pressing a few buttons on my computer to spend £400 (which I don’t have just lying around) on the latest watch which will measure my heartbeat, track where I’ve run and upload all this data to a specialist running site.
He also talks about the growth in running events. Marathons and tough mudders are big business to name but a few. The benefits of signing up to events is clear in my mind – it motivates people to train and if that helps us stay healthy then that’s great. But why do we feel the need to pay £50 to go to a field to run round some artificially prepared obstacles in the mud. We could do a similar thing for free whenever we wanted to by taking a train to some piece of countryside on a rainy day!
A book like “Run Free” makes me reflect on what motivates me to run. In a world where we spend so much time in controlled environments (like houses and offices), sitting in chairs and staring at screens, running allows us to regain our natural selves. There’s joy in moving one’s legs. In settling into a slow rhythm, or making the lungs burn from effort. Losing oneself in the natural environment and soaking up nature by a process of osmosis, step by step. To re-connect with nature, the less kit we have, the better. A pair of running shoes. A pair of old shorts and a t-shirt. That’s all you need to enjoy the sensations of running.
So that’s why I run. I have lesser motivations, like competing occasionally. I also want to continually improve my fitness to take on bigger objectives in the mountains. So I choose to do some stuff which contradicts the ideals expressed above. I now know a lot about nutrition, periodised training plans and physiology. I run with a heart rate monitor a lot of the time when plodding along in London to ensure I train in the correct “zone”. I enter the odd race even though I might have more fun exploring on my own. That’s all fine – but I need to regularly remind myself that staying in the required heart rate zone isn’t the be-all and end-all. If I want to sprint up a hillside to feel the exhilaration of pushing myself, why care that it negates the objective of that training run? I’m not going to win any Olympic medals, so why not enjoy myself?!
(Lastly, running is really important for my blood sugar control. I can use diabetes in my favour here. If my Emily ever asks me why I’m disappearing for a couple of hours to run, I can claim it’s life prolonging medicine!)
I recently went to Norfolk on holiday and had an amazing time running round the coast. Lots of it was barefoot along the beach or the marsh. Running over the marsh barefoot was wonderful – I felt so much more part of the environment. I could feel the texture of the mud changing depending on where I was, I could feel which plants were spiky and which were soft. At one point I had to swim across a stretch of water to reach an island. A seal’s head popped up next to me and I had a companion for the last few metres. (Luckily it didn’t eat me.) I felt so free just running across the countryside without a plan, just enjoying my surroundings. I don’t know anything about nature, but by the end of the week imagined that I had more of a connection with the nature around me.
This weekend I was meant to do a Park Run (which are brilliant by the way!) with my mum and wife. I decided to run there and left plenty of time for the ten miles across the fields. It took a lot longer than I expected. I got lost, had to deal with bulls and horses (scary for a city dweller like me) and head high bramble and stinging nettle patches. So not consistent running, but I had a mini-adventure and did some slow running, some walking, some running through mud, some sprinting. It’s natural fartlek training on variable ground, and I’m sure is great for leg strength and injury prevention. In fact any niggles I had two months ago have gone since I’m managed to run predominantly off road.
So try it! Ditch the stop watch. Ditch the heart rate monitor. Maybe even ditch the shoes. Go for a run with no plan and see what happens. Have a mini adventure!