Boston via Britain 2 – I heart Fell Running
For all that I enjoy road running, I much prefer running on trails. There’s more variety of surface, which is better for the feet (less repetitive stress), typically a greater change in topography, and usually, at the end of it all, whether reaching the top of a mountain (quite literally), or just completing a lengthy loop or an out-and-back, a greater sense of achievement. When running on roads, one is constantly aware of humanity’s impact on the planet, via traffic, buildings, pylons, and the concrete or tarmac surface under one’s feet. Running on trails, one can escape most of this for the peace and tranquility of nature. When I’m out on a long road run, I feel the constant need to stay alert about my surroundings, but when I’m out on a long trail run, I instead become as one with them. Especially in the Catskill Mountains, where I can often go for a couple of hours without seeing another human, I feel myself return to my animal nature. It’s the most zen of all active sensations.
Such moments, to be fair, are relatively rare: unless you make a complete and total commitment to stay off the roads, and unless you’re willing to invest in running snowshoes and take them onto the (dangerous) ice and snow of the typically lengthy Catskills winter, your trail season is relatively short and typically interspersed with the usual crowd-gathering road races that allow for universal reference points. (By which I mean, a 5k or marathon time can be compared and matched with running friends around the world; my local annual Escarpment Run, up and down half a dozen Catskill mountains, can only be compared with itself.) At my end, training this year for the Boston Marathon meant three solid months of long weekend road runs, during an atypically mild winter when I might have otherwise have been tempted to explore the low-altitude, ice-free trails. By the time I got to Britain in late March, I was positively pining for some off-road adventure.
Fortunately, my mother’s house in Beverley, East Yorks, is at the edge of town, near the Westwood, a famous sprawling pasture, which itself leads to all manner of footpaths that resemble, on the Ordnance Survey maps, a series of complex veins, as compared to the inherently more limited (if infinitely longer) arteries that cut through the Catskill Mountains. It was only when I injured myself 18 months ago, from too much hard-core road running (as my Trail Running book gloats, “The road to injury is paved”), and was using the swimming pool in Beverley instead, that I learned that a distinct Running Trail had been carved out of these veins, due to the trickle of mud-splattered runners making their way into the leisure centre from the conclusion of an annual 5-mile, 10-mile or 13-mile “jaunt” around what is known as the “Beaver Trail.” “Set up by Beverley Athletic Club with sponsorship and support from Adidas and East Riding Council,” read the BAC’s web site, “The aim of the trail is to provide a pleasant running experience featuring a wide variety of surfaces, contrasting scenery, varying ?degrees of gradient and minimal use of roads.” I determined to do the course as soon as I could.
It took a year and a half, but I got my chance the morning after I arrived in Beverley this April, itself just a week after the Hasting Half Marathon. Knowing that my little boy Noel was eager to spend quality time with his granny (and vice-versa), I tumbled out of bed, printed out the map to the Beaver Trail – and, thank Goodness, the full page of detailed course instructions that accompany it – and with just my iPod and a bottle of water for additional company, set about the full 13-mile course. It was an act of good-natured fool-hardiness as most runners would recognize of themselves. After all, my week in London had been typically full on and I was certainly short on sleep. I’d run a half-marathon PR just eight days earlier. Yet at the same time, I knew I was at a peak of pre-marathon fitness, and that if I took my time on the course, my body would hopefully thank me when I got to Boston; it would be, after all, another long run under the belt precisely two weeks before the big one.
My legs, I realized as soon as I headed out from the Leisure Centre starting point, were heavy and tired, as they had been the couple of times the previous week when I’d taken them around the woods and hills of Streatham Common and its accompanying Rookery. (This was more the effects of running fast in Hastings than anything else.) But I’ve learned from experience that if you can push yourself through the difficult days, it’s that much easier to get through the good ones (which are, hopefully, race days when one has accumulated sleep and sustenance). Once I successfully navigated the course instructions to get out of town and recognized the Beaver Trail markers that occasionally (but not quite routinely enough) showed up on footpath entrances and stiles to confirm my course, I eased into the beauty of it all. Every area in the world has its own unique vistas, and this small part of East Yorkshire, which seems relatively flat on the map but is in fact littered with small hills, and which is pock-marked with long-standing, working farms, have their own distinct attraction. That said, I made particular note of the course instruction not to run towards the electrical substation; electrical pylons (and smoke-fluming power stations) are as much a part of the Yorkshire landscape as trees.
I had to stop frequently to check the map, something I don’t typically like doing; for that real zen feeling, you want to be running continually, however gentle the pace. But I only got stuck once, oddly enough right at the point I joined up with the Westwood and the golf course that makes the most of its rolling topography. I was healthily worn out by that point, but being a completist, refused to run down the main road towards my mother’s house and instead detoured to follow the official last mile-plus of the course, which took me across the pasture, past the stunning Beverley Minster, and back to the Leisure Centre. All said and done, I completed it in 2 hrs and 10 minutes, a 10-minute mile pace that seemed quite impressive given the stopping and starting, the number of stiles and footpath entrances, and the inherently slower surface under foot. Sure enough, in the time it took me to walk home, shower, stretch and have a long overdue breakfast – make that lunch – I had developed the familiar post-run glow.
I duly dropped a line to Andy Tate of the Beverley Athletic Club, with whom I’d corresponded on a previous visit, figuring he’d be happy to know that a returning native had followed their course map and instructions and enjoyed the process. He promptly wrote back inviting me to participate in the Brantingham Hill Run on Good Friday morning, just 4 days later, suggesting that “If you like the Beaver Trail you will love this demanding off road route.”
With a tease like that, how could I possibly say no? That I was staying in Manchester on Thursday night, going to see my old pals Orbital at the start of their British tour certainly failed to dissuade me. In fact, a check of the trail run map and the train timetable together revealed that if I could make the 7:30am train out of Manchester, I had but a one-mile drive to the start line at the Yorkshire end, and, British railways providing, would be right on time.
Fortunately, the railways obliged, and the scene when I arrived in the village of Elloughton, close to Brough train station at the foot of the Yorkshire Wolds just before 10am, was one I’m somewhat familiar with from our Catskills trail races: a cluster of cars, a group of mostly middle-aged people in shorts and vests on a coldish day, a sign-in sheet, someone handing out bibs, and a quick jaunt over a footbridge to a start line. (The race, hosted by the East Hull Harriers, whose web site puts our own Onteora Runners Club to total shame, was free. And, I noticed positively, it lacked for the self-indemnity form that is a necessity at even the most relaxed of American races.) Only after the staring gun and a fun run up through a field on something vaguely approximating a public right of way did someone inform me that the seven mile course was considered famously brutal, consisting as it does of some seven hills.
Hills? Did someone say hills? I eat hills for breakfast! (Which was just as well, as I hadn’t had much else to digest since a couple of glasses of Veuve Clicqout with the Orbital boys somewhere around midnight.) As the group of 50+ runners (a far cry from the Hasting Half’s 3500 competitors, and a reminder that trail running, even when the race has no price of admission, is a self-selective sport) thinned out, I instinctively knew that I was in my comfort zone, that this was the sort of underfoot surface and hilly terrain that I love. Moderate tiredness be damned, this was as energizing as a morning work-out could be.
Up we went, and down we went, merrily on our way. There was but one road we ran alongside for a few hundred yards, but it was blessedly devoid of traffic. Most of the race was us against the nature of the beautiful Yorkshire Wolds. The course was indeed extraordinarily tough – less the steady climbing such as at the Hastings Half, but rather a series of short sharp hills that were taxing on the body in both directions – but it was exhilarating from start to finish. Even those who reduced themselves to a power-hike on some of the uphills were evidently enjoying the stress and strain, just as I got a thrill from feeling my heart rate climb with the gradients. I took note of the significant number of people wearing the British “fell running” brand Inov-8s on their feet (myself included) though did not think to ask anyone of a good retail outlet for this cult, high-end footwear manufacturer who produce as many different shoes as there are types of surfaces (and then some). I did manage a couple of conversations, though, the longer of them with someone I joined for the last couple of miles, who was similarly strong at uphills but who, perhaps from familiarity with the course, eventually dropped me on the final downhill and cruised to the finish line 30 seconds ahead of me. As with just about all runners, he was friendly as could be throughout, and seemed almost disappointed to have beaten me.
Myself, I got through the course in a little under an hour, a solid ten minutes behind the winner, but a respectable thirteenth out of 52 finishers, not bad for someone who had woken up after five hours sleep at the other end of the M62. And I didn’t feel like I had pushed myself especially hard to do so. It had been fun – hard work, yes, but fun hard work – from start to finish. Only when I found Andy Tate at the end of the race and got talking in a bit more detail did I learn that this was, in his words, “by far the hardest course in the entire region.” I’d better not tell him about the Escarpment Run then.
For all that the Hastings Half had allowed me to achieve a universally measurable goal on a universally familiar distance (such that my time would have qualified me for the New York Marathon if it had taken place two months earlier), the Brantingham Hill Run, one of a kind as are all trail runs, had allowed me to do what I really enjoy most – get out into nature and all its challenges with a small group of equally hardened, good-natured souls. My thanks to the Beverley Athletic Club for setting me down the path, so to speak, to running it, and to the East Hull Harriers for hosting it. And I look forward to joining you one year on the annual Beaver Trail run, in all its muddy glory.