It’s not always easy being the only running obsessive in the household. If your family, like mine, have glazed eyes every time you start a fascinating conversation about hill repeats, you might consider taking your obsession on holiday.
It was during a hill training session in south London that I learned about Running the Highlands. My training buddy that day was a woman who’d recently returned from a weekend’s bounding around Lochnagar. It had reinvigorated her running, she said, as she shot past me. I resolved to find out more, once I’d caught up. Neil and Emma Stewart, a pair of running and fitness obsessives, founded Running the Highlands weekends more than a decade ago. Fortunately for them, it was around this time that there was a huge upsurge of interest in trail running; everyone was talking about Richard Askwith’s Feet in the Clouds and people were realising that running in beautiful places was a whole lot more satisfying than pounding pavements.
From the outset, Neil Stewart wanted the experience to be more than just a training camp: ‘We wanted Running the Highlands to be open to runners of all abilities. It was important that our guests felt comfortable.’ At the same time, Neil was aware that many people choose to go away on running weekends because they see it as a way of improving, or because they’re training for a specific type of race.
Scenic route to fitness
Running the Highlands weekends are organised around three excursions along hilly and rough terrain, through ancient woodlands and along moorland surrounding Lochnagar. The Friday you arrive includes an introductory six-mile run in separate guided groups to assess your needs. The big run of the weekend is on the Saturday: up to 18-miles. Sunday morning sees everyone out on a recovery run, or walk of either three or six miles.
As a city runner on a mission to improve her marathon PB for the past five years, I spend far too much time on asphalt, despite being fully aware of the benefits of trail. The soft surfaces – mossy paths, peaty moors, mud, sand and scree – don’t send those jarring shockwaves through your ankles, knees and hips. I’m convinced it’s better for your mental health too (birdsong versus sirens? No brainer, surely). In fact, following my Running the Highlands experience, I’m more convinced than ever that trail running rules.
A week or so before I went on my Caledonian trail running adventure I’d had an urban running disaster. My training schedule for that week indicated that a 20-mile Long Sunday Run was in order. I set out, Garmin on wrist and Jelly Babies at the ready. By mile 15 I was aware that it would take more than fruit flavoured confectionery to keep me going. My ankles and hips were on fire, I could scarcely shuffle and I was looking for a bus stop.
Keep running up that hill
One week later I was trotting up a steep hill, chatting to Sarah Dunn, our Scottish orienteering champion guide. As we discussed the golden eagles and red squirrels, the mechanics of running down rocky trails, and admired the ice sparkling on the Lochnagar Munro in the distance, she casually announced we’d finished mile 16. To round off mile 18 we picked up the speed. Our final flourish was to remove running tights and shoes and bathe our legs in the icy river Dee. There was no aching, no need for ibuprofen (too easily popped after my road runs back home) and the following day.
I ran some more. I’d never experienced that blissful runner’s high so emphatically. Next day, those minor inconveniences of distance running – the exhaustion, the weakness, not being able to walk down the stairs – were miraculously absent.
This proved a pleasingly holistic weekend break. Interspersed with the workouts, strength and stretch sessions and optional sports massages, were copious meals and snacks given the thumbs up in a food-for-endurance presentation by Rin Cobb, a sports performance dietician.
These events also attract some insightful guest speakers. As well as Fraser Clyne, Scottish Marathon Champion and Mel Edwards, former international marathoner, the possibly superhuman Doctor Andrew Murray delivered a hugely entertaining ‘What Makes Champions’ lecture. Doc Murray is the Scottish Government’s Physical Activity Champion. He won the North Pole marathon with a broken wrist.
Past guest speakers have included Kathrine Switzer, David Moorcroft and Sonia O’Sullivan. Neil Stewart has his eye on some more stars for November’s training weekend but insists it’s the crew he has working with him, guiding the runners, who make Running the Highlands so popular. I certainly learned plenty about plummeting down rocky descents from Sarah Dunn and Ruth Mckenzie (a supertough fell runner), and was impressed by the wisdom of Ben Preece, a top veteran endurance runner and 2:33 marathoner.
Returning from the Cairngorms, my new season’s resolution is to prioritise trail races and off-road pursuits over the road. I’ve also vowed to make more of an effort to get out of town to run. One of the most compelling facts I learned from Fraser is that a place in a training camp in Kenya’s Rift Valley costs just $20 a day. That’s quite a trip. I may be some time.
Positive Mental Attitude
There are surely few runners better suited to coaching us in developing a positive mindset than the legendary Scottish International Marathon runner Mel Edwards. He’s now in his seventies, and still runs, despite having been diagnosed with myeloma in 2006. It comes as no surprise that his role model, as he was growing up ‘training like a madman’ and winning every endurance race in Scotland, was the fabulous Zatopek. Mel shared some of his favourite mantras to help us all get out there again when the going seems too tough.
■ Don’t get ‘down’. Don’t think of failure, just ‘temporary non success’
■ Never give up
■ No-one will handle this better than me
■ Just get on with it
■ Don’t complain
■ Situations can change
What makes a good endurance athlete? Fraser Clyne, Scottish Marathon Champion (Marathon PB 2:11:50, Sacramento) says:
‘Focus and fitness. I can’t think of anything that’s better for nurturing these two sides of endurance running than cross country racing’ (Fraser ran for Scotland in several world cross country events). ‘Running in these challenging conditions gives you confidence and strength for road races. Cross country racing, combined with trail running training certainly helped me become a better marathon runner.
‘Running over softer ground has a less damaging impact on your body, so reduces the chance of injury. The uneven surfaces and changes of terrain help to strengthen your feet, ankles, tendons and ligaments by making them work more effectively. Running through soft, muddy trails and up and down hills also helps strengthen your calves, hamstrings and quads. All of this makes you stronger and less injury prone.
‘Your endurance is also improved if you get used to running on tired legs.’ He advised me to get used to running at the pace I want to race at, even to forego the Long Sunday Run (the ‘time on your feet’ that many marathon coaching programmes advocate), in order to run a half marathon at my marathon pace on two consecutive days. ‘The second day will be hard,’ he twinkles, ‘but it replicates the situation you find yourself in on those last agonising miles of the 26.2.’
He also advocates the importance of having positive role models. Jo Pavey is a huge inspiration. He’s also a fan of Gideon Gathimba, one of Kenya’s top middle distance runners and fundraisers, with whom he recently ran the local Hazlehead parkrun (Gathimba now has the course record). He says we can take many lessons from the way Kenyans train on harsh terrain, and from keeping a picture in your head of your favourite super fast runner. ‘Visualising yourself running fast, and your heroes running fast – that’s the sort of motivation you need.’
Running the Highlands training breaks start from £300. For more information, visit www.runningthehighlands.com