New route or old routine?

This article originally appeared in Kiwi Trail Runner (Ed 3.) 

Paulo Cohelo quoteIt’s just as well that the almost pathological level of procrastination that afflicts me as a writer did not desert me over recent weeks. For by sweet irony, had I not put off writing this column for so long – well past first, second and final deadlines – I wouldn’t have got to write it at all.

In truth I’d been really struggling to come up with a topic for my long-overdue piece. The problem wasn’t so much a lack of ideas, indeed I had no shortage of them, but what I couldn’t settle on was that one idea that both really mattered to me personally and which I thought I could write about in a way that would hopefully help others.

In the end the much-needed stimulus came about while feeling jetlagged and wretched, a few sleep-deprived hours into a two-day stopover in London en route to Chamonix for the UTMB. We had decided to take an aimless wander from our cramped hotel room in Paddington to wherever our curiosity and feet (and desire for a decent coffee) would take us, and an hour later found ourselves, purely by chance, outside the Stanfords map and book store – a shrine to which millions of restless souls have gravitated over the years, including a who’s who of adventurers and explorers who have found their way into the world’s most remote places with maps and charts supplied by this iconic institution.

It took me no time at all to find the section housing a surprisingly large and saliva-inducing selection of books about trail running, from which one title leapt out at me. It was a newly released paperback called ‘Running Free’ by Richard Askwith, whose first book ‘Feet in the Clouds’ I rate as the best book about running that I have ever read. As fast as the tube could carry me I was back in our hotel room devouring his words.

While in part this book is a well-argued lament about the commercialisation of all forms of running, and especially trail running, it is also intended as a practical guide “to help any runner whose running habit has become a dutiful, expensive routine to convert it into a sustainable, affordable pleasure”. I immediately found myself seduced by the ‘back to my roots’ thinking of a runner who has for thirty years followed a similar path to my own through various running life stages.

It got me thinking about my own relationship with trail running, the reasons I do it and the paraphernalia that has built up in my cupboards and drawers as a result. And it led me to one crystal clear realisation – that the one thing I value most about the running I do is the opportunity it offers me for spontaneity. For the ability to act spontaneously is, in so many ways, the essence of that much-talked about ‘freedom’ that so many of us would give as a reason for why we run trails. It is also, in an age where there is so much data that can be gathered and shared, so many training schedules and guides on how to run, eat, prevent injury, recover etc, and so many organised events to run over well-marked courses, something that we are in danger of losing. And in turn, are we I wonder, losing the ability to think for ourselves: to learn by trial and error (adventure and misadventure); to run for the sheer joy of running rather than to claim a Strava segment, a Fastest Known Time, a PB or a podium place; in short, to explore rather than follow and to replace spontaneity with routine?

I am not immune to any of this and am not for a moment suggesting that any of the above ‘traps’ are in themselves wrong. But I do believe there is a danger that we can become enslaved by our passion, rather than set free by it. I certainly know plenty of once keen trail runners who have backed away from the sport, or at least the competitive side of it, because they have somehow, inexplicably “lost the joy”. My personal goal, as enshrined in Running Wild’s epithet ‘Run-Explore-Share’ is to avoid the rut and routine of running, to think of almost every run as an adventure of some kind and take the opportunity to do the unplanned and the unexpected as and when the mood takes me. To ensure that running remains my mate and not my master.

Over time we can inadvertently and unwittingly become like slot cars, following only well-worn, predefined tracks. One simple antidote to this, and it’s something I regularly used to do when living in the city, is to do at least one run a week where you leave with no fixed plan in your head and instead just go with the flow, making turns at random; even try to get a little lost. Maybe, heaven forbid, go so far as to leave your GPS watch behind! Even close to home you’ll be surprised how much unexplored territory there is, and even if it turns out to be a dead-end side street that you discover what the heck! At least you saw something new.

For the final word on this subject I will defer not to Richard Askwith but to another author, Paulo Coelho, who as far as I know has never run a kilometre of trail in his life, but whose words I think we should all heed… “if you think adventure is dangerous you should try routine – it’s lethal”.