There’s no doubt the razzmatazz and vibrant atmosphere surrounding big city marathons,half marathons and 10kms can be wonderfully exciting and stimulating. Roadside bands play with noisy enthusiasm and excited spectators bellow support for every competitor, fast or slow, as the energetic circus moves around the streets. There’s always a fantastic sense of occasion.
Increasing numbers of runners are, however, now getting as much, if not even greater, enjoyment from racing in the peace and solitude offered by many of our stunning wilderness areas. Urban races will always remain popular, but trail running is a booming sector of our sport and although the race venues may be far from the madding crowds, the ever-increasing numbers of participants will ensure that those taking part are never running in isolation.
Trail running has been popular in other parts of Europe for many years. My first experience of a mass participation race of this type was the 1983 Lidingöloppet 30km in Sweden. The event, first held in 1965 with about 600 runners, now attracts close to 35,000 who compete over a series of courses each of which snakes along beautiful forestry trails, passing remote tranquil lakes while skirting the occasional open clearing and grassy meadow. It’s held on Lidingö, a small island which forms part of the Stockholm metropolitan area. When I visited, I stayed at the Bosön sports training and education centre which is the HQ for the Swedish Sports Confederation. Wandering around the edges of the complex on the eve of the race I was amazed to see lights strung across some of the forest trails so people could run in the woods when it was dark. It’s an initiative that could perhaps be tried in some of our urban forests.
There were more than 15,000 people taking part in the 1984 race, an astounding figure, but I could instantly appreciate the attraction. Running in such a stunning environment, the miles seemed to fly effortlessly past, even though I wasn’t particularly fit at the time, and the strain on the legs was nowhere near as severe as racing on the roads. Running on a bed of pine needles is certainly more pleasant than relentlessly pounding away on tarmac or concrete. It was also mentally soothing. There’s something about running close to nature which seems to ease the normal tensions of city life and this appears to be backed up by a number of academic studies which argue that there are definite mental health benefits to be gained from exercising in pleasant, greenspaces.
Edinburgh-based Andy Douglas, (pictured right at the Balmoral Castle trail race), is a recent convert to off-road racing and over the past 12 months or so he has emerged as one of Britain’s best trail and hill runners. He is the reigning Scottish trail running champion and last summer he finished 10th in the European mountain running championships and 21st in the world championships. He has been in great form this year, having recently set a new course record time of 1hr 18mins 30secs when winning the Glacier Energy 15 mile trail race at Balmoral Castle before winning the UK inter counties hill running title. I asked for his opinions about trail racing and off road running in general.
Here’s what he had to say: “I grew up in a rural area so I always enjoyed running off roads and in more wilderness areas, but I didn’t do trail running or hill running in a serious competitive way until recently.
“It’s far more enjoyable than running on the roads. I run about 90 miles a week and probably up to three – quarters of that is off-road. My long Sunday run, which is usually 20 miles, is done in the Pentland Hills outside Edinburgh. Although my training is over much more hilly or undulating routes than it used to be, I think it’s less stressful and there’s less chance of injury.
“I’ve enjoyed the trail races I’ve been doing, the most recent of which was at Balmoral. It’s a really good trail route as it includes a little bit of road, dirt tracks, forestry trails and other sections with rougher and more challenging underfoot conditions. There’s real variety which make sit more interesting an enjoyable. I can understand why this is becoming so popular.”