Running fast downhill is when I feel most alive.
Given that Jon had just run down the scree-littered path on our descent from Moel Famau a lot quicker than me, I then qualified that statement to clarify that I was talking of what’s fast for me.
It’s all relative of course. My idea of fast is generally his idea of sluggish, although he was honest enough on that occasion to admit that his speedy descents are nothing compared to what other runners can do.
But the comment stood. I’d spoken it out loud, so it must be true, mustn’t it? Words from the heart. Yes – I really do feel most alive when I’m running downhill at a pace that I think of as quick.
Why? Adrenaline, I suppose. Now in my early sixties, I live a quiet, largely unexciting life. Much of my time is spent sitting in front of a computer screen, performing various tasks in a virtual environment, largely arranging and re-arranging words and images until a satisfactory outcome is achieved.
Getting outdoors, whether running or walking, is an antidote to that virtual existence. Being out in the sun, wind, rain, hail, sleet and snow (occasionally all on the same day) reminds me of what it’s like to be human.
Travelling through the landscape – albeit equipped with modern clothing and accessories – also reminds me that people have been doing much the same for millennia. Indeed, I live in an area where the remains of iron age hill forts are a very obvious link to the distant past.
Adrenaline does not, however, usually flow in sufficient quantities to stimulate my ageing body. On most of my runs and walks I’m accompanied by my dog, Benge. A Cocker Spaniel with a keen nose, he’s more interested in following scents than running at a pace that I consider quick. The majority of our outings, therefore, are relatively sedate affairs. Even when we’re running, it’s typically at only nine-to-ten-minute mile pace.
And, of course, I run uphill too. At an even slower pace than I run down. Running uphill is good for you. It makes running on the flat really easy by comparison. But it’s demanding. It takes a lot out of you (or out of me, anyway). And it gets harder as your body ages (or that’s my experience – though I can still manage a creditable 72 minutes to the summit in the annual Snowdon Race).
Some runners are better at ascending, others at descending. For me, going downhill is much easier – although I’ve never been as comfortable since tearing the cartilage in my right knee a few years ago. Despite surgery to clean things up, running downhill invariably hurts. I run drug-free most of the time, but tend to take anti-inflammatories for a few days as a prophylactic if I’m planning a long outing with a bit of uppy-downy stuff (say 15 miles and/or 2500 feet of climb).
For races (I use the term loosely; I’m not in them to win them) I usually get my knees and hamstrings taped for extra support.
There will, of course, come a time when hill running is something my body just won’t be able to cope with. As I have no idea when that point will arrive, I just keep on going while I can. When my cartilage went bang in 2016, I was advised by a physio at the local hospital to stop running in the hills. Stick to the roads, she said.
There have, admittedly, been times since then when I’ve thought I should follow her advice and ease off. After tripping over in the woods on a walk with Benge, my knees were swollen for weeks. My right knee was so painful that I thought I’d fractured the kneecap (an x-ray found no evidence that I had). With Marathon Eryri about ten weeks away, I was supposed to be picking up my training. Instead, I was hobbling around, stuffing myself with painkillers and sitting with a pack of frozen peas on my knee to get the swelling down.
Despite fearing I wouldn’t be ready for the marathon, I was – making it the seventh one I’d run since the cartilage tear.
Not surprisingly, the weather forecast was poor (it was Llanberis at the end of October!) but I didn’t care. What mattered was being there – and the weather was actually far better than predicted, though the ground on the final off-road section was sodden and runners were slip-sliding their way towards the finish line. I stayed on my feet, though only by taking it easy, which meant that I missed my four-hour target by 16 seconds.
That I was able to run at all was largely due to the support of my physiotherapist, Vicky Kelly of Grosvenor Street Physiotherapy. Faced with an ageing chap apparently in terminal decline, both physically and emotionally, she stuck to the positive stuff. Vicky’s expertise, advice and encouragement got me to the start of Marathon Eryri 2019; Ibuprofen and RocTape got me to the finish!
For me, running is a positive experience. It is not always fun; there are many days when I have to drag myself outside and around whatever course I’ve chosen. But I invariably feel better for having made the effort. To the extent that, in almost forty years of running, the times I wished I’d not bothered probably number less than a dozen.
If I had to identify the one thing that has made the biggest difference to my running over that time, it would be switching from road to trail.
Moving away from tarmac and onto the trails has brought both physical and psychological benefits. Physically, trails are more demanding, even if they’re not in the hills. Uneven surfaces and softer ground make you work harder (and also help strengthen your ankles). Add in some hills and you’re looking at a whole new experience, testing your body in a way that flat (or flattish) tarmac just doesn’t.
Psychologically, being in greener, more natural spaces is good for us. I’m lucky to live in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (an AONB) and really am blessed with some wonderful places to explore. Whether my runs take me high or not, there’s always plenty of interest to see and, importantly, the opportunity to inhabit the real world rather than a virtual one.
(As an aside, I never wear headphones when out running. I’d much rather be aware of what’s going on around me; the squeal of a jay, the warning cry of a blackbird, the call – high above – of a buzzard; to hear the wind in the trees, water falling into a pool or mud squelching beneath my feet; it’s all part of the experience and I have no idea why anyone would cut themselves off from all that.)
For me, it doesn’t get much better than running back down to Llanberis during the International Snowdon Race. That’s when the real joy is to be had: dropping 3,200 feet over 4.75 miles in about 40 minutes.
Heart pounding, legs aching, eyes scanning the path ahead for the best line to take. It’s a glorious experience, made all the more special by the support, with people clapping, cheering, ringing cowbells, calling out encouragement. It’s a fantastic feeling.
And the speed I travel at! Gosh. Hard to believe it isn’t really fast at all. Good runners can cover the distance from the top back to the finish in about 20 minutes. That’s half the time it takes me. Amazing.
But as far as I’m concerned, of course, it’s my experience that counts and in my terms, I’m really motoring. Giving it everything I’ve got. Desperate to beat my target time. Trying to stay on my feet. One year I tripped and slid for a few yards along the stony path. My tee shirt and shorts were torn and my knees and elbows grazed, but there was no great harm done, though I was lucky not to have collided with anything too big and solid.
Is that it then? Do I only feel truly alive for about 40 minutes a year, racing down Snowdon?
Of course not. That’s the best of the best, but there are plenty of other opportunities to be had, even if the experience doesn’t last quite as long. Short downhill sections on Moel Famau or Bryn Alyn can be just as rewarding; and there’s a fabulous tricky descent at Trail Marathon Wales that I love. My heart still pounds, my legs quite possibly struggle to keep me upright, and my eyes need to check what’s ahead, even if it’s only during a few minutes of pure, uninhibited, childlike joy.
Going downhill fast? Bring it on!