Jacob Adkin provides a glimpse into the mindset of runners who take on the wilder landscapes.
The frequency of runners making their way to fields, barns and boots of cars to register their name and pin a number to their vest is once more on the rise. Across the country, they group together on start lines and look up to see the ground rise above them, the path their studs will tread disappearing from view.
As a collective, they are called hill runners (or fell runners, if you’re reading this in England).
Runners of every age, and every level, have a spot in these gatherings. Brushing shoulders are the people who will finish at the front and at the back, and they are as likely to share a post-race coffee and cake or something stronger as with anyone else in the field.
Everyone, bar maybe a couple of unfortunate injuries during, will make it around the pre-set checkpoints, and then recount their unique tale of the race, highs and lows, afterwards. And that is the purely lovely thing about this sport – fastest known times are kept track of and record chasing times congratulated, but the real stories are between the individuals and the hills.
It is a feeling shared amongst all who take part. It is a mindset engrained in the sport.
Speaking of mindsets, there are some who query the logicalness of these hill people who congregate to run around wilder landscapes. So for those who wonder, here is (a very small) idea of what a hill runner’s mind is like.
A hill runner never stops thinking about hills
The more time I started to spend in the hills, getting to know the fell running community and acquainting myself with the sports history, the more my outlook of the outdoor landscape changed.
No longer did I just take in the views as they were, appreciating only their natural beauty; I also began to see what they could offer to satisfy my craving for more. This craving is shared extensively among those who have been absorbed into the sport. The hills have a hold, and they continually tug at our thoughts, our minds unable to resist wandering among their majesty while on the work commute or eating dinner.
Hill runners relish seeking out new challenges for themselves, whether that be mapping out a new route through familiar hills, bagging a set of Munros, or taking down all 214 Lakeland Wainwrights in one sitting. Granted the latter is a more ‘hardcore’ example, but whatever the level of the challenge, it is relative to the person who’s conjured it up.
It’s about self-progression and fulfilment. Each and every one of these is to be admired, and I never fail to be inspired on an almost daily basis from hearing of remarkable feats from the many individuals that make this sport what it is. The act of running in hills is unconfined, the sport is what the person makes of it – there are no limits for you here.
A hill runner is impervious to adversity
Mad – the word that most commonly follows in a runners wake as they pull themselves up steep ascents and dive with seemingly complete lack of control off summits.
Hill runners possess a slightly different type of common sense. They have a tenacity and almost ignorant mindset towards extreme conditions and levels of physical pain. I don’t think I’ve met a people that are as resolute in pushing on into the wild, unknown depths of unpleasant places, in landscape and head. Give them a ferocious winter storm, give them baking hot summer days, they will drive on with unfaltering assuredness to see it through, or until they sink on broken legs to the ground.
I was about 11 or 12 years old when I first took part in a hill race. Following in my older sister’s footsteps, I stepped onto the start line of Scald Law junior hill race in the Pentland Hills just outside Edinburgh, having just pulled on every layer of clothing I possessed. These were reluctant beginnings for an obsession with elevated lands – a bitterly cold day, snow up to my waist at its deepest, I almost cried my way to the turn-around marker.
I can’t lie, this experience put me off for a few years after. Returning to the sport however, I found a new understanding and acceptance of hills and their frequently testing moods. A desire to spend more time in these places regardless of the elements started to grow, and I believe it came from the seed that was planted in that first wild experience (it just took some time to flourish).
A hill runner has a single-minded approach when it comes to their pastime, almost considering nothing other than their next footsteps. Anything that the natural world throws at them they can almost disconnect from. They enjoy the individual moments, the present, and no matter how bad the conditions, this focusses their mind on completing what’s ahead of them.
There is an engrained spirit in all hill runners and no matter when things go wrong, the situation is never too bad because of it. A recent junior fell championship race characterised this. I was acting as ‘sweeper’ marshal for the day, and during one race a young runner was struggling at the halfway point. They could easily have given up and sat down at the side of the path, but instead they continued putting one foot in front of the other.
The perseverance was clear to see, and although their face told a different story, I imagined there to be a small but discernible burning light of strength and heart deep inside them, keeping their belief alive. This not only kept them going, but on making it to the final stages, lifted them to greater speed. From a place of pain to a place of exhilaration, it was inspiring to see the energy and motivation they had.
A hill runner enjoys the experience
For many, hill training is repelling. For hill runners, it is empowering. A common trait of training is the repetition of a set distance or time, until such a quantity is reached to make a perceived benefit. On flat ground, the sanity of this routine is only occasionally questioned, yet the slight variation used in a hill runner’s training diet gives way to a much higher frequency of disbelieving looks.
The concept of running hard up and down a hill repetitively, undoing all the energy used to gain the height, could be seen as counter-productive. To a hill runner however, they can finish this relentless punishment and stand back to say “I just conquered that hill and felt good for it”.
The slightly nauseating feeling akin to a stormy sea as the built-up lactate tips around upon turning to descend or ascend once more is part of that conquering. There’s a perverse sense of enjoyment in the discomfort. A “glutton for punishment”, an onlooker described my friend as they ran on higher.
Those days of a beautifully painful repetition then give way to the ever-growing freedom found during long escapades across hilly lands. Rising and falling, the hills provide a multitude of soul-satisfying moments, all connecting to create this great story that will always have a place on the bookshelf of memories. I don’t believe you can get that anywhere else.
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Jacob Adkin features in the ‘Fast 10: class of 2019’ and over the course of the year will share his running journey. You can follow Jacob on Twitter and Instagram, while further information about the ‘class of 2019’ can be found here.
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