Snowdonia: off road

Sarah Stirling is on a three-day course to improve her off-road running and navigating.

It’s raining torrentially in Snowdonia and I’m sprinting for the trees, gazelle-like. Or I would be if my legs didn’t hurt so much and every step wasn’t a choice between bottomless puddle or slippery stone. Hair plastered, trainers waterlogged; tights and socks too: OK, I’m basically stumbling along soaked to my pants.

Off-road running Snowdonia

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Finally we reach the shelter of the forest. Paths in every direction look the same, and anyway I’m just blindly following Iain, head down out of the onslaught. Then he stops.

“OK, where are we?”

Crap, I have no idea. I open the map. We both lean over it to keep the rain off. I cup my chin thoughtfully, purse my lips and glance around, as if just getting my bearings. Then I stab a finger on the map at random.

“Here?” I ask hopefully.
“Nope.”
“Here?”
“No.” His expression is mostly neutral, but with shades of amusement.

“Next time, try thumbing the map,” he suggests, which means keeping your thumb on your last location on the map while you run. And for his next trick he pulls out a little brightly-coloured spinning gadget. “Have you ever seen one of these before?”

Well I never – it’s a mini compass that sits on your thumb! That would be ideal for orientating the map on the move. Iain shows me where we are and we keep running, soon reaching a dam. He suggests that if I lose track of where I am again and can’t see any features to help me relocate, I should keep going until I see a useful landmark. The benefit of running rather than walking is that you can cover terrain quickly, and you can take advantage of that when lost.

This is why I’ve come on a course. I’ve been running off-road for over 10 years without ever trying to improve my navigation at speed or in tricky locations. My home turf is the well-signposted Pembrokeshire Coast Path – a lot of the time I just hug the sea and keep going.

Then I heard of Iain and Sarah Ridgway, two of the UK’s pioneers of guided fell running. They both represent Wales at international level and are qualified mountain leaders. I wondered if it was time to learn some new skills…

Off-road running Snowdonia

Now I’m on day three of my weekend of off-road race training – the final day – and it’s certainly been a steep learning curve. My legs are burnt out and it’s an unfamiliar feeling to be digging this deep. I usually run for one to three hours a day without any aches.

I’ve got strong legs, or so I thought. Now I’ve realised it’s all relative and I’m complacent. I’m not used to the steep pounding descents of Snowdonia, which kill your quads, and Iain is pushing my pace.

But I’m loving the challenge: it’s invigorating and inspiring. We’d begun the weekend with a beautiful six-miler on the Friday evening and then, bribing Iain with delicious lamb casserole at my hotel, I’d taken the opportunity to quiz him about running and racing.

I was interested to know how elite racers organise their running. Iain runs around 80 miles a week. Most nights he does between eight and 12 miles, with morning runs a couple of days a week and longer at weekends. He built up progressively, hitting a steady 60 miles for two weeks a month, then 60 with races and speed work, then a steady 70. The main thing is month on month, year on year progression, he explained. Have a long-term outlook and aim for long periods of injury-free running.

Loving running rather than race times is important, he continued. It’s easy to improve early on but that curve soon hits a plateau. It then takes a lot of effort to improve again. Iain logs everything on an excel spreadsheet, to keep focussed on mileage totals, and also so he knows when he has overdone it.

I asked if he had any advice for my weak ankle. “Higher profile shoes can cause you to topple,” Iain said. “I do almost all my running in flats, but they don’t last long: about 300 miles. Do some one-legged balance exercises to strengthen your ankle, like brushing your teeth and washing up on one leg, and then do tiny one-legged squats, bending your knee slightly.”

Next I asked about foot-strike – should I hit the ground with the front, mid or heel of my foot? “Just run and you’ll naturally get into an efficient stride to suit your body,” said Iain. “They generally reckon 10,000 miles of running is needed for your body to basically run itself straight and run more efficiently. Track running helps form, and doing speed reps forces you to run better. However, for off-road runners this is all less of an issue, as where we land on our foot is so terrain dependent.”

Iain recommended I read Chi Running by ultra-marathon runner Danny Dreyer, which contains good advice, like: if your pace drops go back to basics. Head up, lift your feet, good stride, no reaching with your arms or legs, steady breathing, no clenching of hands. I’ve since found this basic advice very useful.

After dinner I was sent home with the map and told I’ll be navigating the next day. Unfortunately I fell asleep with it unravelled all over the old fashioned bedspread in my hotel room, but I was sure it would be fine…

And it was fairly simple in the sunshine on day two. After running out the door and up Moel Hebog (782m), I’d clearly been able to see the smaller lumps of Moel yr Ogof (655m) and Moel Lefn (638m) ahead.

We ran for a few hours (or walked the steep bits – Iain explained that it’s often just as fast and therefore more efficient to walk when it gets really steep) and ended up at Ty Mawr – a cosy tea-room in Rhyd Ddu. I had homemade soup, cheese and Dutch coffee, and then, refuelled, came up with the suggestion to run the four miles back to the hotel rather than get the train. Reader, I regretted it. Now to attempt to get out of this chair…

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