Moving outside, making a journey has always been something that forms a very central part of my life. Whether learning how to access the countryside in Sussex amongst the network of footpaths, bridleways and areas of commonage like Ashdown Forest, or later out on the open ocean, the journey has always been important.
I am less a cyclist, less a runner, less a sailor, less a mountaineer, less a runner, less a paddler, less a biker than I have ever been. The label of the activity feeling like it has given way to a 'journeyman'.
The love of running is the total simplification of the journey. The stripping back
of superfluous equipment. The removal of the 'need' for different kit. Just me, my engine, my knowledge and a direction to travel.
In all the journeys I have I end up with a little more knowledge. And this is knowledge I take into different journeys. What I learnt on a motorbike in the Sahara is useful when running. It may seem strange but it is deeply true.
The passion to share these skills has always been with me, but it has taken a long time to solve how those skills go together. Organising Dolgellau parkrun I find more enjoyable than running in the parkrun. I realised quite early on, that the people that were finishing in under 30 minutes value support, but don't need it. It is the people on the other side of the 30 mins that usually value that support more. That is the reason to be there, for me. Not for first finisher, but for the parkrunner who is, through parkrun addressing a massive personal challenge.
I suppose I have only creepingly accepted that my ability to go long distances, albeit not at the front of an event is slightly unusual. I can look at a map, judge my ability, need for kit, and then go and make that journey, usually comfortably.
Handing on that confidence is something that I find totally, and deeply fulfilling. The birth of no-mad running and it's development is one that has caused me some real head scratches. A few people have suggested that for what we do, we should charge more. And that, fundamentally cuts across one of my beliefs about being a journeyman.
Passing on skills is about a passion. Education is something that has to be affordable to all. It would be slightly hard for me to stomach if the person that would benefit from learning outdoor skills was restricted by the fact that I wanted to wholly fund my life from running.
But if no-mad running can finance my time to be outside, and pass on skills then it would truly feel like I had made a successful lifestyle. I'm fortunate I suppose in that my day job is also flexible, because I have made it that way. So I have two lifestyles, one that supports the other, and vice versa. Every day is a school day.
But for me, the running brings me something even more special. The feedback of the attendees!
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An alert, this is not a trail running post – it is affected by trail running and what it means to me, but it’ll take a little more explanation to describe the context.
So, I’ve been reading a book published in 1973, by E.F. Schumacher “Small Is Beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered”. In this there are some jarringly powerful statements and thoughts, some of which I am trying to pull into context as the things that matter to me, and to the outdoor sector more generally.
A basic understanding of accounting for this argument is useful. My aim is to keep it succinct, but it is necessarily a bit detailed.
For those not familiar with accounts I’m going to try and run a very quick explanation. Bear with me, it is important! In most business accounts there are two elements to an accounting report, the Profit and Loss (P&L) statement and the Balance Sheet.
The P&L describes the performance of the company over a given time and includes all income and costs – there is a little more about direct costs and overheads but this isn’t needed here.
The Balance Sheet gives a snapshot in time of the assets held by a company. Broadly, this is what it owns, minus what it owes.
So, together the two elements give the total value of a company. The P&L is what is spent to make the income, the balance sheet is the bit that is protected to increase value of ownership.
Right, accounting descriptions over for a bit. The outdoors, nature, natural resources and recreation.
The general conclusion from this study is that canoeing is not harmful to fish populations. Therefore, the main area of conflict between anglers and canoeist centres around the actual or perceived disturbance of angling. Disturbance is in turn allied to the concept of exclusivity with its attendant financial implications for riparian interests and anglers.
This amazed me whilst I was learning; whilst biosecurity and safety were the regular arguments – the financial situation is what repeatedly led to conflict over the use of natural resources. Take away the rights and wrongs of either recreation. It reduces to money and control. Then in 2007, another academic paper was published “Negotiating Recreational Access Under Asymmetrical Power Relations: The Case of Inland Waterways in England” by Andrew Church , Paul Gilchrist & Neil Ravenscroft. This again related to the way in which “ownership” of natural resources changed the way in which moral and social gain can be described and achieved.
I’ve been in many heated arguments, right up to Ministerial level, about the fact that some people pay for countryside access through “ownership” of sporting rights. This is where the accounting bit comes in. In his book, Schumacher argues convincingly that there needs to be a change in our perception of the value of natural resources. Remember this is 1973, and he was the chief economic adviser to the Coal Board. He argues that many government policies, corporations, and at the time, society as a whole put natural resources in the P&L part of the National accounts. Those in ownership, therefore can dictate where the value sits. As an example the Forestry Commission would say, “we can grow a coniferous forest, it’ll cost us this much in staff and this much in machinery and in 20 years it will yield us an income of £x”. That is a P&L calculation, not an assessment of the balance sheet value in doing so.
Schumacher argues that if, as society, we placed natural resources in the Balance Sheet part of accounting, then we’d be more concerned with maintaining the value of our assets. We wouldn’t be eroding the societal and moral value of those assets to prop up our failing P&L. We now all accept that our natural assets are finite and irreplaceable, there is no business adviser that could promote this as a sustainable business practise.
Our actions, post industrialisation have removed the natural buffer. Where nature in the 1800’s could adapt and protect itself from man, we now dominate nature, and tell it what we want to do. We’d like to arrogantly think, at least.
So why is this so important for the outdoor sector? Well in Wales we have the North Wales Outdoor Charter Group, in Pembrokeshire there is the Pembrokeshire Outdoor Charter Group and in the Brecons there is Brecon Beacon Outdoor Charter Group. Fundamentally this group of people place the Natural Resources of Wales in the balance sheet. They see the environment as finite and in need of management to ensure that the asset is maintained, or enhanced for society generally. As a sweeping statement, most land managers are looking at the P&L – the value to them is in the produce of the land, not of the long term asset value.
And there, perhaps the argument ends? Each group looks at the same natural resource in differing ways? Well that is a blinkered and oversimplified view. Many land managers recognise there is a compromise – stripping all the assets from their land leads to cycling and unpredictable cash flow, and so a realistic policy needs to be in place. We’ve ‘developed’ at a high rate through to being a society content with consumption – 100 years ago subsistence farming meant growing food for local communities. Now, we consume all commodities, land managers have to provide competitively and efficiently to maintain their personal way of life – but what is acceptable practise now, we may prove in a decade to be damaging to the value of the natural asset.
Likewise, historically there is also the sweeping statement that outdoor enthusiasts only use the natural resource, and whilst accepting the value of the asset perhaps didn’t enhance it. The formation of charter groups, and the development of responsible recreation is doing much, and discussions about pressure points are encouraging.
However, personally, I think there needs to be a greater realisation of the fact that all those outdoor enthusiasts, and those enabling others, are doing much to help the National profit and loss. The NHS is measured in the P&L area of accounts – money in from government, expenditure out. If we can reduce the expenditure then the profitability of the government, and the nation increases. Outdoor sports reduce expenditure. They create a healthier nation. On Saturday morning parkruns around the UK help people with physical and mental health. They engage volunteers and bring together communities. By running outdoors. Walking, Cycling, Swimming, Canoeing, Climbing and pretty much every non-motorised activity recognises the asset value (balance sheet) whilst contributing massively to the economic viability of a nation (P&L). We don’t need cyclical stresses of funding created by political ambition in the NHS. We need a healthier nation.
However, in England and Wales, the “leisure centre” that creates this, the access system giving public rights to the countryside, is a long way behind Scotland, and other European nations. The feudal system in England and Wales has created a dynamic where personal rights, and wealth can control, through perceived ownership, the asset value of Natural Resources. That feudal system was delivered originally to support the creation of power and wealth, to help with the control of the poor. The emphasis being that if people really mattered, then everyone needed wealth to allow others (those beneath them) to exist. Relatively, it ha succeeded, now the majority has leisure time, rather than the minority wealthy. And yet, when Wales wanted coastal access in the early 2000’s, a few of that historical minority controlled the coastal path delivery to be not entirely coastal! Therefore, this “system” though well developed and embedded is ancient and out of date. The success of wealth creation for more than a few does not reflect the space that the country, society and people now require. Quite a big realisation, perhaps.
It’s worth noting that this “system” is the one that is mainly understood by the political system. The system that defines the policies that regulate and license the use of natural resources. So, when you see a scheme that is treating a natural resource as a short term (in environmental terms) profit stream (like the Conwy Hydroscheme) the public must recognise that Government policy in many places treats our natural assets, not as an asset, but as a part of their P&L. Ironically, and perhaps importantly for this argument, the Conwy scheme is in a National Park, and the very founding principles of a National Park place the natural asset in the National balance sheet. But, because the argument is being brought on a different part of the National accounts, money (P&L) is occasionally more persuasive than looking at the wider value of our National balance sheet and it’s long term contribution to the wealth of a nation beyond any single person or companies value of “ownership”.
So why is this about trail running? For me trail running is about the journey, it’s about valuing the asset through which we move. If we look after the quality of that asset as best we can, then we are all richer. This generation, and future generations.
Then we’d be able to make choices as if people, and not money, really mattered.
Several discussions I have had suggest that Natural Resources for Wales (NRW) are looking at charging structures available to them for recreation that isn’t happening by Public Right. This would potentially include mountain biking that is there by permission only.
Confirmation that there is a newly formed “Mynediad Permissions and Charges working group” is, at best, worrying.
It would be a travesty if NRW, who already seek to charge for any commercial use of the public estate (although perhaps not coherently) seek to effectively ‘tax’ those who are taking part in healthy and responsible recreation. The public estate welcomes massive socio economic benefit to rural areas of Wales – I am hopeful that there can be some innovative solutions, rather than another high profile PR discussion.
I’ve spent a good few years reconciling the Grant in Aid funding that NRW and its legacy bodies (Forestry Commission (Wales), Environment Agency Wales and Countryside Council for Wales) receive(d) with the opportunities they provide to certain (small or exclusive) sectors of society. I will welcome the opportunity to discuss this further.
See my Freedom of Information request and response beneath, and make your own mind. Make your own representation if you feel it necessary!
This blog was finally pulled from my mind by a friend who sent me a quote:
“If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough” – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
I love reading inspirational quotes on social media – they resonate with people, for good reason usually. As much as I like reading them, I try and use them to help me develop my own inspiration.
Whilst I don’t really personally see that I have done anything particularly amazing with my life, I have overcome a number of challenges. Some challenges fell in my path, some I have set myself. Some I’ve overcome easily and some have been a real battle. People call me resilient. I don’t know anything else, I’m me.
I had been trying, for a while, to develop a thought about how sometimes, occasional success is better than occasional failure. I don’t like the word failure. There is not getting to where you want to be, but that isn’t necessarily failure. Only the person who is experiencing it can call it failure. And that one label can be so extremely damaging, I honestly don’t feel it has a place in most peoples vocabulary of thought.
To totally explain where this blog sits, I think ‘success’ needs to be explained. Having worked in a National Governing Body for sport that was driven by success being defined by Government criteria I feel very strongly about the definition of this in sport. Success isn’t necessarily Gold medals, the top coaching award or number of national caps won. I’d agree that this is the pinnacle of sport for some. In fact a very few. But success is how the participant defines it. It is personal. We can talk about athlete centred coaching. That is important, essential. But what about the 1,000’s of people who volunteer at parkrun every Saturday morning. Their contribution, in itself, is success. The run/walker who completes a 5km run for the first time in whatever time, I would suggest is a massive success. A kayaker may not choose an Olympic discipline, but instead be an expedition paddler, or coach educator, or use his skills in a rescue team – more or less of a success than a Gold medal? Who has the right to ask that question?
The same in work, create your own business, create your own success. Earn a squillion pounds, or earn a little. Invest time in your children, grow vegetables, mend cars, stitch blankets, anything, anything that makes you feel proud of yourself. That is success, however you feel it compares to anyone else. Comparison, I think, is nearly as destructive as defining failure, it needs using very carefully.
Being your best then, is about working towards success. There are two parts to this. One is where you’re going, but the other bit is how you get there. In formal speak, one is outcome, one is process.
Success is very rarely about hitting the goal first time. Sure, if your dream is small, then yes, it will happen easily. And, that is the important part to why I see myself as resilient. I will often see success in small things on the way to bigger things. Using an example of climbing a mountain in a certain time. That’s my big goal. I might not get it the first time, the fifth time or the fiftieth time, but I’ll get back up there and give it another go. That isn’t necessarily resilience, just stubbornness! I’ll look at where I’ve gotten better, or where I can improve. Sometimes it is as simple as enjoying the view, and knowing that being outdoors is better (for me) than being in front of a laptop.
And, you know what? For most people I can give them a number of examples where they have taught themselves how not to feel that way. How they’ve been ‘resilient’ and then forgotten it.
I believe that if I’m talking to someone, walking with someone, then they have lost the ability. Somewhere along the line of life, for whatever reason, the joy of being resilient disappeared. I believe we’re all born to succeed. I believe that we teach ourselves to lack belief in achieving our goals. Here’s why. The process of learning to walk, and talk is the same as running up a mountain in a certain time. Ever seen a baby learning to walk? The way different babies achieve it is different. Some crawl, some bum-shuffle, but all develop strength over a few months. Then, they develop balance…keeping that relatively heavy head over relatively small feet happens bit by bit. And then, chaos reigns, they walk. Babies don’t give up because they can’t walk the first time they try. They even chuckle and laugh as they bump back down when they got it wrong. The same with speech, rarely do babies get it right first time, but they keep trying, keep practising.
If you can teach yourself to walk, and talk, what can’t you do? Somewhere along the line we get taught what is ‘normal’. People who choose to challenge that, not to accept mediocrity can be seen as high achievers, obsessive or something else. Perhaps however, they just haven’t forgotten how they learnt to walk?
Once the wall blocking success in our mind has been built, then dreams can be scary, as per the opening quote. However, if you accept that occasionally bumping down taught you to walk, you can also accept that occasionally bumping down when you’re chasing a goal doesn’t make you a failure. That wall will crumble. Obstacles won’t stop you, they might slow you down, but you’ll keep moving. Life isn’t about occasionally not reaching goals, it’s about occasionally achieving success. The journey isn’t smooth. But, just like a coach load of kids love a humpback bridge, learn to love the bumpy. It makes the journey less tiring, less stressful.
Set where you want to go. Then remember, you learnt to walk, and talk, against the odds. So, go where you want. Fly!
Life. It just gets in the way sometimes. Kids, Work, Jobs… for most of us it takes priority over our leisure time.
I’m gently working away at changing that, confident that the balance will get driven back the right way.
Every now and then, snatching a run, making it count, but nothing that has been as consistent as the training during 2015.
That said, the moments, and journeys have offered up more views, more memories than the competitive running, and as I take time to capture them, there is a growing portfolio of running shots that I value.
But, the reason to write this note was inspired after a ‘big three’ 59km, 2,600m of ascent in 6hrs 50 mins – all within 48 hours. I sit here now, my legs feeling ‘shelled’ but my mind feeling inspired.
Work, volunteering with Dolgellau parkrun, cooking, and jobs, all fit within that 48 hours. But away from the numbers I’ve seen amazing views, Deer, Raven, Kites, Buzzards, Barn Owls, Frog spawn, Woodcock, Buffalo, Llama, Black Sheep, heaps of tracks, little birds and little animals. And, in those runs, only a handful of people.
As I ran with Katie around y Garn on Sunday morning, I talked about what it is that defines me as a runner. It is very personal. It is not the runs I do to maintain my fitness and mental health. It’s not the progressive sprints, or hill sessions.
What defines me is new routes, new places, new views, new experiences. It is adventure through running that motivates me. My love of Navigation, my love of wild places and my love of journeying. The times and distances I accumulate as a runner are useful distractions to the fundamental, vital engagement that running gives me with the outdoors.
Here’s to a year of footprints left, and memories taken.
Today I stood on a very pretty crossroads and watched 505 people run Winter Trail Wales. This is a brilliant trail half marathon in Coed y Brenin.
As I stood there watching people racing, and achieving goals it really let me think a little bit more about running for me.
And this is how I thought – in 2015, I ran for 224 hours. 8 hrs and 13 minutes of that was race time.
Now, I really enjoyed my races last year, there were some bits of really important achievement, but I ran for nearly 30 times longer than I raced. And my training last year, whilst I did it, I didn’t love it.
So here’s my not-quite-finished-thought. Where should my focus be, on the hours that I run in training, or on the events. And why are events important to me.
If you run, or train for something, does your event time, or the feeling you get from the event compensate or give a reason for the time and effort in training?
And the importance of these pictures? Well it is a reminder to me that instead of the stress, and anxiety of lining up on a start line, at a given time, to compare myself to a previous time, or to some other runners there is a deep sense of satisfaction of journeying in wild places, on foot. Challenging myself in a way that feels right for where I am on that given day.
I know I need to focus on the good times between a few events, rather than the events themselves, for now at least!
So, maybe I’ll go gentle on myself, or maybe I’ll get cabin fever and need an event to push my training. Can’t be sure, it’s not quite a full thought yet.
The Dragon, facing the Dragon. It has always been pretty symbolic for me. Representing something that was easy to run from, hard to face. I can still hear my Dad telling me, aged 10 to “Face your Dragons!”.
2015 has been a tough year in a number of ways. The final heartbreaking throes of a dysfunctional marriage. After 2 years of trying to find answers, finally accepting there are none. The needs of my two daughters, one with me half the time, one all the time, but for 2 days a fortnight. This and developing my business has been quite draining.
Through these times, running has been an optional extra, but also a really important way to work through my thoughts. A place of disconnected Solace. In terms of me time, and healthy time in stressful periods it is essential (honestly). It has also provided me with friends that are the most respected, anchored and trusted people in my life.
My running had two main aims in 2015, a sub 4 hour Trail Marathon Wales, and the 3 day Ring o Fire. I achieved TMW and in the process picked up an overuse injury that ruled me out of Ring o Fire. My tent buddies from MdS and I had a great time at Hope24 and some much needed social running, with a healthy dollop of machismo.
Whilst I rehabilitated my poorly ankle after TMW, I spent a while trying to work out my motivation for running. I don’t really fit the normal profile for a runner. I’ve done one road race, a half marathon, but don’t really derive pleasure from running in crowds, or towns. I don’t run to collect medals, t-shirts, or to beat people. I finally settled on running for the journey as my meaning.
I love the feeling of moving freely, to places that are remote. The challenge of managing myself and my environment. The feeling of resilience to move through those spaces without a massive sense of insurmountable challenge.
That is the reason I run. That it is my validation. Not peer recognition, nor a talking point. I run, for my own satisfaction. To expose my own vulnerabilities, and then conquer them. To face a smaller Dragon in each run, or to just kick up my heels and fly through an environment that I love.
And that then asked the question why I run in events. Why is it that I am drawn to things that I can run any old time. When it suits me, either alone or with a small group of friends. And that I can’t quite answer. There is the feeling of a safety net, being able to push myself harder than I would alone. Running alone I always try and protect my descending and my ascending, without putting anyone else at risk (friends, or Mountain Rescue). So, an event gives me a place to run “on the limiter”, in a more controlled manner. That encourages me to run drills, to further my technique, my fitness, my enjoyment through nasty sessions that don’t fit my criteria in many ways, but to go to a limit, and stretch it a bit more.
The other is the challenge of someone else’s cunning. Mountain Marathons, are so much more than just running. Club runners typically don’t understand why you would run competitively, not for distance or for time. But, it is more about the craft of moving quickly and accurately, and that really needs an event to be truly testing. Navigating, moving, connecting to that environment and focussing on that movement.
I had tentatively decided that 2016 was going to be a soul running kind of year. No events. But, Marmot24 snuck in, after spotting it in 2013. This is a very unique event format and one that really inspires me, endurance navigation. Then a place at the Brecon Ultra was offered, and that fits for so many reasons – a very special race. I suppose then that returning to Trail Marathon Wales is a must do as simply the best local trail marathon I have, and voted one of the seven best trail races in Europe.
So there we are, in the period of a fortnight, the race calendar for 2016 filled up. And that will keep me moving through the winter months of darkness and cold training. And that will put me in places that I love, that I feel alive and connected to. That is my running plan for 2016.
Did I answer why I run, or why I run events? I don’t think so, but actually, I also am growing more calm with not needing to know.
And where did the Dragon go, when I faced him? Not sure to be honest. Might have to run down his back the following year and have a different view!
I love travelling – not so much the destination, but the journey. I like backpacking, bike packing, canoe camping, overlanding, multiday running and much more.
But, a family has to slow these things, but not stop them.
Vehicles have their good points and bad points – bad for carbon footprint, good for easy travelling. What I wanted to achieve was something that would fit a lot of different criteria and really add something to me and my daughters life.
I’ve had Land Rovers, Toyota Hiace, Ford Transits and Transit connects. All good vehicles for their jobs. A lot of outdoor people favour the VW Transporter, and for good reason – however, living in rural North Wales I wanted something that gave a bit of a better fuel return, was well built and would give a few years service.
After a bit of research, my ideal van would be a VW Caddy Maxi Kombi (5 seats and glazing) but it was a good way out of my price range to get something that would have low miles and a good engine.
Then, Clogau Motors, just down the road from me had a Caddy Maxi panel van, with low miles, a 1.6 TDi engine and the right price. A test drive with my daughter and a bit of money calculating later I had the base vehicle.
Now, I had to convert it, to be a five seater, rear windows, lined and a power supply. I wanted to keep the vehicle as flexible as possible so that it can do the job of a van (i.e. load carrier), take people and kit places, and be a small campervan when needed.
The first job was to decide how to have a power supply. I thought about whether I could have a removable leisure battery, what I wanted to power and when. I quickly realised that I was going to have to give up valuable space to make the van powered, and so decided to go off-grid. More on that later on, but the important thing now was that I didn’t need to run wires whilst I went through the fitting out process.
I really wanted to fit original manufacturers seats – these fold up, lift out, all on simple fixings that are already in the van floor. So after a bit of negotiation I managed to find a supplier, who could get these from a vehicle that had had them removed to allow wheelchair access. To do this the bulkhead had to be removed, this was an unbolt and trim type job. The windows went in at the same time as the seats, and after a bit of negotiation with my insurance company it was accepted as a 5 seater combi van.
The next bit needed a bit of thinking about – because of the camping kit that I wanted to use, I couldn’t box in and insulate the wheel arches, so they got a covering with lining carpet as a first job. Behind the ply-lining on the walls and under the headlining and floor went sheeps wool insulation. On the walls and roof lining went carpet trim, and on the floor went heavy ply, over some ply packers, covered with commercial grade vinyl lining.
There were a few moments of frustration, and the fact I was running out of time before the summer holiday started didn’t do too much to keep things calm.
Lining the strip of bare metal round the rear door was the hardest bit, some awkward, tight radii, and a good bit of swearing I got a finish that I was happy with. YouTube was definitely my friend during this bit of work, and this clip seemed to be the one that I kept coming back to.
I really wanted make sure that the engine battery was kept as unused as possible when having a camper, and as I said earlier I had chosen not to install the costly split charge system and spacing eating leisure battery. Instead I went for a set of battery LED lights in 3 strategic locations, and then added a solar charging kit to my carried stuff. This is a power gorilla, solar gorilla and a USB AA/AAA battery charging system. I knew that I was going to need to run my laptop, recharge phones, camera and batteries during the time away as I couldn’t not work for the trip. It looked like on bit of the trip was going to tie in nicely with a job – nice to align expenses for work, with a leisure trip.
The range of gear from Power Traveller is well worth considering if you want or need to be off grid for any period of time.
The solar gorilla worked well recharging phones and AAA batteries straight from the sun, and was an important part of keeping the power gorilla (basically a big rechargeable battery) topped off.
The power gorilla can be charged from the mains, as well as the solar gorilla. This gave me about 4 hours extra lap top time, but perhaps critically for number one daughter a seemingly endless supply of iPhone recharges. I’ve used both for work when I’ve been away from the office, and the solar charging works really well on the dash of the van inside the windscreen.
The LED lights had about 20 hours on 3 AAA batteries before they started dimming, and again the power gorilla meant that after a couple of hours, what ever the conditions the van would be lit inside again at night. It needed a bit of thought as to how and when what could be charged, but much better for me than the option of a split charge and leisure battery – all the solar kit is all easily transportable and so works in any environment.
The major addition for turning the now, five seat van into a camper was the addition of a boot jump from Amdro. This bit of kit effectively replaced a family tent (that I always hated and wasn’t particularly well suited to anything other than a flat field). The small lift in lift out unit maintains the ability to be a van in the morning and then a camper in the evening. Made from ply, with storage boxes, a drawer with an alcohol stove, fold out bed easily long enough for me at 6’2″, seating for four, a table and water supply this kit drew many discussions on the trip – a real testament to the skill and creativity of the guys at Amdro.
With the addition of a quality cool box, we were all set to head off on an adventure. That might need an additional write up – Dover/Calais crossing with tight border controls, Eiffel Tower, Disneyland, Aire’s, and the Alps. Great trip!
Moving quickly in the mountains is a pleasure, and that means packing light. As winter conditions arrive in Snowdonia there are always people who are not ready for the conditions they face – and they end up on BBC news, or worse, dead, or both. There is currently controversy about whether mountain running, especially big mountain running in tough conditions with light equipment is ok – some high profile runners like Kilian Jornet with big publicity machines are very visibly pushing what the understood limits are and what is thought to be possible in inspiring envionments. But those judgements aren’t being taken lightly or without a serious apprenticeship in the hills.
Please don’t think that what I am saying is you should or shouldn’t run in the hills in winter conditions. I’m not. With the correct knowledge and judgement it is rewarding and largely controllable activity where the risk can be reduced to an acceptable level. Equally, this isn’t intended to be a “this is the right way or only way” type post. It is meant to give a few pointers to those who are thinking about making their first few steps into running in our wilder places during the winter months. For those that know more, or have a different point of view, please feel free to comment, so that can be incorporated too.
I posted a picture of me on the top of Rhobell Fawr, in running gear, and it sparked a fair few private messages. I hope this post answers some of my thoughts.
The most common question was how do you stay safe, what do you take?
My answer is simple, knowledge.
An accident in winter conditions escalates quickly because when travelling light, staying warm depends on being mobile. A sprained ankle is potentially lethal in remote locations, hypothermia the killer. Knowing the terrain is sensible, being able to navigate is mandatory. Knowing where safety is, and being able to get to it is really essential. Having some basic hill skills can make the difference between being uncomfortable, or a whole lot worse.
What do I carry? As well as clothing for moving, (including hat, gloves and the right footwear for the day) I tend to pack an extra warm layer, and a base layer for my core. If needed, I’d make a judgement as to whether the layer I was wearing was wet enough to justify stripping it off, getting a dry one on next to the skin and re-dressing. A shell layer is essential, and full body cover makes a real difference when you’re forced to slow down. A headtorch is sensible on short winter days, even if you don’t plan to use it. Map and compass – should be second nature in wild areas.
[EDITED to add feedback] It was pointed out by Janson Heath and ‘Forest’ Bethel that depending on how far aware from help you are, a sleeping bag, or highly insulating thermal layer (down or primaloft) are sensible additions. Additionally a long day might be made so much better with a lightweight cooker and some hot food.
Like anything, there is no point carrying anything you don’t know how to use. I carry one more sweet snack than I need, as sometimes a quick sugar hit will help with decision making. I also carry my hill safety pack (295g) which carries a few things that I’m confident in using.
It has a SOL emergency bivvy bag. My opinion is that blankets are a waste of time. When you need thermal protection, only getting in a bag, and being able to sort stuff out makes a difference. The SOL bag is a great, reusable bit of kit. I carry a Peperami, food and energy helps with making decisions, not essential but I like it! I carry one number 8 wound dressing, and a 10cm x 10cm low adherent pad. This is for the biggest wound I think I could cope with on my own. Most likely a rip on barb wire, or possibly a puncture wound on a fall. I also carry a 9cm x 6cm adhesive wound dressing to cover small lacerations. Whilst on the first aid theme I have a small kit, this has two steri strips, five normal plasters, three easy access plasters, some fabric strip plaster, 3 small pads (5cm x5cm). Narrow zinc oxide tape, 2 safety pins and 3 benzalkonium chloride antiseptic wipes and 4 panadol complete the first aid kit. I also carry a small lock knife with 2 m of paracord as a lanyard, a sharpie pen (will write on plastic) and a red light that has an SOS flash function. All this goes in a heavy duty double ziplock bag, to keep it dry.
I also carry the knowledge of how to use those things, and a good deal of ability to improvise. I am aware that, in reality I am more likely to use the stuff on others, rather than me. If I can move then I’ll get to somewhere less exposed, this kit might just help in the situation where I can’t move. Knowing to get insulated, off the floor, out of the wind and ideally in somewhere visible seems obvious, but when did you practise it? Why not practise it? I’d suggest some time on the hill, or out in the wilds with a good friend in winter conditions. Try taking a rucksack with plenty of warm clothes. Stop for lunch in your running kit, note how long things take to change in your ability to function, physically and mentally.
I look through my kit every couple of runs, check everything is dry and usable. I also practise my own skills. Use it or lose it is true, and when you need your skills to deal with a situation isn’t the time to practise.
Carrying an ice axe and running crampons isn’t a discussion for here. Yes, they have a place, but due to the skill needed to use these in a running environment I’d suggest the potential number of competent users are limited. The chances of hurting yourself by having these with you increases dramatically, especially if inexperienced. If you are heading to terrain, or ground conditions that need these tools, then you must have practised extensively in a way that already provides you with the required knowledge. My feeling on this is, if you cannot arrest on a technical axe, from every orientation of fall, go run where there isn’t ice. If any of that doesn’t make sense to you then you shouldn’t be in that environment.
When I’m running solo in hard conditions I remove an element of risk by going places where I know I can communicate with others. If I honestly thought to stay safe I would have to endanger the lives of Mountain Rescue volunteers, the only position I have is – don’t go there. But, in the eventuality that I have acted in a reasonable and educated way, the back up of emergency cover is silly not to take. THIS IS AN ABSOLUTE LAST RESORT. However, I have used a phone to give me an alternate, earlier finish point, where I have judged that continuing to plan would be silly. Use phones with discretion in the wild, they can be a useful tool, but not to be relied upon. Tell someone where you are going, how long you’ll be and check in with them. [EDIT to add comment from John Taylor] Remember that the international mountain distress signal is three blasts on a whistle, with a minute delay. In the Alps and the UK this is six blasts, also with a minute delay. The reply from rescuers is three blasts in both cases. Before you add an extra whistle to your kit list it is worth checking your bag or headtorch to see if there is an integrated one already.
You can learn skills a number of ways. Find a knowledgeable friend who will show you, or go on a course. But, practise, practise and practise again.
So, there is no simple “buy this and pack it” advice from me. Exploring wild places is massively rewarding, and competent people make it look deceptively easy. You can, and should explore. You should do this from a position of knowledge.
Know the limit of your ability, know the weather, know the ground conditions, know your kit, observe your surroundings, be prepared to change your plans to suit the conditions or changing conditions. Be prepared to cancel your trip and come back another day.
Have fun, be safe, learn lots and don’t be the next to appear on The News.