Originally published in Like the Wind #5
A cup of tea. One in particular seems to stick in my mind. Poured from an old Thermos, somewhere in a car park in North Wales. It wasn’t even a great cup of tea. A little cold from sitting in the boot all day. But, after a hard day of walking in the hills, what to the outside world might seem insignificant and every-day, here was the greatest of rewards. I’ve found time absorbed in the great outdoors re-sets life’s priorities.
Perhaps it seems strange to trace my love of trail-running to a cup of tea, on a trip to Snowdonia where I didn’t even run a single step. And yet it sticks in my memory. It wasn’t a turning point exactly, but where a number of threads of thought all converged. It was the first trip in a long while that hadn’t revolved around a set of wheels.
In the world of hot beverages, it’s no great surprise that it’s coffee that goes hand in hand with cycling, a sport I had slowly but surely become obsessed with. Like the pursuit of good coffee, cycling rewards fastidiousness, fussiness and even a little snobbery. Always a new piece of gear to buy and to try. I’d developed many of the traits that such purists share.
Not that it’s about the relative merits of different sports (or even different drinks for that matter). Cycling has formed a fundamental part of my fitness and it gave me the taste for the perverse pleasure of self-inflicted suffering at the hands of a mountain ascent — I wouldn’t be the runner I am without it. But trail-running came at a time when I needed to kick some bad habits, both physically and mentally. It was a chance to strip it right back to the bare essentials. Two legs. Two feet.
My aim for last year was ‘to go easier on myself’. It would be fair to say that 2 trail marathons and a 24 hour team relay in a rookie running season stretched that definition. And yet, it was a success. Because above all, I started to change my mindset. I loosened the grip of my inner control-freak. I learned to run slow. I kept broad goals rather than chasing specific ones, and I learned to go how the mood took me.
It’s not that I haven’t had to push hard, it’s just that running trails naturally makes it difficult to obsess about times, or splits. I have to listen to my body (Will my lungs explode? Am I going to die slipping on a rock?) If I dig deep, it’s because I want to be out there doing it. I’ve learned to appreciate the simple pleasures. Those moments of joy that are their own reward, like that cup of tea in the car park.
When December came around, even with no races in the diary, I jumped at a chance to run on Dartmoor, to explore somewhere new, without an agenda. I can’t have gone more than a couple of kilometres, I had barely settled into any rhythm, when I crested the first hill and stopped in my tracks. The panorama opening out before me. This wild, dramatic landscape drenched in winter sun. A rocky, technical trail winding down toward the reservoir in the distance.
I paused for a minute. There was not a soul around and this was all mine for the taking. I picked up my feet and ran. Free. Drinking it in.