Thursday, 8 March 2012

Hill running

Glen Ceitlin granite boulder hunting

Hill running was always a discipline I couldn’t get my head round. For the last ten years or so I’ve done a little every year, for one reason alone - to lose weight for hard rock climbing. Left to it’s own, my body settles at a stocky build well too heavy for anything harder than 8c. So a couple of times a year, I tend to do a bit of running to get in shape for something hard in sport climbing or bouldering.
Although it doesn’t even come close to the enjoyment I get from almost any type of climbing, I still enjoy running for a few different reasons. When I lived in Dumbarton in the mid 2000s and was training to get strong enough to climb Rhapsody, I used to do my fingerboarding and endurance circuits each day and then go running on the streets late at night. I used to use it to switch off and remind myself why I was doing all this training. I wasn’t doing the run in a particularly scenic place, so the enjoyment was purely internal. At that time, I used to think of hill runners as crazy. It just seemed so hard and relentless. How could you ever be fit enough to be able to enjoy it. Only later I understood how slowly hill runners (except the real pros of course) run uphill.

Now I live in the mountains I enjoy running primarily for the scenery and terrain. A great formula for me has been to use my runs to explore potential new bouldering spots in the more remote highland glens. Sometimes there are great boulders, sometimes there is just nice scenery and weather. Either way, it is enjoyable and answers a curiosity.

Nice big boulder, a few good easier climbs to go on this. 

I particularly enjoy these hill runs if the terrain itself is quite technical; rough paths, rocky ridges or slabs and even some scrambling. I don’t think I could ever sustain long runs on open trails, forestry tracks or roads since having experienced the hill running in the Scottish Highlands. Wild mountain areas all over the world have this opportunity to explore really interesting mountain terrain, unfolding I front of you as you move quickly through it.
Running the other day in Glen Ceitlin on my first run of the spring season, I was reminded that the feeling of running on open mountainside (apart from the real uphill parts) is like floating. It takes so much concentration to move at speed between rocks, tussocks, holes and over streams without falling over. Yet it is not thinking - just immediate, subconscious reaction to the movement sequence demanded from split second to second. Despite having to focus hard, your conscious mind has the chance to sit back, relax and enjoy being there.
Hill running suddenly makes sense when you think of it in these terms - a feeling of flying over the terrain with little conscious effort. It’s obvious really that it would have to hold an enjoyment that was very strong, to be worth all the hardship that goes with it for those who do it all the time. Proper training for top performance in any sport has it’s fair share of grinding hard work doing boring exercises for the rewards. Hard climbing training, despite it’s hardships (lactate, finger skin destroying circuits and repetitive finger strength exercises) still probably has nothing on endurance running in this respect.

It’s true though that such feelings are fleeting. Just as I was floating along, dreamily pondering these ideas while running back down Glen Ceitlin, I misjudged the consistency of the bog ahead and dropped up to my knees in slurping peat porridge, lunging forwards with my momentum to land on my knee on a granite boulder beyond. After rolling around, clutching my knee and moaning for a few minutes, I limped off down the glen. Brought back down to earth.


  1. Great post. I have gone on occasional trail running binges in the foothills and taller mountains of the Front Range and always found it rewarding. Combined with a bouldering circuit, it can be great training as well.

  2. I think you summed it up perfectly. It also explains why hill running is more fun the more you do it--the better you are, the more often you get that feeling of flying. And being able to cover lots of ground quickly is always a big plus.

    The other good part of it, for me anyway, is setting off on a really long race/run with some sort of unusual or difficult conditions. You have an idea of what will happen but you don't know for sure; it's a lot like setting off to onsight a route at your limit, although generally with the running, at least the possible outcome of death is off the table!

  3. Thanks! - I've always wondered about the role of running in yr training, given its non-specificity to climbing. Great post!

  4. Oh dear, I just love the thought of the body getting stocky and only being able to climb at 8C. If only it was the same for me, but to each his own. I run a lot as well and mostly on forest trails, road etc and for exactly the same reasons but at a sub basement levelto you. Still we all do it to challenge and better ourselves. Lovely blog.