Run in the woods
Recently I returned from a run in the woods in a state of high euphoria. I was buzzing. The light was perfect with intense late autumn colours. I captured some of these images with my camera. I wondered if others experience this heightened sense of self that comes after a brush with nature? What is it that makes a run in the woods so special?
As I thought about it, there was a sudden realisation that this is where my own running journey really started. Maybe that’s the reason I always feel this way. Is it as simple as that?
The spark that ignited my love of running hit me when I was fifteen years old.
Memories of cycling along quiet back lanes with a couple of school friends from my family home in Clitheroe, nestled in the damp, yet beautiful Ribble Valley. Half an hour and a handful of miles to the north, to a small mixed woodland, called Bashal Eaves. A low key orienteering event was taking place there, and my mates Gary and Mike were keen to come along too. It was the first time I’d gone to an event under my own steam, although I had been orienteering a few times before with my dad. Almost all of these events took place on dreary open moorland or in dense man-made plantation forest. Neither were that inspiring.
Now I clearly remember that special moment. Even thirty years later, I’m smiling at the memory of it. I was running through dense, dark conifer trees, concentrating hard, trying to read my map. Almost impossible to keep any momentum on the rough ground underfoot. Staggering around, fighting over rotten tree trunks, stepping knee deep into hidden ditches full of black stinking mud.
Then I came out into an area of mixed deciduous trees. Shafts of sunlight streaming through the leaf canopy. My feet felt lighter, I had a spring in my step. I could run more quickly. Moving through the trees gave a real sensation of speed, perceived or otherwise.
That was it. I was hooked. That was the moment I suddenly appreciated the sheer, exhilarating joy of running. I’d fallen in love and I’ve been under it’s spell ever since.
Without fail, every time I run in the woods, I come back gushing with enthusiasm and inspiration. If I’m feeling in good shape and want to run really hard and test myself, I’ll go to run in the woods. Nothing beats a tough fartlek session through the forest, playing at speed, a return to being human.
On the other end of the scale, whenever I feel jaded and in need of a pick-me-up, I go and find some trees to run through.
Once I ran barefoot in a pine forest in Norway, where the ground was covered in deep moss.
Another memory of my first orienteering international in Sweden, when I saw a huge moose antler lying amongst the bilberry bushes. I stopped in my tracks and carried the thing nearly a kilometre to the next checkpoint, hiding it close by. It weighed two or three kilos. As soon as I finished the course, I doubled back into the forest to retrieve my trophy. I can’t remember my result from the event.
Standing mesmerised for a few minutes during another big event in Scotland, my first encounter with a Hawfinch.
In late summer, or autumn, I’ll often come back from a run in the woods with a bag full of wild mushrooms. Apricot yellow chanterelles perhaps, or a big, slug eaten cep. Occasionally I’ll discover something exotic, like a cauliflower fungus or the delicate purple of an amethyst deceiver. Year after year, I return to these ‘hot spots’ when the time feels right, my running turning into foraging missions.
I never tire of taking photos of all the simple things. Leaves against the sky. Light and shade. Or the graceful shape of a tree trunk. I get inspired by winding trails just inviting you to run and explore.
Silent, secret places
Woods are silent places. Full of secrets.
Stepping off the trails, you can soon be in another, primeval world. All your senses become razor sharp, attuned to every nuance. A loud, rustling amongst the leaves turns out to be simply a blackbird. An angry bark from a stray dog, a roe deer buck, calling out a warning.
A strong, almost sweet, musky smell of a fox in spring. Heavy, earthy aromas of organic matter slowly decomposing in the rains of late summer.
Often I’ll stop and stand completely still for a few minutes. Letting the woodland life slowly return back to normal. The deathly quiet starts to change. Animals and birds busy themselves again. So much can happen. The distant incessant chittering call from woodpecker chicks in a rotten old silver birch tree. The rounded silhouette of a tawny owl, big black vacant eyes following you, then silently taking off.
Before you know it, the minutes have flown by and an equilibrium has been restored, a nature cure.
For inspiration, I just go for a run in the woods.
© Graham Patten
11th December 2017
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