The Running Researcher

Working in the CCRI I spend a lot of time wrestling with data from large surveys, promoting our activities on Social Media, and analysing interviews from farmers and other rural stakeholders.  It’s a relief therefore, when I get out of the office to spend quite of lot of my time running – mostly in the countryside. It is something I have done ‘seriously’ for perhaps 10-15 years, both for the physical benefits but also the psychological satisfaction it gives me. I first started running merely to occupy some spare time I had, probably around 1999-2000, then in 2002 I ran my first race – Cardiff marathon, in a reasonably respectable time of 3hours 44minutes. After this, I began to take part regularly in races, although never a contender at the sharp end of things, I was of a reasonable standard.

Day 2 - Coast to Coast
Day 2 – Coast to Coast

Within a few years I started to explore ‘ultra’ races – which was something I was unaware of, other than Comrades marathon in South Africa – a 56 mile race between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, commemorating South African soldiers killed during World War 1, held since 1921. I soon found many of them were off-road in the countryside and would be much more appealing than road runs. Living in Cheltenham I had ample footpaths and bridleways to explore for training – and did just that, linking the myriad of rights of way in the Cotswolds and created many routes ranging from a ‘short’ 10 miles to much longer 50 miles. My first ultra-distance race was the ‘Round Rotherham’.

A weathered waymarker on the coast to coast
A weathered waymarker on the coast to coast

Running along many of the same rights of way at different times of the year I began to notice the various seasonal changes that occur such as with plants and animals. Also whether to avoid certain areas if it has been overly wet, and in particular the changes that take place on farms which the routes would regularly cross. Whether stock are out in fields, which crops have been planted – and also walls repaired or fences put in place. Given that my job regularly involves interviewing farmers, I began to think, and certainly hope that this might help me understand a little more about the farming sector as I am not from a farming background.

Over the next few years my running improved – I got faster (it never gets easier, you just go faster – Greg LeMond), and actually began to get, in my opinion, reasonably good. I was also taking part in Long Distance Walkers Association events, which accepted runners at their longer events and took me to places throughout the country – seeing areas I probably would never have explored, and I loved it. In 2010 though I suffered with a stress fracture, and that put me out for most of the year. I eventually returned to regular running in early 2011, and longed for the sense of exploration again – and rather than taking part in so many events, I decided to create little adventures – and took to the trails, with a small backpack a map and compass.

A view of the Cheviots and Nick on the summit of Cross Fell
A view of the Cheviots and Nick on the summit of Cross Fell

Since 2011 I have run (with some walking!) the Coast-to-Coast, Cotswold Way, Thames Path, Wolds Way, Cleveland Way, and Pennine Way. Each has enabled me to experience some fantastic parts of the country, while at the same time providing mental and physical challenges. Given that I am unsupported on these trips with all of my belongings in a small 25 litre backpack, I tend to average about 25-30 miles per day – although the last day on the Pennine way (268 miles in 9 days) was a tough 38 miles.

More recently my work in CCRI and my running have started to converge – in the sense that I have been involved in a number of projects which have taken me back to some of the very places that I have run through over the last few years. As part of the PEGASUS project I visited the Northern Pennines, an area I went through whilst running the Pennine Way.   During the run I stayed at the YHA in Alston, and was all too aware of what the weather can throw at you even in the late spring!  Just the other month I interviewed farmers in Farndale (famous for Daffodils), on top of the North York Moors, and in the Cotswolds – all of which I have explored whilst running. Being able to relate to the people you are speaking with – even at this level, I think shows that you can understand some of the pressures they face, a degree of familiarity with the area and importantly sincerity towards them.

A coastal view on the Cleveland Way (with typical baggage)
A coastal view on the Cleeveland Way (with typical baggage)

As I mentioned, although I am not from a farming background being immersed in the countryside I think gives you an appreciation of some, but certainly not all, of the issues faced by farmers and rural communities. It is certainly an opportunity to create a conversational link between yourself and someone else. I recall staying at a Farm B&B where there was a Higher Level Stewardship agreement and the farmer was incredibly proud of his Bee Orchids and the work he was doing as part of his agreement. He also explained about the various scheduled ancient monuments that I would be passing the following day, giving me a better understanding of the area. These trips are very much physical, but they are also learning experiences both about myself and the landscape through which I am travelling.

A 5am start from Mankinholes YHA ~35 miles to Edale
After a 5am start from Mankinholes YHA ~35 miles to Edale

Some running highlights:

  • 2007 =6th Ridgeway race (19hr 31min) 86 miles
  • 2007 3rd JW Ultra (3hr 59min) 30 miles
  • 2008 9th Grand Union Canal Race (34hr 52min) 145 miles
  • 2008 2nd JW Ultra (3hr 16min) 30 miles
  • 2009 12th Draycote Water (4hr 29 min) 35 miles
  • 2009 3rd Grand Union Canal Race (31hr 57min) 145 miles
  • 2012 28th Thames Path (21hr 53min) 100 miles
  • 2013 1st Joust 24hr Race (186km/23hr)
  • 2014 24th Compton Downland Challenge (6hr 41min) 40 miles
  • 2015 10th Compton Downland Challenge (6hr 16min) 40 miles