Blaze a trail in the great outdoors

THE Leaderfoot Viaduct spotted across a vast field of oilseed rape. Wind whipping across the dunes at Tyninghame beach.

THE Leaderfoot Viaduct spotted across a vast field of oilseed rape. Wind whipping across the dunes at Tyninghame beach.

The sun rising over Aonach Mor. Scotland’s landscape – its trails and paths, its rivers, forests, coastline, hills and barren open spaces – was surely made for running.

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And while this month has already seen an influx of squeaky-trainered newbies hit the pavements, determined to fulfil a resolution to get active, a growing number are turning their backs on tarmac for something altogether more wild: the joy of exhaust-free air, of splashing through burns and leaping across boulders, of properly exploring this country we call home.

People have been running on trails and paths for as long as history,” reasons Susie Allison, “road running is a relative late-comer.”

The author of Scottish Trail Running came to the sport from a mountaineering background. Then she realised it was more fun running in Scotland’s hills than simply walking them. “The appeal for me is just being in the outdoor environment, getting away from the traffic, the noise and the bustle and just being in the natural environment.

“And running down a hill is absolutely fantastic.”

Running in general is growing in popularity, she says, as people become more aware of their health – “and also find that exercise is actually quite fun. But trail running and adventure racing have really grown in popularity over the last few years.”

The appeal is in the pure joy of getting out there. “If you’re trail running you tend to have a different set of priorities to a lot of road runners,” says Allison. “The emphasis for me is much more about being outside and just enjoying it, not looking at my watch and thinking, ‘Right, I need to go a little bit faster then I can get under my PB.’ It’s just about going out and having a nice time rather than achieving a particular goal.”

Having said that, there are plenty off-road races if that’s your thing, and Allison has taken part in more than her fair share of mountain marathons. She must register my gasp of awe, so insists these events cater for all abilities, not just the uber-fit. “There are two ladies I’ve seen at a number of events and they’re massively inspirational. I think one of them is in her mid-60s and the other is over 70 and they’re there, they’re carrying all their overnight kit, they’re camping in boggy, tussocky fields, then they’re doing a second day. That’s what I want to be doing when I’m in my 70s.”

It takes a slightly different skill set to road running, she adds. “You have to take a little bit more care; you have to watch where you put your feet. Some trails are absolutely no different to running on a road but trail running covers a very wide spectrum. There could be rocks and tree roots, it could be quite uneven. But the skills you develop are very subconscious. Your eye will pick up flattening or you’ll learn it’s better to go on top of the pebble rather than slip off the side of it. There’s a lot of subconscious foot placement skills that you develop just through doing it. It’s just a question of getting out there.”

Her book covers an introduction to trail running, a guide to the kind of equipment (if any) and type of shoes required, and detailed maps for 70 runs ranging from 3km city jaunts to an overnighter around the breathtakingly beautiful Knoydart peninsula, taking in its peaks, glens and sea lochs.

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The second longest – and one of Allison’s favourites – is the 50km route circling the Cairngorms. “I remember rocking up in the car park pretty early in the morning, the sun was rising and it was just beautiful, with the early morning sunshine on the Caledonian pine trees. Looking up, the hills were bathed in this amazing rosy glow.

“I set off going over the Ryvoan Pass, then the route goes over the shoulder of the hill and drops down to the Fords of Avon. That’s the most serious river crossing in the book – you kind of rock hop.”

Each run in the book is graded by distance, climb, navigation skills required and chances of getting your feet wet. But should safety also be a concern?

“I was a little nervous about doing so much running on my own when I was researching the book,” admits Allison, “but there are a lot more places I would not go running in the city. I find being in the hills so much safer.

“Just take the normal precautions you would do if you were heading out on the hills. Make sure you know where you’re going, you know it’s within your capability, you’ve checked the weather forecast and you know the conditions are going to be suitable. Just be careful. It’s no different from any other outdoor activity.”

But if you’re new to the sport or are just short of time, you don’t have to venture deep into the Highlands to experience trail running. “You can just go for a run round Mugdock Country Park, outside Glasgow, or up Arthur’s Seat – that’s off-road running.

“Most towns have somewhere where you will run along a road then you’ll find a little route or a river bank or something to get that natural outdoor environment,” she adds. “To me, that’s preferable than being on the road with the traffic.”


Trail shoes

“You want something that has a bit more grip on the sole,” advises Allison. “Any running shop will have the full range, from dedicated road shoes right up to very lightweight, knobbly-soled fell shoes. For trail running you want something in the middle – it will probably look more like a road trainer but will have the grip underneath.”


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“Synethetic materials are recommended as cotton takes a long time to dry and can rub badly when wet. Multiple thin layers are more flexible for regulating temperatures than one thick layer.


“For short routes there is little need to carry anything at all. For longer routes, food, water and additional clothing are the basic extras.”

Scottish Trail Running by Susie Allison, published by Pesda Press, £15.99

Twitter: @ruth_lesley

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