‘Life for me isn’t about going out and seeing how drunk I can get on a Friday night. Life is about being alive out on the trails and exploring the amazing world in which we live.’ Runner Heidi Davies is not your average teenager. In this blog post, the 2016 European Mountain Running bronze medallist writes about life as an 18-year-old obsessed not with parties, but with off-road running adventure.
Silent envy on the school playground
If you were to say to my ten-year-old self that I would become a runner, I’d have laughed before eagerly sticking my head back into the book I was reading. Sport was never enjoyable for me as a young child. I would observe the other children on the playground with silent envy at how easily they were able to play ball games and run around without getting out of breath. The fact that I can’t remember a single moment of the 2008 Beijing Olympics shows how uninterested I was in sport.
I much preferred walking and would spend many days exploring the countryside of Mid-Wales with my family. Looking back now, I suppose it was a natural progression and inevitable I would unearth my love of running as a refreshed way to explore the environment in which we live.
My first experience of running actually came in a school cross-country race. Up until then I had no interest in sport, but I enjoyed that initial thrill of trying to run as fast as I could around a boggy field. I found it a battle with myself as much as against the other children, which suited my slightly shy, introverted personality. The way I perceive it, running is the most natural form of movement for the human body. This rings true when I’m out there on the trails; jumping over rocks, floating on silent strides, the wind in my ears with just my shadow and the natural environment for company. It’s easy to feel a strong connection to our ancestors who performed this pure movement many years ago.
From unhappy track runner to happy trail runner
But it’s not all been plain sailing. There were many tears after races when I was in my early teens. I was competing against more or less the same girls, almost every weekend, not getting any better and beating myself up about my poor performances. I lost enjoyment in running. I then – thankfully – took another metaphorical stumble and discovered mountain and trail running. This was just what I needed. A new challenge and a change of scenery.
When you’re a runner in your early teens, it’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing only on performances. I’ve been there myself and it’s not a nice place. I think this is a type of mentality found within the environment of track racing. You’ve got to get that personal best otherwise you’re no good. You’ve got to finish in the top three at the various national championships and prove to people you’re a good runner at the age of only 13 or 14. Where’s the fun in this? I’ve seen too many talented young athletes drop out of the sport because of this pressure weighing down on them. Only a few of the girls I was racing against on the cross country and track circuit when I was a younger teenager are still involved in the sport. For me, there’s too much focus on success and performances and not enough focus on enjoyment and development. I’m glad I found mountain and trail running. Had I not, I honestly don’t think I’d be a runner today.
It’s like that first breath of fresh air after exiting an exam room
Mountain runners are a different breed. Through the nature of the sport, the focus is more on fun and development and there are no egos. Everyone is an equal and has an appreciation for the environment and world in which we live. We know we are lucky to experience this through running remote trails. It’s like that first breath of fresh air you crave after being stuck inside an exam room for hours. Refreshing, invigorating and a completely newfangled approach to enjoying the whole running experience.
The culture is something completely different to what I’d experienced previously. The one obvious difference is that mountain runners smile. Running in the mountains or on the trails makes people happy. How can it not when you get to scamper over terrain in breathtakingly beautiful surroundings? Yes it can hurt, your lungs can feel on fire, your legs like bricks, but it is pure enjoyment…. even when racing!
And what about the sacrifices? For most 18 year olds going to sleep early on a Friday night would be at the bottom of their priority list. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to turn down invitations to go out with my friends over getting some sleep ready for a race the next day. “I’m really sorry, I can’t. I’ve got a race” is something I’ve said probably millions of times. But, to be honest, I don’t really see this as a sacrifice. Life for me isn’t about going out and seeing how drunk I can get on a Friday night. Life is about being alive out on the trails and exploring the amazing world in which we live.
I honestly can’t imagine my life without mountain and trail running. It’s opened my eyes to the world, it’s different cultures and languages. And as I get older I find myself craving future adventures and continuously looking forward to where the sport may take me next.
Next stop: 2016 World Mountain Running Championships
That next stop is actually where I am now, Livingo, in the heart of Northern Italy’s mountains. It’s 1,800m above sea level and every mountain runners’ paradise. I’m here with some of the British Athletics mountain running team to acclimatise for the World Mountain Running Championships, being held in Bulgaria on Sunday (September 11). It’s been an invaluable experience – and my first at altitude. I love waking up each day to a chorus of cowbells and marmots whistling, seeing the magnificent mountains encompassing the horizon, and then heading out to explore them. A run in the mountains at the hands of mother nature. There is so much freedom in that.
To all younger athletes out there, I urge you wholeheartedly to give mountain and trail running a try. If you hate it then fair enough, go back to the track or cross-country and try your best to succeed there. If you find you love it like I do, I can assure you that the feeling will only intensify with the places you run, the people you meet and the adventures you will share. It’s so much more than just a sport or a race. Go try it and see if it steals your heart too.
* Depending how hard the terrain is, I will either wear the TrailTalon 250 (reviews) or the X-Talon 225 for the junior women’s uphill-only race at the World Mountain Running Championships. If the trails are hard-packed and stony, the TrailTalon 250 will be ideal but if there’s sections where it’s soft and muddy underfoot then I will opt for the X-Talon 225 as the the more aggressive outsole cleats will give me more grip.