I’m not paying to run. No, really, I’m not.
Okay, cards on the table – I’m tight. No, I’m not drunk, just a tad careful with money, so when I overheard some of the people in my running club talking about paying to go on a run, I was more than a bit surprised. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been paying to enter races for 30-odd years. That seems okay to me, although why anyone would think a goodie bag containing vouchers and an out-of-date cereal bar is good value, I’ll never know. But these people weren’t talking about a race, they were talking about a run. A run? Put the trainers on, one foot in front of the other and go. No chip timing, no number, no energy drinks, no lurid baggy T-shirt, no road closures, no finish-line photos. Just a run. ‘But it’s a trail run,’ they said. ‘And?’ I said. ‘What difference does that make?’ I should explain.
I started my running on the roads, on my tod and I liked it. Occasionally, I’d potter across a field or round a park, but mainly I stayed within the bounds of civilisation. Things carried on like this for a good many years until I did something a wee bit crazy – for me – and joined a club. I didn’t research the club, I simply turned up and found the first thing they did was head up into the hills. Seasoned fell runners to a man (and woman) they enjoyed nothing more than a 20-mile trot over the Peak District moors by moonlight, followed by a hell-for-leather descent to the valley below. Within a week I had bought off-road shoes and was following them joyfully over the peat and heather, collecting mud and midge bites. It was wonderful. And apart from the studded soled shoes, it was free. Then I moved house and it all stopped.
I was back in Lancashire, where I’d been born and bred. I’d picked up an injury that wouldn’t shift and for a good while I struggled to run. Eventually, I managed to string 3 miles together without falling apart and joined a local group. I trotted about a bit on my own, I ran about a bit with the group, but however much I said I preferred to get off the roads, I rarely did it. I’d potter across a field or round a park, back in the old familiar. And that was part of my problem because to get away from the roads, I needed to know where to go.
I hadn’t lived in Lancashire for over 25 years. I’d forgotten places that were on my doorstep and had no confidence to explore on my own. So, while I was flogging up the side of an A road, clocking up a ten-miler, with a nod to my off-road days that was no more than a quarter mile on a well-used bridleway, my club-mates were out enjoying the wilds, the dells, the hidden cloughs and cut-throughs, tussocky grass, butterflied-meadows, tiny green lanes, bogs, the scent of wild garlic, the snares of brambles and skylarks overhead. But they were paying. And running is supposed to be free, isn’t it? I maintained a ridiculous argument with myself for a while. “You can do it all for free.” “Yes, but you’re not, are you?” And that was the decider. I needed something to get me off the roads, and as the cliché goes, you can’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
I signed up for an LTR Taster. And I’ve been back. Four runs now, and another two booked, and hang the paltry expense because every penny is worth it. I’ve got my head around it now. I’m not paying to run. I’m paying for the privilege of being guided, of experiencing a well-thought-out and tested route, where there will be someone who knows the stile is rickety or that there’s a route that avoids the dairy herd by nipping through a ginnel. I’m paying so that I don’t have to carry a map (and my navigation skills are limited), so that I don’t have to keep stopping to weigh up the merits of turning left, right or of going straight on. I’m paying so that I’ll see the charming bridges and the ruins, so that I’ll brave the stepping stones rather than step around them. I’m paying to have things like parking and café stops seamless and sorted, and for guides with experience on the trails that even if I run for another thirty years (and I’m planning to) I could never hope to amass. I’m paying because it works for me.
I’ve seen parts of the county I never knew existed. I’ve met some great people and screamed with laughter. I’ve marvelled at the constellation of moss on a gate post and felt mud ooze over the tops of my shoes. It’s playing out for big kids. And there’s another magic trick to the LTR experience that makes it worth every penny – I’m feeling happier than ever that I’ve moved back to Lancashire. It’s a beautiful part of the world, and I’m going to run through more of it.