The magic of forest running

European indoor 3000m bronze medallist Verity Ockenden on how swapping the track for the wooded trails rejuvenated her this summer

Verity Ockenden

by Verity Ockenden |

This May, a successful stint at altitude in Arizona and then Albuquerque came to a close, following the achievement of my first ever Olympic 5000m qualifying time of 15:03 in the lush, floral coolness of a Los Angeles spring. It was the culmination of an eight-week training camp in the USA which was certainly fruitful in terms of performance, but born from time spent in an inspirational yet arid environment. The mountainous trails of both Arizona and New Mexico took my breath away, both literally and figuratively, their stoic cacti standing tall and lonely as markers between waypoints. And yet, as the Olympic 10,000m Trials beckoned me back to the UK, I longed increasingly for the contrasting greenery of home soil.

My first port of call when I arrived back to the wilds of Dorset were the trails surrounding that oh-so-famous rainy scene in the 2005 cinematic rendition of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, the National Trust’s Stourhead Estate. Situated just down the road from my mother’s house, could I find anywhere more quintessentially British to quench my thirst for home? In the film, Keira Knightley starred as the strong-willed heroine Elizabeth Bennett, not afraid to muddy her hems striding through the surrounding fields despite the judgement of her social ‘superiors’, and I couldn’t wait to spatter my own shockingly bare ankles there with similar glee. Though I managed to lug a suitcaseful of sunshine back to the UK with me, which lasted approximately a week, the Stourton trails remained pleasingly damp but passable and didn’t fail to provide that same exhilaration they had for Austen’s Lizzy. Although they were quite devoid of Darcys...

I had returned from the US a little travel-worn and had 10 days to recover and prepare for my next race. I desperately needed an environment that refreshed and soothed me in both mind and body, and that is exactly what Britain’s forest trails have always done for me. The feeling of being in a forest, immersed, with the rest of the world softly blocked from view, rather than on a road with one singular horizon, the world coming at me, was calming. Muffled footsteps on fallen pine leaves and the rustling canopy above provided a white noise that drowned out the chaos of the rest. Here, I could focus my senses on the present; the smell of damp ferns, peaty earth, crushed pine and the rhythms of my own body as I heard my heart beat louder. This simple reacquaintance with myself in my surroundings made me feel more alive and triggered a purposeful sense of belonging in the world as a natural, active part of an environment that cocooned me on all sides. I was well prepared to go into battle again.

In the week that followed, though I left all I had on the track, setting a 51-second personal best of 31:43.70 to garner a bronze medal and team gold at the 10,000m Olympic Trials, it just wasn’t enough to earn me a ticket to Tokyo. I would have to regroup, and take my second and final shot at the Games in the 5000m Championships on June 27. With three weeks to prepare and having spent all of my rent money on the altitude trip, I re-located again, moving in with some generous friends who had offered to put me up in their spare room free of charge.

Long-time runners like myself, they knew all of the best locales for me to log my miles on soft surfaces or hit a hard measured loop on my workout days. On the hot days we headed for the shade of the Forestry England trails that were so close I could almost jump out of my bedroom window on to them. Dappled light shone through the invigoratingly bright green leaves that also sheltered us from the unseasonably cold rain that was to follow. Though popular with horses and dog-walkers, the sandy, gravelled paths were peaceful enough at 7am and during the evening’s golden hours. Again, I leaned on the sense of calm and escape I found in the forest during these times as a contrast and a break from the intensity of my more structured training. Nobody, not even elite-level athletes, can be switched on, executing perfectly in measured environments all the time. Taking my recovery runs to the forests remained the best way for me to remind myself of the joy of merely existing in this world rather than having to achieve within it all of the time, and helped me to recover from my bittersweet defeat.

These immersive easy runs would often prompt me to write, too. Movement on any scale, whether it be going for a three-mile jog at home or traveling 5000 miles on a plane to get to a race, stimulates my creativity through a changing environment and the promise of the unknown. It triggers contemplation of where I’ve been, where I’m going and why, and a certain amount of introspection about who I am. However,

I often struggle to remember the things I come up with during these runs for long enough to write them down in their original fragments when I reach home. As such, I have taken to repeating them out loud to myself as I run, which in turn helps them evolve into a rhythm or rhyme that happens to match the flow of my stride that day.

The natural elements of the trails I run on become metaphors for aspects of my life. Themes such as growth, resilience, loss and renewal are important to understand on our journeys as humans, and they exist everywhere in nature if we can only notice and learn from them. Learning to view myself as having cycles of blooming and of bareness in which my growth is invisible, like trees do for example, helps me to create a healthy image of myself that I believe in.

As every over-wintered heel

slaps, with birch-bark skin,

they roughly crack

through pavement, trail

and tartan track.

Like roots, conscious

of a sun unseen, they

send sap forth elastically

and drink in lactic like

new leaves.

Like roebuck’s antlers, weapons

sheathed, softly mossed

and not yet sleek,

life’s battles

hone the blades beneath.

’Til gleaming flood lights

dance on scars, that shine

bone white as the moon

in the dark, limbs branching out,

they’ll carry me far.

I use the poems that I write as a way of re-writing the internal narratives that sometimes take over about how I am feeling when I’m running. I often have days on which I find it difficult to snap out of thoughts like “my legs feel heavy” but when negativity like that creeps in I remind myself to look outside instead of in. I find something I admire about the environment I am in and create parallels between those qualities and my own. In this way, I work on one of the most underrated aspects of elite performance, my mental game. I know the trails I have run these past weeks have strengthened not only my body but my belief in what it can do, if I only ask it to.

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