What an inclusive trail race taught me about learning to love running

Running should be about community, enjoyment and celebrating what your body can do – things we often forget when we put pressure on ourselves. But an Ultra Black Running event helped Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi rediscover the fundamentals behind learning to love running again.

To look at the professionals, you’d think that running was a pretty diverse sport. Our greatest track athletes in recent years have been Black or mixed race, while world record-breaking marathon runners have come from Ethiopia and Kenya. But the picture on an amateur level is different.

Jogging and racing are overwhelmingly white sports. Parkrun is free and ubiquitous and yet, any events I’ve been to have been populated by white middle-class runners. I often find myself surrounded by men during races – the lack of female competitors noticeable.

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But this weekend, I went to my first trail race, organised by Ultra Black Running, Maverick Races and Moju. Founded by the effervescent Dora Atrim, a Nike+ run coach, Ultra Black Running is a club that champions and empowers Black women and non-binary people in trail running. As well as UBR, Black Trail Runners (a community committed to increasing inclusion, participation and representation of Black people in trail running) and members of Run Dem Crew were participating and offering help.

Trails aside, this was the first running event I’ve been to where there were as many – if not more – non-white and female faces than white men. And it was bloody brilliant. The music at base camp was great, the post-race food was delicious (Jollof Mama) and the overall vibe was relaxed and supportive – a far cry from the often nervous atmosphere you often experience at road races. 

The trail itself was hard; just over an hour of hills, brambles, mud. I had to get up at 5.30am to get there. But the event taught me some important lessons about enjoying running for what it is: a chance to get out in the country, to meet new people and to enjoy what your body can do.

Aside from a shiny new medal, here’s what the Ultra Black Running x Maverick trail race taught me about learning to enjoy running.

Don’t let inexperience put you off

This was the first time my housemates and I had ever tried trail running. It was also the first trail race of half the people I spoke to in the queue for the last minute nervous wees. But as with many running events, the veterans around did their best to reassure and encourage us. One pair of women told us that we’d be back next year for round two and that there was no pressure as they’d definitely be bringing up the rear.

One thing that always puts me off even trying trails is the question of shoes. I don’t own trail shoes and I didn’t want to buy a pair before I’d done an event. At this race, however, Adidas had come with a haul of Terrex Speed running shoes and we were able to swap our clean road runners for new, flashy shoes. Given how muddy and difficult some of the terrain was, I thanked Adidas continuously for most of the race – particularly when I misjudged a puddle and plunged up to my ankle in mud. All I had to do was leave my own shoes and a bank card back at the site and I could get this pair as muddy and battered as I liked. I’m now seriously tempted to buy a pair myself… but I’m going to need to sign up for a few more trail events first!

Find a race that allows you to try on trail shoes if you don’t own a pair, or does discounts for specialist kit.

Try to look up

When you run on the road, there’s always stuff to look at – tiny dogs, bad drivers, people muttering to themselves etc. And unless you’re running in a very dilapidated part of the East End (me), the chances of you falling over potholes and uneven paving is quite rare. In the countryside, however, the ground is far more treacherous. You’ve got tree roots, puddles, mud baths, brambles, nettles, rocks, random holes. You have to look down and around to make sure that you don’t fall arse over tit or sprain your ankle.

However, looking down all the time means that you won’t be able to absorb the brilliant scenes around you. Running in the countryside is a spectacular experience and one that’s guaranteed to leave you feeling more relaxed, thanks to the ridiculous amounts of green and blue space. So remember to look up when you can.

Talk to people

At this sort of event, people want to talk. This isn’t your typical heads-down-Garmin-on road race. Talk to people in the bathrooms and at the start line. Introduce yourself to the people running the show. Exchange words with the people you find yourself running with and help anyone who needs it.

Other people aren’t your competition so don’t be afraid to befriend, clap and lend a hand when you come across other people.

Look up at the nature around you when it’s safe to do so.

Run with friends…

For years, I ran on my own. Running on your own can be great; it’s a time to enjoy being on your own, processing your own thoughts and zoning out. But racing alone can be nerve-wracking.

This race was unique in that most people came with club friends, partners, dogs or, in my case, housemates. We schlepped down to Kent together and went through all the pre-race stuff like queuing for the loo, bag drop and warming up as a group. This was one housemate’s first-ever 11km race and they were quite content to go at a pace that was good for them, so my boyfriend and I took off ahead, surrounded by other groups and pairings.

… but don’t be afraid to go at your own speed

Twenty minutes in, it became clear that my boyfriend was struggling a little more than me on the hills and so I ran ahead. I’d wanted to run together but in a bid to give the event my all, I wanted to push on a little harder. Sometimes, enjoyment comes from knowing you left everything you had on the road/track/trail. My housemate came past the finish line at her own pace, feeling triumphant. 

My housemates and I started together then met at the end for a well-deserved beer.

Don’t take running too seriously

Unless you’re competing for a world title, running doesn’t have to be serious. So many of us are guilty of putting pressure on ourselves to perform, whether we feel up to it or not – but really, running should be about having fun.

I realised halfway through this trail race that I perhaps wasn’t having as much fun as I could have because I was so keen to smash through it. I’d left my friends, plugged into my marathon playlist and set my sights on trailing the guy in front. Had I stayed running with my boyfriend, maybe I’d have spent more of the race chatting, taking photos, looking around and drinking in the experience… or maybe I’d have become frustrated. Who knows. But ultimately, seeing the faces of the people who cantered to the finish line after me – beaming with happiness – proved that for many of us, running does serve a vital purpose: community, rewilding and unadulterated fun. 

Looking to improve your running form? Check out the four-week Strength Training for Runners course on Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Miranda Larbi

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