The day began so well. A gloriously clear sunrise across an idyllic rural backdrop, casting the rolling fields in the brightest of greens and sprinkling fairy dust on the lakes between them. A fun bunch of people swapping stories over a hearty breakfast, already more like friends than the strangers they were less than 24 hours earlier. A gorgeous drive to the moors, with views that further confounded any sensible expectations of what an English mini-break might look like in the dying days of winter.
Then we began the activity we’d traveled to Dartmoor for, and it all went horribly wrong.
We 10 had gathered in Devon for a long weekend of trail running, an increasingly popular pursuit, which simply involves swapping roads and running tracks for mountains, forests, moors and any other unspoilt patch of land that can reasonably be traversed.
The weekend was described as a “running retreat”, an active break with some mindfulness and coaching thrown in, guided by an all-star team: runner and author Adharanand Finn, record-breaking trail runner and author Damian Hall, and movement specialist Joe Kelly.
It seemed the perfect chance to dip a toe in the water after more than a decade of pounding pavements. My original running wingwoman swapped roads for trails a few years ago and raves about it. I did not expect to instantly channel the same joy my friend so readily describes, but I also did not expect the misery that enveloped me in the hours after my companions began bounding across a hilly uneven field, not a path in sight. Within a few hundred meters I could barely keep up, or upright.
I do not often run in a group. Even on familiar terrain, it’s stressful. Also, I hate being last, at anything. It quickly became clear to me that I was going to be last on every single stage we did over the moors. You learn a lot about yourself running. Sometimes, you discover your inner strength. Sometimes, you discover your inner brat.
As I struggled from grassy hill to muddy trail to rocky descents, my thoughts turned dark. The previous night, Finn and Hall had read some of their writing about the trials and tribulations of long-distance running. The stories were uplifting, and at the time, I remember thinking that when I next hit a hard running patch, I’d channel them for strength.
Yet less than 24 hours later, the inspiration had deserted me, and I was at my most negative and sullen worst. I knew the location was beautiful, I knew I was lucky to be there, but all I could feel was the pain in my legs, the humiliation at being so far behind, and the fear of falling on the steep uneven ground.
My hosts kindly persevered as we crossed streams, hills and rocks on some of England’s most picturesque countryside. One of them kept me company at the back, despite my best and grumpiest efforts to send him away.
Still, all I could think about was the impossibility of the rest of the weekend – a night run with head torches that evening, a 15-mile “hilly run” the following day, and Monday morning’s “optional” dawn jog. Standing at the end of our first Dartmoor circuit, whipped by a wind so cold my eyes watered, the weekend seemed unsalvageable. Maybe even unsurvivable.
If I’d been on my own, the gloomy shadow of that run would have hung over me all day, maybe even all weekend. The beauty of the running retreat, though, is that you’re not on your own, you’re in a group that quickly becomes a tribe.
We had arrived at the weekend from hundreds of miles apart, where we’d been doing different kinds of jobs and living different kinds of lives, with ages stretching from 33 to 52. In the non-running world, we’d likely have never with. In the bubble of our Dartmoor retreat, we bonded almost instantly, sharing stories about our races, our training, our kit, our injuries, our favorite gadgets.
And we reveled in it. When I asked one of the attendees what motivated him to come, high on his list was the fact that you could talk about running for 20 minutes without someone telling you to shut up. At the retreat, you could talk about running for 20 hours and no one would tell you to shut up. In that way, several of us remarked that coming alone to a running retreat is actually a treat for our friends and families who have already endured more running talk than any non-runner should have to.
Our post-trip WhatsApp group was set up to share photos and quickly became a chorus of how nice it had been to meet each other and spend time together. “Why are runners such lovely people?” one participant asked, describing meeting the group as “genuinely better” than all the other marvelous things about the weekend, including the outdoor hot tub where we would soak our post-run limbs.
We were staying in a farmhouse just outside Totnes. Over the course of “story time”, in a large room with a log-burning stove and stunning views across the surrounding countryside, Hall and Finn read excerpts from their books and showed us photo reels. Finn spoke about what he learns spending time with Kenyan and Japanese runners (a topic on which he has written two books). Hall focused on his progression from a first-time marathoner in 2012 to the holder of several endurance race records and a competitor in some of the world’s toughest runs. Questions were welcomed, and plentiful. Some asked about technique, and mental toughness. I asked about animal attacks. Hall told us how he’d “almost been killed” by a hedgehog when he rounded a corner into its path on the South West Coast Path. Finn told us about hiding in the trees to dodge a buzzard swooping on his head.
More running retreats
Vancouver Island, Canada US-based Run Wild Retreats offers all-women trips in various locations across America (including the desert trails around Scottsdale, Arizona, Moab, Utah, and the mountain tracks of Telluride, Colorado), as well as some retreats in Europe. The next, in early May, is a week’s spring retreat on Vancouver Island, combining ‘low-mileage’ runs through the old-growth rainforest and along the beaches of Pacific Rim National Park with spa treatments, yoga and walking. From $ 4,350; runwildretreats.com
Bergerac, France Underlining the point that running holidays do not have to be grueling and ascetic, Trails and Vines arranges trips to run through the vineyards of Europe’s wine regions. The next departs for Bergerac in May, with daily runs, yoga and Pilates, guided wine tasting, visits to wineries and local towns such as Saint-Emilion and Bergerac. The company also runs a similar trip to Rioja. From £ 850; trailsandvines.co.uk
Mallorca, Spain In the Tramuntana mountains in the north of the island, Nomadic Running Company organizes a three-night retreat in October. Guests have three morning runs, then spend afternoons swimming in the sea or relaxing at the villa. The company also runs similar long weekend retreats to destinations including Slovenia’s Julian Alps and Olympus National Park in Greece. From £ 650 per person; nomadicrunningcompany.com
On the trails, the team dispensed mid-run advice on everything from form to nutrition, and told stories about their many and varied racing experiences to distract us from tough segments or inspire us. The group also included Claire Harrison, a talented massage therapist and avid runner, who joined us on all the runs before easing our aches and pains from an improvised treatment room back at the farmhouse.
Kelly’s focus is on running form. On Saturday evening he led us through drills with tennis balls and had us hopping about like schoolchildren. He extolled the benefit of running barefoot, as he had through the rugged moors on Saturday. He left us with an online program – he often ends up working with people for years after they come to camp.
As I gave him a lift back to one of Dartmoor’s train stations, Hall said that he has worked on many running camps, but this was only his second “retreat”. It’s a different experience, he said, because there’s more emphasis on good food and accommodation, and more downtime for participants to just be with each other. He also loves talking about running himself. “Running, and more specifically ultra-marathon running, has been life-changing for me, and it’s ace to be able to share the joy with people,” he later tells me over WhatsApp.
With no small degree of trepidation, I strapped on a (borrowed) head torch for the night run on Saturday. It was only four miles, a distance that seemed manageable compared to the many marathons I’ve run. Also, it started on a road, so at least some of it was going to be on more familiar terrain than the wild moors.
I had only run in the darkened countryside once before, on the 3am leg of a 24-hour relay race in England about a decade ago. I’d forgotten how magical it is, that sense of being awake when the world’s asleep. This time I ran near the front, so my view was mostly of darkened hills, tree trunks and the occasional sheep, rather than of the rest of the group. On a steep downhill, I hopped and skipped, a very inexpert attempt at what we’d been shown earlier, but enough to put a smile on my face.
The following morning, the day of the hilly long run along the Dart valley to the sea, I woke to a rising fireball of a sun, peeking out between the two hills outside my bedroom window. Birdsong echoed across the valley. If it hadn’t been for the 15-mile run ahead of us, I’d have bounced out of bed with some of the spring that Kelly had preached about the night before.
We started running from the house, up a hill, and through the local village, a postcard-perfect vista of stone houses and low walls. We soon found ourselves in fields, but this time we mostly had paths to follow. The incline was brutal at times – we would clock up almost 700 vertical meters of elevation before we were done for the day – and I mostly slipped to the back, but there were plenty of breaks and the miles ticked by much less painfully than on Dartmoor the previous day. On one or two of the stony declines, I fell into a rhythm. It felt like the first time I cycled without stabilizers.
Pretty soon, we were halfway there. A few more hills, a few more fields and a few more roads and we arrived in pretty, seaside Dartmouth. It was jarring to see so many people after so many miles of just us. We followed the promenade beside the water to the 14th-century castle that once guarded the harbor. Less than a mile later, we reached the stretch of beach where our taxis would meet us. The end took me by surprise, a bit like my first marathon, when I could not quite believe I’d finished.
I paid for it, of course. The following morning’s dawn jog was agony, and for the next few days, stairs were my private torture. But, having sworn on the first miserable run that I would never go near a trail again, I’d come full circle. On the final night, I got the leaders to close their eyes, while I asked the rest of the group to raise their hands if they would return for another retreat. Every hand went up. Including mine.
Laura Noonan is the FT’s financial regulation editor
Laura Noonan was a guest of The Way of the Runner (thewayoftherunner.com). It runs various retreats and courses, with a three-night Dartmoor running retreat costing from £ 520 per person, based on two sharing a room, or £ 620 for one person in a double room
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