Running Up That Hill

Contrary to popular opinion, this Norfolk of ours isn’t flat. Honestly it’s not. Even in the seemingly low lying areas of the eastern floodplains there are high spots. From one such it is possible to enjoy sweeping panoramic views of the Yare valley, encompassing the RSPB reserves at Strumpshaw Fen and Buckenham Marshes. Here you can admire the patchwork landscape of farmland, woodland, grazing marsh and fen sloping away towards the distant river Yare sparkling in the sunshine. On this particular day, and in spite of our hard breathing and racing hearts, the expansive scene before us did not fail to delight and inspire. There are six of us catching our breath on the crest of the valley, our exhalations pluming as they condensed in the crisp morning air. We’ve been running. I should explain.

This world of ours can be stressful. We live in a terribly overcrowded island where peace, quiet and solitude can be hard to find. Modern living detaches us from the outside, separates us from our environment and alienates us from all things wild. We spent so much time slaving over our smart phones, zipping around in our motorised tin cans, working in air conditioned offices and thereafter collapsing to slouch in front of our 4K TVs that we have become disconnected. Does that sound familiar? Well you’ll be pleased to know there is a remedy for this 21st century malaise and it’s just outside your door: Nature.

It is widely considered nowadays that exposure to the natural world; finding space, switching focus, can be immensely beneficial to personal health and wellbeing. To feel the raw wind in your hair, the welcome rays of spring sunshine warming your face or the chilling bite of winter frosts connects you with the environment; the environment  to which we belong and in which we all must dwell. Nature helps you forget the everyday stresses and strains and transports you to another place; a place of charm and wonder. It has the effect of opening your senses and allowing them to be flooded with calming sensation. Recognising this power, the RSPB is championing initiatives in and around its nature reserves to enable people to reconnect: walking, sketching, birdwatching, themed family activities, and....... running. I volunteer at Strumpshaw Fen where I happened upon a poster advertising a program of eight Saturday morning runs aptly entitled Run With Nature. Now I’m no stranger to exercise but have never entertained the discipline of regular structured running, and have certainly never run with other people: if I collapse panting in a disjointed, exhausted heap I only want me there to bear witness. But the idea of getting out and running through such a beautiful, wildlife rich part of my beloved Norfolk greatly appealed. I applied there and then before I could conjure up reasons to pass the opportunity by.

9.00am on a Saturday morning in mid-September saw me and half a dozen other eager folk gathered outside the reserve Reception. No doubt we were all appraising one another, wondering how fit each of our companions were and how our individual frailties would be cruelty exposed. Was I in the midst of seasoned marathon runners, finely honed athletes, sprinters of renown? Would I be left helplessly floundering in their wake? Not a bit of it. It soon became clear that we were all of like mind and ability, we all simply wanted to get out of the house, away from the toils and troubles of everyday life to breath lungful of unpolluted Broadland air and clear our minds. Introductions made, warm up exercises struggled with and we were on our way. For this first session our lovely instructor Anna was gentle with us, a short jog, a bit of walking, more jogging, walk, jog. In this alternating manner we made our way along the quieter paths of the reserve towards Buckenham. It wasn’t really about the exercise for we were surrounded by nature; dragonflies were still on the wing and danced through the air as we disturbed them temporarily from their perches, buzzards mewed overhead, a marsh Harrier glided by whilst the sights, smells and sounds of late summer surrounded us. Before we knew it we were back outside Reception having traversed 5 kilometres. The sense of achievement resonated through the group. Yes we were huffing and puffing a bit, sure we were a bit red in the face, but we felt good.

Each subsequent Saturday morning we were encouraged to take note of the subtle atmospheric shift, take stock of what was new and look for certain indicators of the changing season as we made our way around the footpaths and byways surrounding the reserve. Twice we saw otters cavorting in the Broad, we noticed flocks of newly arrived redwings, often encountered Chinese water deer browsing dyke side vegetation; we began to feel part of the scene. Even splashing through puddles and sidestepping muddy patches connected us with the elements. The temperature dropped, the leaves fell accordingly aided by autumnal winds that whipped scudding clouds across the wide open sky. We didn’t mind, it was all part of the plan. And imperceptibly we began to improve. We dispensed with the walking, we incorporated a few short sprints, we ran non-stop. In short we all pleasantly surprised ourselves with our abilities, made so under the watchful eye of our instructor who gently instilled in us correct posture, optimum technique and made us appreciate what we were doing and why.

We return to that crest of the Yare valley some two months on, taking stock after a long uphill run that everyone completed together without hitch. Together: I think that’s the key. We did this together. We all got along well, swapped a little bit of life history, enjoyed the post run wind down and coffee. We enjoyed it so much we don’t want it to end. And it won’t end because we are going to continue meeting Saturday mornings to undertake park runs or just perhaps have a fun run around Strumpshaw. And isn’t that what this was really all about? Discovering things about yourself and other people through the healing powers of nature? We’ve all enjoyed it so much. The RSPB should be congratulated on putting these initiatives in place, opening up their reserves and allowing people to absorb something of their beauty and bounty. I’m glad I saw that poster and even more pleased I made the effort to haul myself out of bed on a Saturday morning to join the team. If you get an opportunity to participate in something similar I would encourage you to do so. Don’t hesitate. It could change your life.