Training: My Back Yard

I was recently asked by Ashmei to reflect on my favourite place to train. What seemed like a simple task actually became quite an involved process, but ultimately cathartic. I have been fortunate enough to run in amazing places all over the world, but I have realised through this exercise of reflection that my heart always returns to the place I was built, the Dark Peak.

It is more than a training ground to me, it is an identity. Days on the hills. Endless climbing and descending. Self sufficiency and living off the land. Cooling off and drinking sweet Peakland water from the streams. There are times when I feel I was hewn from gritstone and forged in these hills. I carve lines up and over the unassailable, I chart courses through vast rolling seas of purple heather. I plummet down rock strewn causeways and scramble across towering edges. There are no excuses here and little margin for error. Compared to the Lake District or the Scottish Highlands our hills may appear diminutive but make no mistake, they are vast and unforgiving.

Underneath the mighty Millstone Edge
Underneath the mighty Millstone Edge

The areas of Houndirk, Burbage and Stanage are what I refer to as my ‘back yard’. We live right on the border between Sheffield and the Peak District. Fifteen minutes of running through the glorious Porter Valley brings me out at the boundary marker and shortly after, Oxstones. It is an important place, nine hundred feet or so of climbing to get to the point at which I always feel I am truly throwing off the heavy cloak of the city and connecting with something deeper and more natural. Oxstones is a symbol.

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Topping out at Oxstones

From there I take the secret path across Burbage Moor, rarely used and at first glance, unidentifiable. It doesn’t appear on any maps. But a keen eye can discern the faint line over the vast moor. Knee high heather brushes and scrapes. In Spring and Summer it is a glorious and exhausting route, and perseverance is rewarded. The heather halts abruptly and terra firma drops away, the Burbage Valley sits beneath. Long lines of gritstone edge snake out either side, forming the North and South flanks of Burbage Rocks, pine plantations sit below, Burbage Brook gently winds it’s way through the valley. I struggle to describe the serenity here. Directly across sits the relative massif of Higger Tor, to the left it’s smaller cousin, the Iron Age hill fort of Carl Wark.

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Burbage Rocks from Higger Tor

A quick down and up and then topping out on Higger, my route takes me further out to Over Owler Tor, an imposing crag overlooking the Hope Valley. At a certain time of day it’s silhouette dominates the skyline and draws the eye, the body, the spirit. I love the feeling of passing through these ancient places lightly and at speed, no more than a speck blown along by the breeze of my compulsion to run.

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Over Owler Tor

I wind my way North, underneath the giant escarpment of Stanage, and then cut sharply up on to the top via the route of the ‘Struggle’, a local fell race, and I am suddenly homeward bound. Stanage is our biggest gritstone edge at four miles and is worth a visit to the Peaks on it’s own. This is the place. The place I think of when I reflect on favourite places to train. Rock hopping, winding around boulders, forging lines and connecting with my environment. This is a special place.

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Nicola atop Stanage, from a Spring run in 2014

I descend back down to the city through the Porter Valley again, using different paths to those on the ascent to keep it interesting. Moorland changes to woodland, woodland changes to tarmac, each step closer to sea level. But Sheffield has a curious geography, the ‘City of Seven Hills’, and it still takes more than a few ups and downs to get me home. Every runner in Sheffield is a hill runner, whether they get out to the Peaks or run the pavements!

The Dark Peak is a thread woven in to the fabric of my life. Ever present, holding me together, something I wear every day. I really am very lucky to live where I do and have this wonderful landscape on my doorstep, and the ability to monkey my way through it; running, jumping, climbing, scrambling… whatever it takes.

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