Living Free

I went for a walk in our local woods this morning. The cold, crisp air that carried us through a somewhat alpine-like Christmas and New Year has been washed back by Storm Christoph.

Clear skies and hard ground has given way to a grey blanket and mud. As the rain beaded down from the canopy of trees above, we made our way up through the Serpentine Woods.

I run there a lot, often in the dark, my world reduced to the circumference of my headtorch beam, over rotting leaves and scurrying animals. Once out in the open fell, the steam from my breath rises in front of me, obscuring my vision to a dazzling white mist.

As we trudged our way up through the forest, it was as though I was seeing it for the first time. The mind likes to take shortcuts. I have found this equally amusing and frustrating in my endeavour to learn Dutch. I now anticipate the sentences and phrases Duolingo will throw at me to such a degree I imagine them into completely different sentences.

This is often because I am in a rush, taking for granted what I think I have learned.

The same goes for Serpentine Woods. I have taken to more walking lately, my running seeming to be continually impeded by tendon and ligament issues in my glass ankles and nerve pain in my shin (yay).

I noticed a clearing for the first time, before suddenly spotting a whole new trail I had never noticed before. All of a sudden, the woods grew, turning from this one narrow trail I follow onto the fell into a maze of interlinking passages.

Everywhere, kids (or maybe adults!) had built little dens on any low hanging branches they could find, leaning sticks against them to create wooden tepees.

Given I work for an environmental charity dedicated to getting people outside, I have read a lot of the blogs and articles about rediscovering our back gardens.

I felt now, walking further up this boggy trail, I must have been only half reading them, in the same way I was half reading my Duolingo and the woods around me. It was as though I had changed lenses, putting in a big wide angle in front of my eyes, picking up various things I had never noticed.

Serpentine Woods is a quirky place anyway. There are sculptures of ladybirds, acorns and a stag’s head dotted around the woods. Every so often you come across a post with a white arrow on it. These seem to lead nowhere in particular, often pointing in the opposite direction of the previous post.

I’ve seen chaffinches, robins, treecreepers and nuthatches in this wood, flitting over the heads and under the noses of the various dog walkers out in the morning.

I also noticed a rather strangely positioned gate, attached to a tree on one side and nothing on the other.

The gate barred nothing; it was opportunity. This wood is for you to explore.

Writing, for me, has always been that opportunity. That chance to explore myself, places, people and ideas. Some may be unable to identify with this, but I also feel the need to share that writing.

I haven’t updated this blog since the West Highland Way. Since then, that blog has been re-written and printed in the latest Trail Runner Magazine. I also have a piece lined up for the next Fellrunner.

Yet, they feel quite safe. We ran the WHW in August, and my Fellrunner piece is an interview about a friend’s life in the fells. This blog is a little different: It is a personal acount.

I felt myself stimied, though. Coronavirus may have brought the best out in some, but certainly the worst in others. Everyone everywhere has an opinion on everything.

This has left me slightly hesitant to write. There was now a gate in my way that I couldn’t get around. Would adventure stories be seen as irresponsible, encouraging exploration? Would advice blogs be met with armchair experts launching into me saying I was an idiot?

I put this out on Twitter. A lot of people replied saying, “No. We need a release now more than ever. Write.” While I cannot promise daily prose, I can perhaps promise a more frequent posting schedule.

It also so happens I have started reading Running Free by Richard Askwith. Lately, it seems everything I do requires some greater purpose. For a while, my partner has asked me, “Why do you feel the need to push yourself?”

This is coming from someone who ran from Albania to Greece last year, but did so at what one might call ‘adventure pace’. Meanwhile, I sit here with a dodgy tendon, fretting that I won’t achieve that challenge I have set for myself.

Reading Running Free, though, I realise there is a need to Live Free. Do what brings you happiness. Care less about the expectations of others and enjoy it a bit more. Slow down. Some of my best training of late (both emotionally and physically) has been when I didn’t have a goal, and I just plugged away at a consistent level, which is far better than the rollercoaster of highs and lows.

So my takeaway from the past few weeks: Run free, write free, live free.

Published by Ross Brannigan

“It is worth ascending unexiting heights if for nothing else than to see the big ones from nearer their own level.” - Nan Shepherd

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