Heart racing, adrenaline pumping, legs screaming, unrestrained frenzied animation. I love clattering down a steep descent at the limit of any sense of control and feeling the pace and pull of gravity. The initial lean into the changing gradient to feel the effort leave my legs and the pressure change on my feet, at this point I tip forward and dive into the slope. It’s like putting your foot on the accelerator and not something entirely instinctive. Leaning into the slope and running on your toes can quickly generate speed and I need to focus on keeping some suspension in my knees and staying light on my feet. Quick light steps and using the gradient to moderate momentum there is no better feeling relaxing whilst hammering down a good descent.
When discussing running with people unfamiliar with the hills there are often two reactions, “how do you manage to run up the hill?” and “is running down hill not really tough on your knees or really scary?”. I’ve had trouble with the odd injury from poor downhill technique during early training periods, relying too much on my stronger leg to break and leaning back. It’s less fun when you lean back. Running races in West Yorkshire there are two local legends who bring a descending technique to life in very different ways. They might not appreciate these descriptions but hopefully they can paint a picture of the diversity of their styles. Ian Holmes is athletic, light on his feet, rhythmic and almost balletic. He moves with ease like a squirrel descending from a tree. I’ve witnessed Ian effortlessly accelerate away down a descent when all of my style and form was being shaken from my limbs just trying to hold some respectable distance with the race leaders. Ted Mason is the Yang to Ian’s Ying, like a drunken master, a whirlwind of force. If the slope throws a few rocks or corners in the way Ted just blasts through them. Both styles need to be seen to be believed. Check out the video below of Ted taking on the notorious Kitzbuhel Descent Race. Sheer power and determination.
The terrain on a descent makes a difference to style, approach and enjoyment. An open, loose stoned trail will always mean full steam ahead for me. Stretching the legs and pumping the arms aiming for top speed and unchecked enjoyment. Rocky Lakeland descents are brain food, it’s about finding a rhythm, spotting the path and foot holds ahead and adjusting my body position to keep balance and form. Single track woodland trails can be like rollercoasters, ploughing through the trails and driving up mini ascents before the next drop. Within a race, the descents tend to be where I gain the most places, arcing around tentative runners or leaping by on sharper lines. There is an element of danger which generates a heightened concentration and a feeling of flow, getting into the zone. Overall you’ve got to keep striving for those moments of childish ambition and imagination, stick your arms out like aero plane wings and fly.
There are so many enjoyable routes down the fells. Here are some of my favorites to date:
- Coming down Latrigg from the back (Lonscale Fell side) into Keswick. It’s a steep track with cracking views across to Derwentwater. You can get some real speed up without too much risk.
- Running from Sunshine Top or Tête du Pré des Saix in the French Alps down to Les Carroz past a small lake and cheese farm, through the alpine forest. In total it’s a descent of around 1,000m and it burns by the bottom but it is absolute joy all the way.
- The descent of Pen y Ghent in the Yorkshire Dales. I’ve raced off Pen y Ghent quite a few times and it’s the fell race route that I enjoy the most. Skirting past the main path to Whernside it’s slightly technical at the top before opening up into steep tufts of grass where you can bounce down with windmill arms.
- Geronimo, for anyone who has done the Tour of Pendle. Geronimo is a ridiculously steep descent after the second climb in the relentless classic fell race. It’s madness, it’s bout staying on your feet and everyone’s in it together. It’s one of the only descents where you know you are going over the edge, a real rollercoaster moment.
- For my final one, it’s going to be dropping down to Buttermere from High Stile. It’s in my favourite area of the Lake District and bridges the gap between Ennerdale and Buttermere. I love the fells around those lakes and this descent has a rocky, rugged start which eases to the quiet woodland on Buttermere’s Western side.
If you have a favourite descent let me know about it and I’ll add it to my todo list. If you’re tentative on descents I’d be happy to share my tips. The best advice I’ve heard for running downhill is to run like a kid, light on your feet, small steps and slightly bent knees. My kids have already mastered it.
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