Running with the oryx

We’ve done it; we’ve been back out into the desert.

Well to be honest, we’ve been there already this year, but it’s November and it’s officially safe to trot off-road and out into the wilderness without complete risk of death due to heat exhaustion and/or dehydration

This weekend however, hubby Steve and I (well, mainly him!) organized a free-to-enter, pop-up trail running event – the Oryx Run. Despite being a roll-up-and-run type of affair, there was still a fair bit of prepping behind the scenes to ensure 60 odd runners would not be lost to the sands of time.

Dawn in the desert.

Dawn in the desert.

Neither Steve nor I ran the course. He was in charge of starting/ timing and I was tasked with trotting to a potentially, easily missed turn point, to ensure runners took the turn. It was actually an interesting learning experience watching other runners tackle the trail surface, particularly as it was a first time for many would be oryx. Here’s a few pearls from my previous experiences and what I witnessed on the day:

1. I needed to have carried a lightweight jacket. I was frozen standing around on an exposed mound in the desert. Yes, the sun was shining but the wind was keen. Totally my bad, and I should know better – I had everything else including the kitchen sink in my trusty Salomon!

2. Many people underestimated how much water they needed. I took out 3 litres and I was standing still. I had plenty. I think people forgot that it might feel cool standing around waiting to start but when it’s windy the sweat produced by running evaporates very effectively leaving you parched and dehydrated.

As a rule of thumb when trail running I try to carry twice as much fluid as I would need on the road for the same duration. This then allows for any emergencies which might see you moving at half the pace you reckoned on. I’ve done many an ultra in which it’ll take a good two hours to cover just 10km.

What great trail running looks like.

What great trail running looks like.

3. Great trail runners combine hip drive with excellent form. There’s no hiding poor posture off road, it’ll catch you out and tripping is more likely. The best (and naturally fastest trail runners) power through the hips, with the pelvis stable, back strong, chest open and arms ready to shoot out for balance. They are elegant, agile and able to rapidly change stride length as the surface dictates.

It’s beautiful to watch…and it’s not all natural ability. Functional strength training plays a big part particularly if you don’t get off road often and I guess that’s why Max King, who won the 100km World Champs here in Doha and is similarly handy off road, also takes part in obstacle races and Crossfit comps for fun. While I know that all the Olympic lifting of pure Crossfit would crush me, I personally spend over 50 percent of my weekly training time doing functional strength work. This keeps me strong and relatively stable off road. I still fall when my concentration goes awol but it’s much less regular than it once was.

4. It’s fine to walk. Yes, on the shorter trail races you want to blast the pace but if weather, terrain or sheer fatigue dictates – walk. There’s no shame in having a walk, catching your breath, something to eat and pootling on again. I certainly didn’t run all my recent 100 mile race.

5. Socks are as important as footwear. Aside from the Inland Sea, Qatar’s deserts aren’t exactly sandy, but they are gritty and getting a lump of grit in your sock is equivalent to rubbing your foot on a cheese grater! I find above the ankle socks are the best option. Yup, they don’t look as pretty as a trainer sock, but who cares? Comfort always comes first.

6. Build some flexibility into your stride length…this relates to 3. On the road, you can get away with shuffling. On the trail you need to be able to snap your feet up and shorten your stride if the surface gets a little technical or you hit softer sand. It’s also great to develop flexibility in your feet. Tip toe, mid strike (mostly) and even heel drop if hard rocks are battering your tootsies. I practice these in my functional training and pre-speed work drills… and even at work sitting on my office chair 🙂

7. Learn to sight. Running the shortest route equals a faster time for less effort. Simple. And this will indirectly improve your road racing.

Running off trail needs effective sighting.

Running off trail needs effective sighting.

So many people run, head down, shoulders hunched, even folded at the waist and simply potter along following everyone else. You can get away with this on road, but how much better would you run, keeping your shoulders back, arm swing straight so the drive powers you forwards rather than side to side? How much better would you run elevating your chest and getting extra oxygen in?

Head up, shoulders back and look 2 to 3 metres ahead, not at your feet. There’s an old horse riders’ saying: “Look down and that’s where you’ll end up – ie you will fall off!” This also applies to trail running. Look at your feet and you’re asking to trip.

Plan ahead where you want to put your feet and sight the line you want to run every five strides or so – even if this means stopping while you learn the skill. If you’ve got a landmark to head for, run towards it in a straight line, especially off piste when there is no obvious track to follow. Yes, this takes a phenomenal amount of concentration…but it’s what we’re designed to do. Several psychological tests indicate we make the best decisions while on the move. It’s all from our hunter/gatherer days. Trust your instincts, practice and hone this long lost skill. You’ll be a better runner for it.

8. Enjoy the rush. There’s nothing better than hitting a bit of technical trail and working out how you’re going to tip-toe over it with speed and agility. It’s a beautiful feeling when it comes together..of course it won’t every time and you’ll find yourself flying through the air but that’s all part of the challenge and why trails are so much fun. Take a risk and relax into the challenge. Live like an oryx.

Heading out back-marking the race.

Heading out back-marking the race.

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