Olivia Hetreed: Why I Love Trail Running

The BAFTA-nominated screenwriter on why running (and walking) very long distances has become central to her happiness and well-being.

Trail running race

by lfto |
Updated on

I am a late entry into the world of trail running. Late to any kind of running, since in my youth you either had to run seriously or not at all, and I was neither keen nor fast enough to be serious. But, after years of other sporting hobbies, I started triathlons and 10Ks in my mid-forties, tried my first marathon at fifty and my first ultra (50 miles) at fifty-four, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

This year, I am really looking forward to taking part in Race to the King, hosted by Threshold Sports, in June. It ticks all my boxes: varied and lovely scenery around the Sussex coast and South Downs; moderate hills with outstanding views; history, ancient tracks, even a castle; generous, walker-friendly cut-offs; and plenty of aid stations along the way to keep us all happy.

Race To The Stones
This year over 3000 runners and walkers will traverse the Ridgeway at Race to the Stones ©Threshold Sports

Things I love about trail running include – getting to explore beautiful places, overlooked places, hard to reach places, famous places with a new perspective – such as arriving at Avebury Standing Stones on tracks thousands of years old (as part of Threshold’s flagship event, Race to the Stones) or via a canal towpath into the heart of a city – and feeling I have put in a satisfying effort to get there. I love the company, fleeting friendships during the long dark hours of a winter’s night, lasting comradeships that span differences in age or life experience because we are jointly committed to the slightly crazy idea of travelling a very long way on foot for no reason but the thing itself. And the quiet hours by myself, out training or in a race, hearing owls hoot on a starlit hillside or larks singing before the first glow of dawn, long hours when there might be just a glimpse of a head torch flickering up the next hill, or the welcome sight of fabulous volunteers at an aid station with food, drink and sustaining words of encouragement, to remind me of the human race. And it’s a great reason to eat cake.

Race To The King
Race to the King is designed to be the perfect first ultra ©Threshold Sports

I’ve noticed that trail running tends to attract an older demographic, although I am apparently now pushing the outer edge of that envelope – I was recently described as a trailblazer for over-60s women for simply completing a long race! But it makes perfect sense that trail running, with its emphasis on experience rather than time, is appealing to those of us with a more abundant supply of the former than the latter. Kinder on the joints than road running, less about speed and more about endurance, trails favour the older runner, for whom walking up hills (and sometimes down them) is a welcome relief as well as a smart racing choice. Varied weather and underfoot conditions mean it’s hard to compare times from one year to the next or even one end of the race to the other when we may be out there for several days. There’s no anxiety about P.B.s or a fixed pace, although I always want to push myself and remain as competitive as I can.

Olivia Hetreed
The author, BAFTA-nominated screenwriter Olivia Hetreed ©Threshold Sports

For this reason, I’m not thrilled by races that boast their high DNF rate because they have very tight cut-off times. I understand the logistical limits of keeping medical teams and volunteers out in the wilds for long stretches – I am sometimes one of those hardy souls myself – but my feeling is that trail events should be encouraging and inclusive and therefore cut-off times as generous as possible, not about making a race appear super-tough by timing people out at the first chance or pushing them beyond their limits to hit arbitrary targets. It’s wonderful that there are races like the Barkley Marathons where elite racers take on a near-impossible challenge and inspire the rest of us to do parkrun. And I’m delighted by the achievements at the front end of races I take part in, but I want the chance to complete my own personal challenges. Tight cut-offs early on also tend to disadvantage women, who often run more evenly-paced races than men but don’t get to prove their endurance talents in this scenario.

Trail running event
Threshold’s on-route support attracts athletes of all shapes, sizes, and speeds ©Threshold Sports

In this spirit, I am so encouraged by Race to the King and Threshold’s commitment to inclusion in all senses. They consistently attract a starting field that is close to 50% female, and their generous cut-off times (you have well over 24 hours to complete the 100k) mean their races are suitable for competitors of all ages, making them the ideal organisation with which to make your ultra debut. And I’m trusting there will be cake.

To find out more about Race to the King, head to thresholdtrailseries.com

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