In a nutshell:
a day spent out in the glorious Brecon Beacons National Park, learning about navigation, kit and nutrition, with “off the beaten trail” running thrown in for good measure.
Do this workshop if:
2. You want to test out your trail running kit and mountain running legs under the watchful eye of an experienced guide;
3. You have ever had one of those “oh no, I haven’t seen a marker for a while - I think I might be lost - where the heck am I on this map” moments;
4. You have ever wondered how to use the compass that it is on your mandatory kit list; or
5. You love leaving any form of civilised path and want to run through icy bogs, over tussocks of grass, through streams and up, down, along mountain tracks.
The Full Monty:
As the horizontal rain hammered against my windscreen, I questioned my sanity in booking a day out in the Welsh mountains in February. It was never going to be sunscreen weather, was it? Unfortunately, I had persuaded two running friends to join me on the course, so wimping out and hiding in a cosy Welsh pub wasn’t really an option. Taking a deep breath, I started putting on every running layer I own, as a well-loved van parked beside us and an athletic looking man bounced out. Clearly this must be our coach for the day, Jake Thompsett, founder of JT Expeditions.
The day started with a session on essential kit for surviving in the mountains. Some of the kit was familiar to me, while other bits were new. I will now be investing in a survival bag (won’t blow away on a windy mountainside and packs down smaller than the usual foil blanket) and an incredibly compact yet bright head torch that could easily live in my running pack/coat pocket. Ideal for all those winter runs when I forget it gets dark at 4 pm.
We then moved onto the main event – 5+ hours of navigation lessons and practice in the foggy, boggy and somewhat windy Welsh mountains. It was not a day for glorious views and stunning scenery. Jake described it as ‘claggy’, which I would translate as thick fog interspersed with horizontal rain. Jake had also selected a part of the National Park that had few obvious paths. All of this meant that we had to learn and practice various navigation techniques, as it was impossible to rely solely on visual clues. Some of these skills were familiar to me, such as interpreting contour lines and symbols on the map. Other techniques were totally new, from using a natural feature as a ‘handrail’, to following a bearing on a compass, and carefully estimating the length of time it would take us to get to selected spots, taking both pace and elevation into account (incredibly useful for judging when you have gone off plan).
As well as the navigation skills, my kit got a good testing. Never again will I wear Merino gloves in the hammering rain (I spent more time wringing them out than I did wearing them), or my slightly too large running tights that stretched further down my legs the wetter they got, until I resembled a penguin. On the plus side my jacket, shoes and socks performed well, as I jogged, sunk and skidded my way through bogs, up hills and across ridges.
After 5+ hours, 11 miles and 600 metres of ascent, we gently steamed away in a cosy pub, drank coffee and discussed the day and next steps.
A de-brief with my mates on the car journey home, established that:
1. Jake was an excellent tutor. He was able to explain concepts clearly and then encourage us to use them, letting us practice and only stepping in to assist when we really needed it. He was also excellent at balancing the different abilities and energy levels within our small group, making sure everybody got a fair share of his time and didn’t feel left out.
2. We had all learnt skills and acquired knowledge that we were definitely going to use.
3. You don’t need to be super fit to do the course (Jake recommends you are fit enough to run 15km on varying terrain and have a good base of fitness). We did, however, rightly anticipate a little stiffness for the next day, given that there aren’t any mountains in our home running grounds of Oxfordshire.
4. We really should book to go on one of his trail-running courses in summer, when the rain would, at the very least, be a bit warmer.