Take to the Trails: An Interview with Alan Hall

Alan Hall on a recce of the Dorset 100.

With lockdown coming to a close, Alan Hall inspires us all to venture out of London onto the trails.

As members of a central London running club, social distancing recommendations have meant that many of us spend our runs anxiously looking ahead on our routes in order to give any pedestrians we pass a wide berth. In this current situation, it’s no wonder that some of us dream of peaceful trail runs, outside of the hustle and bustle of London. When your mind turns to trails, what better person to interview than Alan Hall, a Serpie member with a serious predilection for long distance running in the countryside. If you don’t know Alan, you might recognise his name from the monthly emails sent out by the Serpie Trail Running Group. Along with Catharine Sowerby and Hisayo Kawahara, Alan leads informal trail runs in the beautiful green areas just a train ride from the city.

When I speak to Alan on Skype, he is just back from his first long trail run since lockdown began. It was a 24-mile jaunt from his home in Milton Keynes. A run made all the better by discovering that the visitor’s centre cafe in Salcey Forest was open for take-away, something you can’t take for granted during these strange times.

When Alan joined Serpies back in 2006, he was disappointed to find there was a lack of trail running in the club. “Understandably, I suppose for a club right plumb in the middle of London,” he says. But the shortage of trails in the city, didn’t stop him from starting a trail running group. Initially, the group would look for organised events to participate in, but soon they realised they didn’t need the events, “you can just go out for fun and do a run with friends in the countryside anyway.” And so, the trail running group in its current format was born. Under non-lockdown circumstances, the group organises around three runs a month with the shorter runs closer to London and the longer runs further out. The runs Alan leads are often between 10 and 20 miles, “sometimes I stick an ultra in the mix, but the idea is that I want to make it long enough to make it worth people’s while to travel out on the train from London.”

As someone who rarely runs more than 8 miles, with most of those miles being on the pavements of Greater London, I can’t help but be curious how Alan got into ultra-distance trail running. Unlike many runners who progress from 5k to increasingly longer distances, Alan says, “I kind of got into running the wrong way around. I started off as a long-distance walker.” Coming from a family where long walks in the countryside were a frequent activity, Alan was always comfortable with the tranquillity of the trail, but most of his time was spent walking. It was around the age of 30 that the running bug suddenly bit him and he one day randomly decided, “I know, I think I’ll go for a run.” Alan explains that the positive aspect of his topsy-turvy way into running is, “the distances don’t intimidate you as much because if you’ve done a marathon on foot before anyway, then running it, well, obviously you’re going to go faster.”

It’s clear to me that distances don’t intimidate him, when Alan tells me that his favourite event is the LDWA 100 – the flagship challenge event of the Long Distance Walker’s Association, where up to 500 members attempt to cover 100 miles in 48 hours. The event is aimed at walkers, but you can run it too, though Alan admits, “even the runners end up walking quite a lot of it.” The event takes place in a different scenic area of Britain every year, which is one of the major draws. “If you’re going to run a really stupid distance then it does help to do it somewhere that looks nice.”

Snowdon summit at the completion of the Three Peaks by Public Transport.

Closer to the London area, Alan recommends the Fairlands Valley Challenge. Organised by the Fairlands Valley Spartans, this self-navigated trail event allows the participants to choose from half marathon, 18-mile, full marathon, and 50k ultra. Since it’s organised by a running club, Alan finds it has “just that extra bit of friendliness” and “volunteer spirit” to set it apart from races coordinated by commercial groups. On the hardcore end, Alan’s favourite is the Winter Tanners, a 30-mile challenge (again, set up by the LDWA) which takes place in the dead of winter. It’s another self-navigated event, but because of the cold wet conditions and small amount of support, it can be quite challenging. “If you don’t mind being out for a long winter day with lots of mud” then this might be your thing.

What many of these trail races have in common is self-navigation. At an early age, Alan became quite proficient at map reading and this has served him well during many events because “it’s almost impossible to mark and marshal a marathon length course that’s on the trails.” Although some events have started to give out a GPS of the route, many still rely on paper maps and narrative route descriptions that seem like another language to the uninitiated (me, for example). “The first time you see one it’s been likened to solving a cryptic crossword while running a marathon because it’s got lots of abbreviations.” Alan rattles off an example “TL on TK and XST to fld.” I smile and nod, as I attempt to figure out what this could possibly mean. Later, I give up and email Alan for the translation: turn left on track and cross stile to field. Ah – of course!

Despite being a man of the trails, Alan has learned to enjoy road racing as well. He has done the London Marathon two or three times and has also been a frequent participant in the club handicap. Before Serpies, Alan’s approach to running, “wasn’t really about the speed. It was just about covering the distance or doing x number of mountains in a day…so, it was the Serpies that introduced me to the other side of the game, that actually this racing is quite exciting after all.”

This past year hasn’t seen Alan racing much because he was instead focusing on finishing his PhD in computer science and he is now Dr. Hall. Despite cutting back on his running, he still carried on with some and found it vital for sanity. “Maintaining some physical fitness is important when you’ve got something that is mentally very taxing to do, but also for keeping me sane.” I ask Alan if he ever solves computer science problems while running or if his brain is solely focused on the trail ahead. He replies that he largely uses his runs to switch off and stop thinking about his work, but he is sure that this problem solving goes on at a subconscious level. He says, “Just occasionally I’ll actually be mid-run and something just pops into my head to solve some problem I was working on. And even when it doesn’t pop in consciously…when you return to whatever problem it was that you were trying to solve, it maybe suddenly gets a bit easier because something was going on while you were out there running…Somehow the ideas were settling down and rearranging themselves into a form where you can do something about it when you come back.”

I ask Alan what he might say to coax an entrenched city runner out onto the trails. He explains, “I’d say distance for distance trail running is almost easier in a way [than road running] because…it tends to start stop. There are always things that naturally break up the run, like you come to stiles and gates and hills and get lost a bit…it naturally paces itself.” For those who get bored with city running, trail running lets you log the miles without having to “keep putting one foot in front of another relentlessly.” In addition to the mental ease of trail running, the trails also provide softer ground, “so you’re not getting the jarring through your knees the way you would along the road.”

Now that you’re convinced to try trail running, Alan has two pieces of advice: start small and start in summer. First, pick a distance that isn’t too long, just to make sure you’re comfortable. “If you set out say on a 10-mile run in the countryside and then realise after 5 miles you wish you hadn’t – if you’re in London then you’re probably not far from a bus stop or a tube station – but if you’re in the middle of Buckinghamshire then those options might not really be there.” Because of the warmer, dryer weather, starting in summer can also help you ease your way into trail running, although there are joys to be found in running in the winter. It’s “not a no-go season, and actually you can have a fantastic time of it in the winter, just like cross country really. You embrace the mud, but hopefully not literally.”

The trail running group is currently on hiatus during the lockdown, but Alan says they intend to start it back up when restrictions are lifted. If you are interested in learning more about the trail running group please visit their page on the Serpentine website and sign up for their mailing list. Can’t get enough of trails? Please check out Alan’s article for Serpentimes Issue 3 on his adventures participating in Three Peaks by Public Transport.

Diana Valk has been a card carrying Serpie since she moved to London from the U.S. in 2012. When she is not running, she is thinking about bioarchaeology, Spanish verb conjugation, or the next book on her reading list.