Born to run 

20th July 2018

What possesses a 53-year-old to shrug off the shopping, ditch the DIY and give gardening the slip in favour of running 160 miles in 50 hours across the North York Moors? What’s the motivation behind a gruelling, high-altitude race in the French Alps? And how can such drive be deciphered to benefit like-minded adventurers looking to up their own game? Dan Sheridan sat down with Northumberland-based ultra-runner and Wind at Your Back founder Andy Stephenson to find out

Tell me a bit about your business and the inspiration behind the idea…
The simple answer is I get so much from running, being outdoors and being in beautiful surroundings, that I feel everybody should have the same opportunity.

People often hold back from heading into the outdoors because they aren’t confident enough to navigate, they don’t feel safe going up hills or they’re not comfortable running at night.

There’s also questions around what to eat during a run and what kit to wear to combat the conditions.

I feel very comfortable in the outdoors and I want to share that. That’s how simple the concept is.

When did the idea for Wind at Your Back first surface?

Between 2001 and 2006 I had a five-year stint at a school in Alnwick. I was effectively given a blank canvas, worked with some brilliant people, and together we developed an outdoor education model for youth service delivery.

During that time I spent a lot of weekends out in the hills teaching kids how to navigate and camp safely. That really inspired me, and from there I picked up a rock climbing certificate and a mountain leadership qualification.

Knowing how to teach something like navigation is priceless because it’s a regular complaint from people who wish they knew the basics, so it felt like there was an opening there.

How has the business been received so far?

Really well. There are others doing similar things, and some are much more accomplished – and younger – runners than me, but not many of them operate in Northumberland.

I’m very fortunate to have a playground as spectacular as Northumberland on my doorstep. We’re blessed with such beautiful hills and coastlines, and race directors have started to put events together here because it is so diverse and stunning.

Give me some examples of the kind of training you’ve carried out so far…

Almost every runner you meet has a goal, and my involvement is informed by those objectives.

One has had his head turned by YouTube videos of the Western States Endurance – a 100-mile run in California.

He’s now working out what path to take to compete in that race and he likes the look of the West Highland Way Race in Scotland, which I’ve done twice.

Another guy has the goal of completing a five-kilometre park run in under 18-minutes. For me, that’s about four minutes faster than I’ve ever done, but we’ll get him there.

Some are experienced runners that want to brush up on one specific aspect of their craft, while others are complete novices who simply want to give ultra-running a try.

One is doing the Lakeland 50 at the end of July, which is a hugely challenging course in the Lake District. For him, it’s all about fine tuning because he’s an experienced runner but he struggles on his downhills and needs to work on his speed.

Before any training starts, I ask people to write a letter to themselves outlining their goals. I hang on to them, then at a certain point I’ll post them their own letter as a reminder and to see how they got on.

At what point did you realise that you wanted to take running to a whole different level?

Human endeavour is a fascinating platform, and interests people from all walks of life. I didn’t do a marathon until Edinburgh in 2009, when I was 44-years-old, but I immediately saw the appeal. The fuse was lit, and I did

The Wall – a 69-mile ultra from Carlisle to Gateshead – soon after.

Something clicked during those two events, and I absolutely loved every minute.

I’ve done the Kielder Marathon six times, purely because I love the course, and I’ve taken great inspiration from travelling in some truly beautiful places, such as Nepal and New Zealand.

Can you trace your love of running back to a specific time or point in your life?

When people ask me why I do it, I immediately go back to my childhood in Leeds. My parents ran a newsagent, and between the ages of 11 and 17 I was out in all weather, twice a day, delivering newspapers. The first route would be at 6am and the other in the evening, seven days a week.

In terms of a training regime, it gave me an incredible grounding. It didn’t matter if it was snowing or raining, and I’ve carried that mentality through to this day.

When we moved back to the North East in the late 1970s I realised I was one of the only kids that got excited by the thought of cross-country.

If I’m honest, I think I had ADHD before it was invented. I could not sit still as a youngster, and while I had the right amount of intelligence to play by the rules of education, I would sit for hours on end looking out of the classroom window, longing to be outside.

One teacher spotted this in me, and would regularly let me do a few laps of the school field during lessons so I could get it out of my system. Usually I was much more attentive after that, and it still feels like that now.

It almost sounds like a form of therapy…

Running empties my head, and that’s all the motivation I need. I get asked a lot – usually in the wake of a 120-mile run – why I do it, and I always say it’s about the pleasure I get and the gratitude I feel. That outweighs all the discomfort.

It’s like getting to play out with your mates, except there’s no-one telling you to be home at a certain time for tea.

That’s the joy of it for me. I get to play out all day.

How quickly did you adapt from half and full marathons to 100-mile plus overnighters?

The great thing with ultra-running is there’s a shared camaraderie, whether you’re at the start of your journey or nearing the end. There’s something very special about being able to share wisdom, and there’s a real family feel to events like the Hardmoors series in North Yorkshire.

Social media really helps to promote that shared understanding, because people are more than happy to pass on their experiences and help the more wide-eyed runners who perhaps haven’t done anything like it before. People really are incredible.

Where do you go mentally when isolation kicks in when you’re running overnight?

I go straight to gratitude, and that comes from experiencing different dance practices and movement medicine with my wife Lynn. For me, if I celebrate gratitude and think about things that I’m grateful for, I find it very hard to feel negative.

Last June I was going through the night across the North York Moors during a 50-hour, 160-mile run. The rain had drenched me through, the mist quickly followed and it was starting to get dark.

That’s the kind of scenario that might sound desperately challenging, but I remember feeling overwhelmingly grateful – grateful for being fit enough to take part, grateful for my support crew waiting a few miles down the road and grateful that there were people in front of me and behind me.

You start to rack them up, and if you get to a certain number of gratitudes it flips the situation and stops those ‘woe is me’ moments.

The way I see it, running long distances in ultra-marathons is a form of movement medicine. I’ve even been known to break into a few dance moves when a good track comes on my playlist!

What are you like to live with in the days and nights before a big race?

The night before a race can be a bit like Christmas Eve when you’re a kid. To put things into context, I’ve got a big race in the French Alps at the end of August – the Ultra-Tour du Mont-Blanc – and I was packed nine weeks in advance.

I was a DNF (did not finish) in 2015. This is my second bite at it and my stomach will do quite a few leaps before the 6pm start in Chamonix on August 31. As hard as I try, I guarantee I’ll be awake at 3am during the build-up, imagining the start of the race.

What’s the biggest in-race challenge you’ve ever faced?

My first attempt at the Ultra-Tour du Mont-Blanc was my biggest challenge to date. I was dog-tired and I’d never dealt with those kinds of ascents and descents. The race includes somewhere in the region of 10,000 metres’ worth of ascent, which is higher than Mount Everest, so you have to factor in some fairly juicy climbs.

The temperature was around the 30-degree mark, and by the time I got 80 miles through the 103-mile race, I was dry-wretching into a bush. I’d already quit in my head, which is quite unusual for me, so I have unfinished business there.

The polar-opposite is when things go absolutely to plan, like the Hardmoors 160 earlier this year. Everything just fell into place and that was a remarkable feeling. I’d never tackled that distance before, so feeling good at the end of it was a huge pay-off.

Getting up off the couch and running any distance is no mean feat, and I still understand the intricacies, the mental blockades and the need to dig deep.

Wind at your back
www.windatyourback.org.uk

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