Archie walks into the cafe with a long and happy stride. He has dark hair that bounces off his shoulders, and a smile that starts in the corners of his eyes. He wears a cap and carries a longboard. He sits down on the stool opposite me, then bounces back up almost at once to get some food. He’s not going to be in the country much longer, and tells me that I am lucky to catch him. Archie is moving to Canada.
My name’s Archie and I’m from Leeds. I’ve spent the last couple of years in Canada working at a ski resort. I’m home at the moment to go through the residency process. I love it out there. I love skiing, I love climbing, biking and being outdoors. It’s the best lifestyle. I want to move there full time, and hopefully I will be able to do that at the end of the year.
In the winter I am a ski instructor, and over the summer I work as a guide on the mountain. I take people up a via ferrata. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that? It’s a steep rock face, totally vertical but there are iron rungs stapled into the mountain so you’re not in any real danger. You’re always clipped in but you still have to know your rope work and your rope safety.
When I take people out, we walk for about half an hour, maybe even longer depending on how fit the group is. When we get there, it’s just this steep face and the tourists very often don’t think that they’ll get to the top.
What do I do when people panic? That’s the fun part. Keeping people focused is a real challenge. If you let people drift then they can get a bit scared. You have to keep them talking, tell them about all the good things that they can see, and let them know how well they’re doing. I try to keep my groups present in the climbing so that they forget about the height. Very often they’ve never even climbed before, so when they get to the top, it’s awesome.
My first introduction to running? I was thinking about this the other day. We used to have assembly at school, and every now and then people would come up and ask us all to give a round of applause to the cross-country team. That was kind of cool. Those guys got loads of recognition. I wanted to be up there with them, but I didn’t know what running was. When you’re ten, you just run around for fun. I went up to my teacher and asked how I could do what they were doing. She told me to join the team, so I did.
The first race I went to, my mum took me down. It was very wet. My mum’s awesome, super supportive, but she’s not about being outside in miserable weather, so she sat in the nice warm car to wait for me. At the end of the race, someone knocked on her window and told her that I had won. That took her by surprise! I don’t know the distance, I just remember running as fast as I could. That’s what you do when you’re a kid.
After the race, the coach of my local running club asked me to come and run with them on the track. That was pretty sweet. From then on I started running properly. I would go down on a Monday and Wednesday to train. We had a joke around, we had fun, and we got challenged.
When I was racing, I used to sing songs under my breath. That used to pass the time a little bit. I don’t do it any more – I think it would throw my breathing off – but I used to love that. I haven’t thought about that in a long time. Maybe I’ll try and do that more now!
I don’t think I realized it at the time, but looking back the running community is amazing. You get to work hard, and then you feel good afterwards. You can be lazy in a team, but you can’t cut corners on the track. The coach always knows if you’re not working hard. It’s all on you. You get more responsibility and it was there that I learnt to suffer. Suffering is super important. I love going out on big days running and just suffering. It’s fun isn’t it?
You have to learn to suffer. There is a real problem in society – my mum’s like this – everything has to be comfortable. If you want to develop as a person and as a character, you have to suffer. That’s where you progress, and learn where the boundaries are for what you can achieve. Otherwise, you just live in a bubble and never challenge yourself. If you’ve never felt bad, then you don’t appreciate the good things as much. I appreciate things more because of the times that I have felt so terrible. Now, when life is good, it’s amazing.
Dean Karnazes book The Road to Sparta opened my eyes to real pain. I read it after I had surgery on my ankle. After reading that, I wanted to do more with my running. I heard about a 50km race near where I lived, and I thought OK… let’s do it! I’d never run a marathon before – I had no idea what the race would feel like. I just knew that I was going to do it. When I told my mum, she couldn’t believe it. Because of the distance she thought it was a bike race!
My degree is in sports rehab, and I’ve always had an interest in training and health, but when I look back I had no idea how to train. I pretty much just did a few runs near my house and then rocked up at the start line. The race took place next to a canal. We ran for a short distance one way, then turned back to the start. Then we ran in the opposite direction and back, before doing it all again. It was so boring. There was nothing to see. When I signed up, I thought that I would be running on beautiful trails, but no … it was just the canal!
There were a lot of people at the race. The first run out was 5km long. When we got back to the finish line, some people stopped. That was the 10km race. Then there was a half marathon and more people stopped. We all started as a big bunch. I had no idea how to pace myself … absolutely no idea. I started way too fast. As people finished their races and the field began to whittle down, I noticed that the runners all had different coloured numbers for whatever race they were running. After 10km there was no one left ahead of me in the ultra.
I met my parents about half way into the race, and they told me I looked great. And I did! I felt pretty good but that was just my food. I had just smashed gels at the start. I was on cloud nine with all the sugar and caffeine. Two hundred calories an hour? Whatever. Bam! Bam! Bam! Two gels and I was good to go.
I wasn’t even dressed right. I was in a cotton t-shirt and had a big jumper tied round my waist. I was out there, sweating into my cotton t-shirt. It was so stupid. The guy running next to me was in a vest. He carried his own water and a bag of food. He said that he usually ran ultras, but was running the marathon as a training run. He thought I was going a bit fast. But I felt good, so I didn’t want to go slower.
Then I bonked. Straight up bonked. I was toast. I was totally depleted. It hit me just as I crossed the finish line with one more out and back to go. I felt terrible. I could barely plod. I had never felt anything like it in my life. That last 5km opened my eyes to suffering. It was horrific. There was nothing left in my legs. But I had to move. I was struggling to walk, never mind run. I was still in first place, and then other runners started to pass me. They all looked great. I couldn’t believe it. How did they all look so good?! When I finished, I didn’t feel relieved. I never do after an ultra. There is never a great rush. It’s a bit of an anti-climax.
That run opened the doors for me. It let me see what was possible. I could suddenly run 50km. Where could I go with that? I could run 100km. I could run 100 miles. I could run all night! I felt like I could do anything.
I hurt myself so much in that race that I didn’t want to run again for a while. I needed to do something else.
One lady that I ski with runs triathlons. I started talking to her and then we started training together. She helped me to be more focused and calculated in the way I prepared for races. Before that I had just signed up to one big event after another. Together, we followed the methods of a guy called Jack Daniels. His plan is made up of two speed sessions and one long run a week. Over the course of a year, my fitness and my ability rocketed.
That was when I started running properly. The trails in Whistler are amazing. You choose a mountain and run to the top of it. It could take you six hours, eight hours, anything. It’s a total adventure. My long runs were just exploring. I loved it.
There are lots of animals in the mountains. Black bears are everywhere. You see them all the time but they’re scared of you. If you make clapping noises and shout a bit, they’ll go away. They could charge you I suppose. You just have to be aware of where their cub is. If a bear is in front of you and their cub is behind you then you’re better off walking towards the bear. It’s all about their cub.
Running in the backcountry is freeing. It forces me to be present. I feel so lucky when I’m running in the mountains. It’s beautiful. I feel much more comfortable out on the trail. I’m free to think, and to not care about anything else apart from each moment and my running. It’s so simple. Left, right, left, right. The trail shows you where to go and that’s all it is.
As I was learning about the backcountry I started to push the boundaries a little bit more. I would pick a mountain. I didn’t always know how to get there, and there wasn’t always a set trail. Sometimes, I had to go exploring. I did get lost sometimes, and that’s not a nice feeling but I never felt panicked. I always knew what direction the town was in.
I don’t know if you’ve been lost before? In life people always like to know where they are. It’s comforting. Right now, I know that if I go out and turn left I’ll get to the city centre. I know where everything is. When you’re actually lost, it’s a really strange feeling. You feel so small.
I read a book recently. I don’t know its name, but it talked about being lost and how humans will always try and push through it. We don’t turn back, which is not always helpful. When I get lost out in the backcountry, I will always try to go back to the last place that I knew. If you’re lost, you have no reference points. Your mental map of the area is wrong so you can’t make good decisions. Going back feels unnatural, especially if you want to make progress, but sometimes it’s the best thing to do.
This is my first summer of proper racing. I have set myself a proper plan with real blocks. Prior to that I always just set myself challenges, and tried to do the hardest thing. This is the first year of creating something consistent. I am working for longevity now as well as trying to challenge myself. Just pushing myself won’t last forever. I’ve learnt to dial myself back.
My big race this year is in September. That’s the Ben Nevis Ultra. There’s a lot of up which I love. It’s 52km with 4,000m of vertical climbing. That’s my A race. You go along the flat first for about 3km, then you hit Ben Nevis. You follow the main route up the mountain all the way to the top. Off the top, you head out along a ridge. It’s not a complete knife-edge but it’s on the extreme of what’s allowed for racing.
Even though I’m not usually a big problem solver, I like investing time into my running. Preparing for an ultra-marathon I like to work backwards from the event. I’ll happily spend hours researching a race. That makes me more inclined to do it.
I’m not at the standard where I can win ultras. My only race last summer, was a valley to peak race in Canada. There were some really good guys there so I just went out and raced as hard as I could. I came seventh and I was super happy with that. It made me think that I could push myself harder, and really go for a win.
I love running, but positive feedback is important. I need it and it helps me. I don’t know if that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s a bad thing. There is a part of me that runs just for the joy of it, but I also run because it shapes how people see me. It’s a reward thing. It’s nice to be recognised for my hard work. When it’s horrible outside and no one wants to go for a run, I will try to head out anyway. Doing well in races is the reward for that. We like rewards as humans, don’t we?
Running has taught me to work hard. I know that if I put effort in, I will get results afterwards. I’m not super academic, so I didn’t work very much at school. I always did as little as possible, so I never made a connection between input and output until I started running. Now when I train, I know that it will make me faster in my races. I didn’t learn that academically. I learnt that from running.
If you can’t see the benefits of hard work, then you won’t work towards your goals. Once you learn the benefits of hard work, you can do whatever you want. If you put work in, you should get a result. Whether that’s for a job you want, or for a race, or for friends or anything. It’s not always fair but it’s super important to learn that as a person. People who don’t know that, very often don’t believe that they can do anything. Putting the work in, you get results. It’s funny, I never thought about that before.
© Copyright Arthur Knaggs 2019