Night Running, Zafar Ali Moorland Pics + News 19th February 23
Night running, and a defiant ultra runner tells her story for the first time. Plus changing seasons photos from Totley Moor wildlife watcher Zafar Ali
This week we have a feature about night fell running, with thoughts from female fell runners about why they like running on dark winter evenings. And one local ultra runner tells the extraordinary story for the first time of why she runs at night, and why for her, adventure is important.
We also have a photo feature from Totley Moor photographer Zafar Ali, with photos from the last few weeks showing the seasons changing around his patch, and a brief round up of hand picked news about the outdoors as usual.
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On weekday nights, on the edges of Sheffield, there’s a secret that people who like to sit down to watch Eastenders at the start of a dark winter’s night could barely imagine.
Scores, if not hundreds, of Sheffielders have come home from work, rushed their tea, pulled on their fell shoes, strapped on their head torches and headed out into the wind and rain to run over the hills and moors in the dark.
I’d heard about the city’s head torch groups from running trainer Vicky Hawkins. She went out every week with a group of over a dozen women and men (and dogs) and loved it, particularly when the weather was foul.
"The muddier it is, the wetter it is, the more exhilarating it is,” she said to me. “Why don’t you come along?” So I did.
This winter, following the murders in the last two years of runners Sarah Everard and Ashling Murphy, women runners have spoken out about how they have to think carefully about their winter running and training, because of fears that they’ll be attacked or raped or killed by a man in the darkness. Winter nights mean many women feel their outdoor training has to stop for months, said one commentator.
But in Sheffield, I’d heard that night fell running was more popular than ever, especially among women, to the extent that local club Steel City Striders had started a new beginners group, to help encourage more people to run, and maybe race, on the moors and hills. Quite often, over half of the 20 or more people who turned up were women, I was told.
So at a time when women in urban London or Manchester were saying they’d had to shift to indoor treadmills, why were so many Sheffield women heading to the darkened moors?
About fifteen minutes in, I begin to understand. About twenty of us are heading up from Longshaw towards Hathersage Moor under a fullish moon, and every inch of the moor and woodland looks strange and exciting. Even with a head torch, you have to focus on every step of the rocky ground, so you can’t think about anything but the ground, the view ahead and the people around you. It isn't lashing it down, like Vicky prefers, but it’s still exhilarating.
After an hour and a half of moonlit wonder, we finally descend to the pub, where I speak to Lisi Briggs and Rachel Rea about why they run the moors at night.
“It’s an adventure,” says Lisi. “It’s a real thrill. When winter comes and it’s dark out, I think it’s important to get out into nature more.”
“You haven't got room in your head to think about anything else when you run out here, you’re completely in the moment,” says Rachel. “You look at your Strava later and say, ‘Oh yes, that’s where we went.’”
It’s a perfect way to dissolve the stress of work, they say, and being in a led group means you don’t have to plan a route or think about where you’re going, you just follow a leader with a happy group of like-minded people.
Lisi recognises the fears of other women runners, and says she wouldn’t consider running out on the moors alone. Rachel has been intimidated in the city before.
“One time I had cars circling round me, and there’s plenty of times I’ve felt angry when running, and unsettled, and I don’t think anyone should feel like that.”
But there’s a difference between fell running on the moorland edges and urban running in local parks and woodlands. The people you meet out on the moors, at any time of day, are fellow walkers and runners, out there to walk and run, Rachel says.
“If you run in the city, on the streets or in parks or woods, it’s much more densely populated, so you’re more likely to meet lots of different people with lots of different intentions.”
Nick Burns and colleague Seth Kirby set up the beginner’s head torch runs to help both men and women start night running on the fells and moors, whether they were nervous about running in difficult conditions, or about finding their way back, or about the risk they felt in running alone.
Many of the women taking part say they would only run in a group out in the wilds, or even at some city locations. People shouldn’t have to decide where to run on safety grounds, Nick says.
“But I think it is safety in numbers. People feel safe and secure with a group like this, and able to go out without fear.”
I thought back to earlier in the evening. I’m crossing the Burbage valley and realise I’m misstepping. I’m a type 1 diabetic, and my diabetic alarm starts going off and I see my blood sugar is going down, so I eat some glucose tablets and tell Rachel, and she keeps her eye on me for a while.
We cross the brook and I steadily keep going, and I find myself with another runner I know less well, who appears to have come back to help folk like me. She modifies her speed to mine as we scamper over the rocky path above the Burbage valley, and Jennie Stevens tells me how she often runs alone at night.
Something terrible happened to her years ago that made her determined to live an adventurous life, she says, before I misstep again and slow down for more sugar. Rachel’s behind me now, so Jennie disappears off into the darkness.
But back in the pub, she comes over to talk, and we’re all completely shocked when she decides to tell us what happened to her, which she asks me to keep to myself until she puts her thoughts in order.
“I had to make a decision that this event was going to ruin me, or I’d recover from it. And I decided it wasn’t going to ruin me,” she says.
So now she often goes on long overnight runs, or walks, on her own. “The sense of adventure is everything to me,” she says. “I refuse to be scared of things.”
She later sends me an email. I’ve never really told anyone about what happened, she says, but after talking in the pub, she realised her story could be helpful to others. This is what she wrote:
“When I was 30 I was beaten, raped, and left for dead by a group of men. I had been drunk, and I was in a foreign country, and I always held myself partly responsible as I had acted irresponsibly and put myself in danger. I think this helped me to accept what happened.
Following the event, I took the decision to keep my head up and keep going. I felt at that moment that I had a choice to be a victim or a survivor and I chose to be a survivor. I remember the decision very well.
I realise not every woman has that choice - every attack is different, and every woman is an individual. But I was alone and living abroad with no support network around me, and no subsequent care or sympathy. To give in would have meant going home…failing...and then what?
I felt my decision and my recovery process empowering. I kept imagining the encounter would catch up with me one day, but it did not. I sometimes force myself to think about it. But then I realise I really am okay.
I think that one moment pushed me to become stronger, it lit a defiant spark in me which has not gone out. I don’t take unnecessary risks, but I refuse to let anything or anybody scare me out of the things I want to do and achieve. I already proved to myself that I am strong (following the attack), and now I have a desire to become stronger.
Fell running and ultra running have helped me to achieve some awesome things, challenge myself and get stronger. Part of this is the solo and mental aspect, part of it is the incredible community which exists in the world of running. And there are some incredible female role models in the sport - Jasmin Paris, Sabrina Verjee, Nicky Spinks, Lisa Watson....to name a few.
I would encourage any woman to give it a go - join a club or a group, there are plenty out there, mixed, women only, road or fell. Get out there and see what's possible. Just over four years ago I was one of the people saying 'I can't even run for a bus'. And five days ago, I booked on a 135 mile multi-day race. I have no idea if I can complete it, but just the thought of trying makes me so excited.”
Male runners, and males in general, can’t really grasp how it feels to have to choose where and when to run according to your own sense of whether a man might abuse you, or attack you, or kill you. The women I met have this sense, and make their own choices.
By thinking about how we can respect women runners, giving them space, remembering they have no idea if we’re a threat or not, and by calling out sad loathsome behaviour from other men when we see it, maybe male runners can help improve those choices for women who run.
Rachel, Lisi and Jennie all have daughters, and hope that their decision to run, and to run at night, might be inspiring to their girls.
“My daughters are proud of me when they want to be,” says Jennie, when we’re talking over our peat covered legs in the pub.
“At the moment they’re teenagers, so they just think I’m weird and dirty. But when they grow up they might think I’m cool.” I think they probably will.
Update to Jennie’s Story:
I spoke to Jennie Stevens again in September, when she told me how she’d enjoyed running 135 miles around Anglesey recently.
She said when she’d entered the Ring O’Fire she wasn’t sure if she’d even get round, but after a while realised: “I was actually in with a shot at finishing.” And then at one of the checkpoints, another competitor said: “I was watching you, you’re flying!” and she realised she might actually achieve a little more than that.
She finished 2nd woman, and 8th overall, arriving home before most of the male competitors, out of a starting field of 75. Now she’s preparing for an even more extreme event, the Winter Spine Race along the Pennines from Edale to Scotland.
Jennie is a student support manager at the University of Sheffield, and is using the event to raise money for student scholarships, with a target of £10,800 to help three women students from poorer backgrounds to buy books and take part in social and sporting activities they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. If you’d like to help her, you can donate at the link above.
“This is an opportunity for me to be able to help other women achieve their own big dreams while achieving my own,” she says in a post for the University.
The Winter Spine Race one of the most severe ultra runs there is: on 14th January 2024, she’ll set off on a non-stop, 268 mile race along the Pennine Way, from Edale to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders, with a time limit of 168 hours, including any sleep she might manage to find.
The Spine Race was made famous by Jasmin Paris (who herself spent her early years running in the Peak District) when she came first overall in 2019, and smashed the course record at just over 83 hours, a record that still stands.
Jennie will not be aiming for that kind of speed, she says. “It’s going to be dark and cold and difficult. I just hope I can finish.”
She adds in her Sheffield University post: “I’m no elite athlete - I’m a middle-of-the-pack fell-runner and part-time adventurer.” I’m not sure the rest of us would agree.
Firstly, the Lapwings have arrived. As anticipated in the What to Look for in February piece, they’re here on Totley Moor, says photographer Zafar Ali, and will appear elsewhere soon I’m sure. The Curlews won’t be far behind, he says. More of Zafar’s pictures in the feature below.
Secondly, Ed Clancy impressed at Saturday’s Active Travel Conference organised by Cycle Sheffield. He agreed that micro mobility (posh term for walking, cycling and wheeling) is our future, Dr Ollie Hart reported, adding, as I found last week, that Barnsley’s own Olympian appeared down to earth, modest and keen to listen and learn.
Dexter Johnstone of organisers Cycle Sheffield said the whole event seeemed very positive, with an apparent commitment from Ed Clancy to push forward on (and councillors to get on with) the whole £ half billion’s worth of pending active travel and public transport schemes Dexter detailed to us here in December.
Russell Cutts of Russell’s Bicycle Shed (operators of the new city centre cycle hub when the refit work is eventually finished) said he was impressed with the apparent commitment and understanding of the issues from Co-Chair of Transport, Regeneration and Climate Policy Julie Grocutt, who he reported as saying: “If we all buy an electric car, the city is still gridlocked.”
Dexter added that city climate change chief Wil Stewart and councillor Abtisam Mohamed also went down well, the latter tweeting: “A recognition that whilst we need to do more to get people walking, cycling and using public transport the infrastructure has to be there to support it.” The prospective MP for Sheffield Central is also planning to learn to ride a bike very soon.
Council leader Terry Fox was not there, and so made no public commitment to riding a bike in the near future.
Thirdly, news from the Peak District: the national park authority and Derbyshire council remind us that the current £2 national single bus fare cap applies to many Sheffield to Peak District bus routes. Individual bus companies are not all as clear as 218 Sheffield to Bakewell operators TM Travel, however, so check with operators before you go. The £2 cap will remain until June, the govermnent has just announced.
The Peak District has also just won £130,000 of government money to improve accessibility in the Peak District, including expanding its Miles without Stiles trails for people in wheelchairs and scooters, users of specialised bikes and trikes, and families with pushchairs.
Zaf’s Nature Notes
Walker, runner and photographer Zafar Ali is a retired police officer. Talking recently, he told me how he’d photographed and noticed the seasons changing over the last few weeks, from red deer in the frosty bracken to the first peregrine falcoln mating flight in the skies above Totley Moor.
He documents his home patch around Totley Moor, Big Moor and Blacka Moor, and the wider Peak District, on Instagram (@zaf’s_nature_notes) and Twitter (@Customdiver). He sent me a few notes about why photography, and running and walking, are important to him.
“I’ve just retired as a Police Officer and had a demanding and responsible portfolio. Although it was very rewarding, there have been times when the stress that comes with it has taken its toll on my mental health (a fact that until a couple of years ago I would not have even acknowledged, never mind admitted!)
I thought myself pretty much invincible: man-up and get on with it was how I and others dealt with it… that is until it bites you!
Sadly, some of my colleagues didn’t cope and are no longer with us. But thankfully attitudes have changed and mental health is recognised without stigma, help is available and it’s ok to say I’m not ok.
Running is my go-to antidote; being outdoors in all weathers in the right kit is a brilliant way for all of us to find peace. It eases the pressures from the constant noise of a busy life and gives an escape for a short while from responsibility.
I’m also a passionate nature nut and wildlife photographer, so running brings benefits as a great way to get out into the countryside. I love exploring new places and recceing new locations for return trips with my big camera to immerse myself in nature.
Photography and focussing on the subject, be it landscapes, birds or animals, forces you to live in the moment, the perfect way to mindfulness. I cover many miles with my camera but many of my photos are just with my phone.
There’s an old saying of: What’s the best camera? The one you have with you!
It remains true, and phone cameras are great. My top tip would be take your time, looking around the frame and changing your point of view, shooting from a low down position, for example, can all make a big difference.
We live in a great place and I encourage everyone to go out and experience the nature on your doorstep: it’s there if you really look!”
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