Corridors of flow – In search of the perfect trail experience.

While religiously sipping hot coffee, my morning started with browsing the new batch of outdoor sports media the night had spawned. Usually it’s the same generic clichés of a runner, biker or climber doing something way out of my reach, while a dreamy euphoric soundtrack helps to convince me of its total awesomeness. The bittersweet sting I get from these video’s helps me convince myself that if I just get through these next couple of days, weeks, months… of being diligent at work, I’ll get my share as well.

I was watching a video of mountain bikers flowing through some ridiculously beautiful trails when I heard the voice over say something that really struck a chord in me. He simply nailed what I’d been thinking but hadn’t been able to put into words:

“…and also there’s this big word ‘flow’ that you’re always talking about. Not necessarily a trail with like… linked up turns, natural tables, and that sort of thing. But also, on a bigger scale, how does the day fit together? How do you make that happen? And on a bigger scale, how do you make a week of days hang together properly? I consider my role to be somebody who finds great trails, and puts them together in a manner that is presentable. Yes, you’re looking for awesome trails, but you’re also looking — on a bigger scale — for corridors of flow, through this network of nodes and edges. Through this network which we’ve been blessed with from the agricultural past and trading past. It’s all there; we just need to find the best ways through it.” –Ash Smith.

Ash pointed out exactly what is hard, but magnificently creative about setting up routes and trails. In my mind, reading a map and the terrain at hand while trying to sketch a line of movement through it all, is right up there with picking up a notebook to write a poem, to make a sketch or to write a song. It’s part of the reason I love to just go out and explore myself, instead of endlessly participating in organized events. Just like there are musicians who enjoy covering a song to the best of their ability, and musicians who like to take a bunch of chords and scales to play around with themselves – there are runners/bikers/hikers who like to enroll in races to get the most out of their physical performance, and runners/bikers/hikers who like to go out there with a daypack and just see what happens. Both are great and not mutually exclusive of course, but you get my point.

Belgium’s South, France’s Northern borders, the hilly forests of Germany etc… are a special canvas to work on. As a hiking guide and someone who likes to explore, I’ve often pondered all this, but it’s hard to explain to others. Let me try by making a couple of comparisons.

Among my friends, I’m an odd duck of sorts. Most of them are really dedicated climbers or mountaineers. They use their scarce free time to go out and find the limits of their sport in the most challenging environment they can imagine. From their point of view walking/running is tedious – let’s just say “boring” ok – and forests are something you have to get through while approaching the crag or that peak you’re looking to tick off your bucket list.

A rock climber who’s building a route in a gym or bolting a line on rock, is looking for an intricate sequence of moves, but on a scale of size, he’s limited to anything between 10 meters and rarely ever more than 100 meters of terrain. The duration of the challenge he’s proposing is usually only a couple of minutes of movement per pitch (not mentioning all the rope work during multi-pitching).

When mountaineering, the person who picks the line is severely limited by factors of objective safety (weather, snow conditions, rock conditions,…) and subjective safety (what is the skill level of the group, which terrain is considered impassable,…). In order to complete the challenge, a lot of options are narrowed down to find this fine line between what is a possible and what is an impossible (or extremely dangerous) way of reaching the desired place with one’s own skill and strength.

A runner/biker/hiker looking for a line in hills and forests is also faced with a lot of challenges – navigating in woods is hard and conditions can be harsh too – but, the canvas to work on is just so much bigger. A trail runner or a speed hiker can easily cover 40 – 50km’s in a day, moving on or off trails, and a mountain biker can easily double that distance. Their movement is continuous and can last for hours and hours.

The amount of terrain that can be covered is enormous. A good trail hunter setting up the line isn’t just linking paths and junctions on a map. Just like you recognize climbing gym routes built by the same person after a while, you’ll start to get a feel of how a person lays out trails. He (or she for that matter…) is trying to find lines in the terrain that will offer the maximum amount of pleasure. He’s looking for changes in elevation, soil, rock, foliage, water… that will bring the right balance of challenge and reward. He’s looking for flow.

Dieter Van Holder
November 2015

Nadri rock climbing performance test & graphs (Excell worksheet. English & Dutch versions)

Nadri rock climbing performance test & graphs (Excell worksheet. English & Dutch versions)

The Nadri test measures which “load” you can handle in the course of an hour. This helps you judge your level of training. It’s not necessarily about “how hard” you can climb, but more about “how much” climbing you can put out in a timeframe. Look at is as a combination of technical difficulty and volume (how much / how fast / per time); The weight you can give to a performance is described in the score table below. Those with analytical minds can use this spreadsheet to measure the volume and intensity of climbing training over longer periods of time in themselves and others. This can be used to adjust training to more efficiënt levels. Nadri stops at 6C+. I’ve extended his line of scoring using the same mathematical increments.

Example: to cross the Aiguille de la Vanoise you need to score 40 to 70 points; for the Pierre Alain-route on Grand Pic de la Meije South wall in the Encrins you need 200 to 240 points.

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