Rugged terrain and steep ascents are the domain of the most determined, tenacious and skilled athletes in the world of trail running. In this unforgiving environment, three remarkable women from the Black Trail Runners (BTR) community group are gearing up for an extraordinary challenge. Becky Devereux, Rachel Dench and Juliette Denny have set their sights on the adidas TERREX Infinite Trails 2023, a gruelling team event held in the Gastein Valley in the Austrian Alps. Together, they’ll run a combined distance of 100km with a vertical gain of 7,600 metres – that’s just over a kilometre shy of the height of Everest.
I speak to the three after a wet day of mountain training up in a disbanded open cast slate mine in the depths of Eryri National Park (Snowdonia) in Wales. Their journey from different starting points in the world of running to preparing for this demanding race is a testament to the power of determination, community support and a shared belief in the representation of People of Colour.
Rain and mountain mist has made the purple grey scree that litters the trails slippery and otherworldly. Yet, we all manage to get down the mountain, ankles and knees thankfully intact, if somewhat damp. As we sit sodden in a hired Renault van, alone in the corner of a barren carpark, we reflect on the grim beauty of the day. The windows start to steam up and I watch as the wind blows an empty Quavers packet across the crumbling tarmac.
This group will be the first all-female team comprised of People of Colour to enter the adidas TERREX Infinite Trails event. With the hopes of the BTR community resting on their shoulders, the unspoken pressure of them all finishing feels as heavy as the dark clouds trudging through the Welsh mountains. Remarkably, despite the fatigue everyone feels, spirits are high and the newly formed team of three are motivated to explore what taking on such a daunting challenge means for them.
Rachel Dench is an ultra-distance trail runner and a founding member of Black Trail Runners. Rachel’s no stranger to the world of running, yet underplays her hand every time I speak with her. The confident shyness she presents masks her ability to deliver on the trails: her Strava profile shows blistering pace at 50km and 100km races, with respectable times in marathons down to 10km races, which she classes as warm-ups. But Infinite Trails appears to present an entirely new challenge for Rachel.
It’s hard to know if the race ahead really has her spooked but I sense something that has perhaps pushed her into unknown territory. “It’s less about the distance and more about the elevation,” she explains, revealing the unique challenges of this mountainous course. Rachel reminds me that mountains are hard to come by when you live in North London.
“It feels quite nice not being the one to watch out for or automatically expected to win,” she says. It’s a telling line and I’m not sure I believe it. Rachel is as competitive as they come but the numbers are stacked against her: 4,000 metres of loss and gain over 44km of mountain trails is no joke.
While Rachel thinks she has the ‘ups’ dialled, it’s the descents that are the worry. The knifelike arêtes near the summit give way to scrambling and then root-covered trails in the lower section, all of them primed to deliver a twist or break should you put a foot wrong. Even though Rachel appears perfectly adapted to this terrain, the impact on the quads over such a long time runs the risk of making the legs useless. Or, in her words: “Quads turned to jelly.” Focus needs to be laser-sharp to get through the race unscathed. “I’m not just running for myself,” Rachel reflects. “I’m running for the team and for the community.” On this point, there is no doubt in her voice.
Not completing the race due to injury or fatigue is a worry felt by everyone, not least Becky Devereux, who started running just two years ago. Becky lives in the Pennines where there are hills aplenty on the doorstep. But this is by far the biggest running challenge she has taken on. “I always said that I wasn’t a runner,” she says. “I think I’d done one park run but then Covid happened and I couldn’t play tennis anymore because the club was shut. Exercise is really important to me, so I started running.”
Becky’s short journey with running has been an intense one, especially while raising a young family and working as full-time vet. I ask a few questions about the veterinary world and crack a weak dad joke but no one laughs. A drop of condensation from the now-opaque windscreen drops onto my phone and there’s a second or two of awkward silence.
“I want to show them [my family] that people like us can do things like this,” Becky says. “It’s super important.” I’m not immediately clear if she means women, People of Colour or mothers. In retrospect, I think it’s probably all three, and maybe some other groups that are not immediately obvious to me.
Becky has put in the graft, getting a trainer to help her with fitness in the lead-up and heading off to Chamonix in France, the European capital of trail running, at the end of Summer with Rachel for an insight into what to expect at Infinite Trails. “It was amazing,” she says. “I just had this out-of-this-world experience, something that I would never have thought of doing on my own.”
The Chamonix trip proved valuable, offering a reality check on what mountain trail running means, in terms of fitness and endurance. Becky got a glimpse of the specialised skills needed to make it back to the start/finish line before the cut-off period. If just one of the team fails to make the cut-off time, the entire team is disqualified – surely one of the cruellest rules in endurance racing.
“Every so often during training, you’ll have some days where it feels great and you’re feeling fit and strong,” Becky reflects. “And then those are the days where you do a run and everything just feels like hard work. But you’ve just got to keep putting one foot in front of the other and giving it a go, and it will happen.”
All three share this position – a tenacity that isn’t uncommon in Women of Colour. The strength they have shown, not just as individuals but as a team, is impressive – even more so, given that they met for the first time just six months ago and live miles away from each other. Video calls and WhatsApp messaging have helped bring them closer, as has the shared belief that they are doing this for a greater cause.
For Juliette Denny, losing a close school friend to cancer led her to search for a cause and question the big things in life. She decided to take on the South Downs Way, a gruelling 112-mile trail run along the south coast of England. That proved a turning point – and helped teach her to embrace the mantra of carpe diem. “[The South Downs Way run] helped ground me at a time where there wasn’t a huge amount of grounding,” Juliette explains. “It gave me a lot of strength at a time when I had none.”
The way Juliette talks about throwing herself into running and physical challenge is infectious. She talks about marathons and Ironmans as though they’re something that everyone should – of course – be doing. She gets excited when describing the Transit van she has done up into a camper to travel around the country and experience nature through running. “It’s a chance to really step outside of all the things that are going on in your head and all the things that are going on in your life,” she explains.
Trail running appears to have transcended the physical for Juliette. It allows her a space for balance and solace, an opportunity for reflection and deeper connection with powers bigger than ourselves. Pain and sorrow have been transformative beasts and running has been the getaway car. Now, she truly believes that anyone can embark on that journey, no matter their background or experience. “What I want to show people is that [trail running] is something that anyone can do,” she says. “They just have to take that first step outside and try and do it.”
Collectively, the team strike an inspiring pose. They have been pulled together for a race none have ever competed in, with an unknown challenge that’s totally serious. Yet, rather than an air of nervousness, I feel the electricity of excitement in the van. It almost makes me want to step out and feel the heavy mist on my face once again, to smell, taste and touch the nature on the edge of the car park. To run up the wet trail and get my heart racing and my limbs moving, to fill my lungs with the rawness of the Welsh mountains. Almost. It’s getting dark and the drive back to London isn’t getting any shorter for me. The team head off to shower and change, then fuel up for another day of training in the mountains.
Infinite Trails is a moment of connection for Rachel, Becky and Juliette, one that takes them further on their journeys of personal growth; a step closer to answering some of the questions that keep us all searching for the truth. Yes, it’s about crossing the finish line but also about advancing what they are capable of as individuals, as a team and as a community of Black Trail Runners.