As one half of an adventure writing husband-and-wife team, Jen Benson has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Britain’s best running trails and off-road adventures, having tested most of them at some point within the last few years.
The ultrarunner and mum of two is co-author (with husband, Sim) of some of the best-known trail running and adventure guides: Wild Running, The Adventurers Guide to Britain and Amazing Family Adventures, and has run more than 50 marathons and ultra events. Oh, and did I mention that in 2015 the family spent a year living in a tent, wild camping with their then 6-month-old and 3-year-old in tow? I quiz Jen on this crazy adventure, her ultras and a career in adventure writing below.
How did you and Sim come to write your running/adventure guide books?
We’re both from outdoorsy backgrounds and first met working in a climbing shop in our university holidays. I’ve always considered myself a runner but I’ve done a fair bit of climbing, adventure racing, triathlon etc. Sim was a climber when we met but was just getting into running. It was a couple of years later, when I was doing post-graduate research into distance running, that we first talked about writing a guidebook for runners. At the time there were plenty of guides for walkers and mountain bikers but we felt there was a need for something more running-specific. Unlike walking, running is much more about how the terrain feels – flying down fast descents, springy grass under your feet, speeding along knife-edge ridges, that kind of thing – and we wanted a book that really captured those experiences and recommended the best places to find them.
We mentioned our idea to Wild Things Publishing, publishers of the Wild Swimming and Wild Guide books and, luckily, they thought it was a good one. Since then we’ve had books published by several other publishers, including the National Trust, Bloomsbury and Vertebrate. The second edition of Wild Running has just been published and we’re currently working on a couple more. Being co-authors works really well as we have different areas of expertise: Sim tends to devise and map the routes while I do most of the researching and writing. We share photography duties as it’s something we both love.
What does a day in your life look like now?
Life’s pretty varied these days. We’re either at our home/office writing books, magazine articles, routes and gear reviews or we’re away researching and photographing. We both try to train most days but need to balance this with work and looking after our two young children. Usually I’ll work and train in the mornings while Sim looks after the kids, then we swap over for the afternoon. Life is non-stop busy but because it feels balanced it works really well. Before we worked for ourselves we spent a lot more time apart and I tended to be at home looking after the kids while Sim spent long hours at work. We’ve now found a way that feels fairer to all of us; we had to live in a tent for a year to make it all work but more on that later on!
Our trips are often quite lengthy – we spent 6 weeks in Scotland last spring, for example, allowing us plenty of time to explore and find/photograph the best routes and places. It means we really get to know the places we visit, something that’s just not possible on a weekend trip. Plus we get to see lots of amazing places with the kids, which is fantastic. We currently home-school which works really well for us.
You’ve done 50 marathons and ultras – wow. Which has been the most memorable?
I ran my first marathon in 2003, so I’ve had a while to rack them up! I think that first one was probably the most memorable, actually – it was the Snowdonia marathon and the final few miles were horrendous! I still have the slate finisher’s coaster on my desk. Sim and I have done some really great races together, including mountain marathons, ultras and adventure races over the years. We’ve had to race separately since the kids arrived but we’re looking forward to some more team events in the future…
Out of all your ultras and adventure races which was the toughest?
I always think the race I’m currently doing is the toughest! I often have a real mental battle during longer races and go through some very low points when I vow never to race again. Oddly I seem to to forget all that as soon as I cross the finish line… I ran the Imber Ultra recently – a lovely local race that takes in 33 miles around Salisbury Plain. It was on the day Storm Freya hit and there’s absolutely no shelter up on the plains. At the time it was definitely going to be my last ever race but less than a week later I was already planning my next one.
You spent a year living with your kids in a tent. What prompted this crazy adventure?
When our youngest was born I was at home juggling being a new mum with writing and Sim had a full-time job with a cycling charity. During the week he was out for pretty much the whole time the kids were awake. The first edition of Wild Running had just been published and we’d spent a lot of time together travelling, researching and writing for that, but suddenly we barely saw each other. We were spending all our time working to pay rent for a house that someone else owned and realised that, if we could give ourselves a year or so of lower overheads, we might be able to create the time and space to make a career of our writing and photography.
What were the challenges of tent life with a 6-month-old and a 3-year-old?
Tents are actually amazingly good for small children. The walls are soft so there’s very little to hurt themselves on inside and, as long as the zip’s at the top, they can’t escape! We had a woodburning stove for the first few months and had to be really careful to keep our 3-year-old away from that.
The rain and mud were probably our greatest challenges; it’s really hard to dry anything out in a tent so we had to be quite careful about not getting drenched. At one point the whole area outside the front of the tent was one massive sea of mud – we ended up putting wooden pallets down so we could cross it without sinking. We also broke our first tent, which was much too tall and succumbed to gales only a few weeks after the start of our year. It was a steep learning curve!
What were the highs points of your year living in a tent?
We spent a month or more at a time camping in many of Britain’s National Parks and other wild places. Being so immersed in the natural world for so long was such an incredible experience – it really made us realise how buffered we are, shut away in centrally-heated houses with double glazing. There’s nothing like sleeping on the earth to really feel the pulse of a place. At night we’d hear all the goings-on of nocturnal creatures, which was actually a bit alarming at first but we quickly got used to it. Going to sleep to the calls of tawny owls is wonderful – in some places there were so many it sounded as if they had surrounded the tent – we often hear them in our nearby woods now and it always reminds me of our Wild Year. We still go camping regularly and we all sleep best outdoors.
You mentioned amazing kit – what did you find to be indispensable during that year?
Our home for most of the year was a SoulPad bell tent: a roomy, airy, peaceful space that’s always an absolute joy to be in. Our tent had to be tough enough to withstand a year of being put up and taken down and, having spent more than 300 nights in it, it’s still going strong. Single-skin tents can be cold, especially at night, so one of our best purchases was an inner tent for our bedroom. It kept all the bedding away from our daytime life and the extra layer of fabric made it so much warmer. Good down jackets were essential, too – I don’t think I took mine off for 10 out of the 12 months!
How have your lives changed since then?
We’re now back in a house and, even a couple of years later, I still find myself stopping to appreciate all the things we struggled without – heating, lights at the flick of a switch, electric kettle, indoor loo… But at the same time we’re all too aware how easy it is to take all these things for granted; to become dependent on them, and then limited by them. We try to live in as much of a low impact way as we can, and to teach the kids to do the same. One of the best things about our life now is having a little garden where the kids can play and climb trees and we grow some of our own fruit and veg and sit in the sun with a cuppa.
Your latest version of Wild Running has just launched and includes more than 200 British trails. Where are your favourite trails in the UK?
Britain is just so amazing in its diversity of landscapes. Relatively, it’s a tiny place, but every time we go on a trip we discover places we could never have imagined existed. I love the extremities – the South West Coast Path around the furthest reaches of Devon and Cornwall, the hard-to-get-to islands and peninsulas; places where you can still stumble upon wildness.
You get to test all the best kit – what are your favourite pieces for running adventures?
I really enjoy testing out and reviewing kit. It’s great working with different brands and getting to see new products, especially those that are setting new standards within the outdoor industry. We also get involved in product development, which is really exciting, especially when you see the finished article and know you were a part of that. We always try to champion the brands that prioritise corporate responsibility over profit margins and ask why others aren’t doing so well when it comes to issues like good pay and conditions for workers, low-impact manufacturing practices, transparent supply chains and so on. At the end of the day it’s up to consumers to demand better and this has definitely been having a big effect in recent years.
Some of my current favourites are La Sportiva’s Mutant trail running shoes – I feel invincible wearing these as the fit and grip are incredible. Smartwool and Icebreaker Merino is always great to wear, whatever the weather, and definitely my go-to for socks, underwear and baselayers. I have an Ultimate Direction Groove Mono belt that I use a lot – it’s just big enough for my phone and the dog’s lead. Or, when I need to carry a bit more, the superb Vaude Trailspacer 8 or the new and very exciting Ultimate Direction Fastpackher 20. Finally, I love hats, and rarely go out without one. I have a Howies Merino beanie for the winter and my trusty On cap the rest of the year.
What’s next on the horizon for you?
Lots! We’re off to Scotland for a month or so soon, researching for a few different projects: we have a couple more guidebooks on the go and some route commissions for magazines. I really want to explore more of the islands and further north. We spent a few weeks in the north-west of Scotland last year and I loved the way of life on the smaller islands; the thriftiness and the resourcefulness. Things that break get fixed rather than replaced and everyone’s more self-sufficient out of necessity. I think I crave a bit of hardship and survival and struggle with the overwhelming availability and ease of everything. It’s definitely time to go camping…
You can follow Jen’s adventures via her social media: www.instagram.com/jenandsim_adventures, www.facebook.com/jenandsimbenson and www.twitter.com/jenandsim. You can also visit their websites: www.adventureplaces.co.uk and www.wildrunning.net.