Trail Running Off the Beaten Path

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May 18, 2017

Essay: Adventure Awaits Off the Beaten Path

By Abram Dickerson

Photo: Connecting with nature and taking in amazing views like this one in the North Cascades entices many runners to take to the trails. Photo by Abram Dickerson

 

Trail runners are a special breed.

We wake up before dawn for long runs when our more reasonable friends and loved ones are still sleeping.

We train by spending hours each week squatting, lunging, pushing, pulling and planking at the gym, in our garages and in our living rooms.

We continue these rituals in the rain, wind, snow and mud, and we do it when it hurts, when we’re tired, and when it would simply be easier not to.

Why?

Core Motivations

Most runners train for races. But is the race really the source of our inspiration?

When asked, many trail runners cite similar reasons for their efforts: the experience of a deep connection to nature via the remote and quiet beauty of trails, the friendships forged in training, the conquering of self-achievement by overcoming physical and mental obstacles, and the heroic transformation that can occur in suffering on long, remote stretches of trail over difficult terrain and conditions.

When examined, these core motivations have everything to do with adventure and less to do with racing.

For many runners, increased clarity about the reasons why they run has led to a departure from racing and an increased emphasis on goals more directly connected with mountains, wilderness and adventure.

Kilian Jornet, arguably one of the world’s most successful and prolific trail runners, said in an interview with Salomon.com, “Racing is a fun thing to use to get motivation and to be in top shape. It’s a chance to measure yourself, but it’s not the ultimate goal. … The ultimate goal is to be moving in the mountains.”

Wilderness and wild places beckon to our creative, independent and rebellious selves. The mountains, deserts and wild places of this world are rugged and defy our corporate-driven, commodity culture because what they offer us cannot be purchased with money.

Their riches go to those who take time to educate themselves in the ways of the wild and for those who pay the price of time and effort. The greater the sacrifice, the deeper we plunge into these spaces; the more we risk, the more we can experience the rhythms and rewards of these primeval lands.

A Different Rhythm in the Backcountry

For runners whose inspiration exists at the crossroads of physical challenge and the beauty of nature, a whole world of running exists just out of bounds of the race.

The difference between trail racing and wilderness running is analogous to the contrast between “in-bounds” resort skiing and skiing in the backcountry. The resort provides a structure to the skiing experience complete with a lodge, ski patrol, defined terrain, avalanche control and a clear destination for a community of skiers.

Similarly, a trail race provides course markings, aid stations, emergency response and a concentration of energy and focus on the running experience. Both are fantastic.

But running or skiing apart from this establishment is a different experience. As a whole, the backcountry follows a different rhythm and invites a different consciousness. In the backcountry, the physical challenge is a dance with the terrain, conditions and the athlete. There are no course markings, aid stations, podiums or medals. Runners assume the full risk and responsibility for the safety of their experience.

Runners new to backcountry disciplines must learn specific skills and practices to responsibly play in these spaces, including wilderness navigation and the ability to interpret maps, and to plan and execute a run.

It is important to pay attention to terrain and have respect for changing conditions of trails due to maintenance, fires and seasonal factors that can significantly alter a route or even render it unsafe. Trail runners should learn to cultivate an understanding of weather and the necessary precautions, skills and resources to be prepared for inclement weather, injury and fatigue when traveling remotely.

Learn Wilderness Skills

Develop a knowledge of and commitment to practicing a “Leave No Trace” ethic that defines the responsibility of visitors to fragile alpine and wilderness environments; if followed, these guidelines can minimize our impact and preserve these spaces for future generations of travelers. Finally, gathering knowledge of first-aid and emergency conditions can serve to limit exposure to risk and provide critical skills in the event of an accident.

Fortunately, there is no lack of resources to develop these skills. Books, maps, blogs and articles are all excellent for familiarizing new initiates with these skills. Many organizations teach essential wilderness first-aid and travel skills, including the National Outdoor Leadership School, The American Alpine Institute, Remote Medical International and The Mountaineers.

Increasingly, there are options in the running world for supported or crew-supported trips into remote terrain. These services provide shuttles, guides and amenities specific to the runner looking to develop familiarity and confidence traveling in these outdoor spaces.

When it comes to developing wilderness skills, there is no substitute for the role of mentors who are passionate about their sport, experienced in the ways of remote travel, and are willing to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with others.

Those of us fortunate enough to live in the Northwest are surrounded by a great Cascadian wilderness. Many lifetimes of trails, peaks and adventures are waiting in our literal backyards. These sacred spaces call to our hearts, our legs and our imaginations. There is always new terrain to explore, new linkups to be made between summits, new dots on the map to connect and inspiration to be found in setting new goals.

Abram Dickerson is the Owner and Operator of Aspire Adventure Running. Aspire organizes single-day and multi-day wilderness running adventures across the Northwest. AAR’s seasoned crew handles permits, logistics, shuttles and emergency support on remote technical trails and terrain. Each trip features spectacular meals and celebrations for runners, friends and family. Check them out at: www.AspireAdventureRunning.com

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