I’m sure all of you have seen the minimal pack wearing, bright shiny shoes wearing, sport glasses and bandana having shirtless (a good portion of the time) trail runners galloping past most hikers on any given trail. By that opener, you could probably guess that I am no trail runner. I’m just not built for it, and I don’t have the love for it like some, but if challenged I will rise to the occasion.
Back in the spring, my buddy Rene invited me to a race called “Gaspin’ in the Aspen” up in Flagstaff, AZ, which will take place this weekend. Having plenty of time to prep, I accepted the invitation and signed up. As previously stated, I’m not a trail runner, but I’ll fill you in on a few secrets I’ve learned during the course of my short training period.
Secret 1: It takes only 3 skills to trail run: throttle control, obstacle tracking, and pushing through the pain!
Throttle Control – When I trail run, I try and keep a running pace going the entire time. When I hit a tough grade, I try to pull the throttle back as far as I can without actually slowing to a walk or hiking pace. It’s like climbing a hill in a “granny gear” (lowest gear) in your car… you may not be going fast, but you’re still making progress. With most people, even running in your “granny gear” is faster than a hiking pace in the long run. When you get to an easier grade or a downhill, you can open back up a little more or even crank her wide open.
Obstacle tracking – Keep a look out far ahead of you to know what the grade will be like and anticipate it. Use your energy efficiently and wisely, you don’t want to run wide open on a downhill if you have a steep ascent right after. At the same time, be sure to use your immediate scanning skills to make sure you don’t trip on a rock or root, or run yourself right off the trail to avoid an obstacle. Alternately scanning near and far constantly will keep you on your feet and knowing what is to come so you can keep your run going.
Push through the pain – You will get to a point where the grade seems to be too much to run it. Don’t give up! Keep pushing little by little, using your throttle control to ease the pace, and before you know it you’ll find yourself at the break. People are always underestimating their limits, and you’ll surprise yourself by digging deep and not backing down to the challenge!
Secret 2: There is no special gear.
You don’t need magical $200 shoes, or a backpack made from space-age materials, or shorts bright enough to need sunglasses just to look at. Just throw on a hiking boot or regular ol’ running shoe, grab your raggedy backpack from high school, put on the shorts you just mowed the lawn in yesterday, and get out there and get after it. Sure there are the $200 shoes designed specifically for trail running, and they do help a little, but at the end of the day it’s not the shoe that makes a trail runner. It’s taking the first step off the couch and onto the trail that gets you there (granted you’ll probably new lighter gear down the line if you really love trail running).
Just recently, I trekked up Camelback Mountain (Phoenix AZ), a pretty steep grade at 1000 feet altitude per mile, and put these a few of these secrets to the test. About ¾ of the way up in 105 degree heat I just plain ran out of steam and had to switch back to hiking. Nonetheless, throttling back and pushing through a few of the steeper parts really made all the difference in how I felt about the run overall. I never thought I’d make it even that far up the mountain running the entire way. Get out there and keep pushing the limits, you may surprise yourself!
Curiosity is a funny thing. What’s over that’s ridge? What’s past that chute? What’s just around the bend in the trail? What can you see from the peak? A rustle of leaves just feet away behind a bush, a rattle from an unseen snake, a rock wall staring you in the face standing between you and a peak. What’s that? Can I make it? How far can I go?
I remember looking at buttes in the Grand Canyon and thinking “I wonder if anyone has ever been up there.” I sometimes thought about what it would look like if you could paint the canyon with neon footsteps where humans have been since the canyon formed. It would be an awesome sight to see. How many people have stood where I have stood, touched the rocks I’ve touched, been the places I’ve been. Lastly, where has no one been, can I get there? The unknown; it’s the definition of adventure.
There is always something else to learn, always a new adventure to have. If you get to the end of your fulfillment in one medium/discipline you push to the next or find a new way to push the current medium/discipline to a new level. Find something new to try, hone your craft, become better, explore, share your experience. There are so many places to see, experience, and there is no reason for you to ever run out. If you find yourself complacent, take a step back, appreciate what you love, and re-evaluate what is important. Remember that no matter how hard you try you can never fully know everything there is to know, there is a beauty in that. So be curious, it is a power that can propel you.
Suffering is something everyone talks about on the trail. There is a physical and mental limit to what you can push the human body. Everyone has their own limit, in every class of adventurer. Some people hit a mile and they can’t push further, some people hit 100 and are ready to go some more.
I have done some endurance related hiking in the past; pushes through long days, head lamp strapped on going into the night because the sun set and you’re still on the trail working. Starting before the sun is up to make sure to give yourself that chance to reach summit, or your target of the day.
I remember when I first started hiking I heard about people night hiking, I thought to myself, “that’s the stupidest thing ever!” I was only hiking a few miles at a time in the beginning. As I pushed into bigger and longer hikes it became apparent that attempting to accomplish 20+ miles days, at a hikers pace, one would be forced into the night. Headlamps became a necessity and it expanded my comfort zone. It’s funny how the mind can expand and the body adapt.
These bigger hikes, with big gain, sometimes into higher altitudes, made me realize that there were many of my own limits that were challenged and my comfort zone grew it many ways. On many treks I just remember feeling worked, miserable, stomach turning, unable to consume food. Physical limits had been met, red lining the whole way, gas tank on empty, mind going to places it’s never been, wanting to quite, give up, seeing things that weren’t there.
A lot of that goes away when you realize that the only person that can get you to the finish is yourself. No one can hike your hike for you; sometimes it’s a head down, grind on, one foot in front of the other push to finish. But even if you’re the only one that can get you out, its nice to have a friend trekking with you. Sharing the same pain, some of my best friends I have were made while out suffering together.
People have a fantasy in their head about trails, treks, and adventures; they idolize it in a way. I think many of those fantasies are born from the curiosity or the need to feel accomplishment of hitting the target and the memory of all the pain it took to get you there vanishes. No matter what the challenge, the cold, the distance, the difficulty, the pain, it’s the will that gets you there. Don’t give up, push a little further, you can make it, your will can take you there. See you all out there on the trail!