A Bloodsport for Poets
an ode to trail running
Do you know that you can step onto a trail and begin moving slightly faster than a walk, and by this simple act you sharpen your attention, transform your gait, birth your own breeze, and sublimate an otherwise ordinary hike into the doppio espresso of trail-bound pleasure?
I didn’t learn this until 26. Yes, I knew that trail runners existed, those sweaty psychopaths: What’s the rush? Why can’t you relax? What do you have to prove? I tried it once or twice, always with the feeling that I was now exercising, that I must now keep time and perform well instead of simply enjoying a walk in the mountains. Hiking and backpacking filled my soul, and I struggled to imagine why anyone might need more.
Then a friend preparing for a trail marathon invited me to join her for ten hilly miles on a sunny August afternoon. Sure, I said, chuckling at how she’d leave me in the dust. But having just returned from a Sierra trip, quads stretched and lungs strong, I managed to keep up. To my delight, she did not actually run the uphills—something I assumed trail runners must do by virtue of linguistic consistency—but rather hiked them or “ran” at a snail’s pace. Together we connected multiple trails along the boundary of South Lake Tahoe, some familiar, others new. On the gentle downhills my stride widened as I bobbed and floated along the pines, creeks, and manzanita. This was not the trail running of the super-athletes or glossy magazine photos; this was The People’s trail running. Ten miles and two hours later, invigorated rather than destroyed, I realized what I’d been missing—and how much I had to learn.
Do you know that every trail runner is a ballet dancer? That we perform for the chipmunks and clouds as we pick our lines across rock and root and stream, tip-toe tapping from log to dirt to stone, adjusting ankles like precision pilots for every just-so landing? That if you recorded a trail runner going fast down some boulder-strewn switchbacks and cleverly excised the terrain, you’d be watching a dance of most delicate proportions, feet like a pianist’s hands, legs like a drummer’s arms, fingers fluttering like a slackliner? Do you know that we perform such ridiculous, contorted, and occasionally beautiful motions only so we might continue our flightpath through these woods, across these ridges, and down these slopes, because we have found little better in this world than these moments of entranced focus and fleeting grace?
Do you know that trail runners fall? You suspected it, surely. We fall all the time. I fell just the other day, whizzing downhill on a perfect sunny afternoon, big toe stubbed on camouflaged root, a few stumbling slow-motion oh no, here we go steps followed by an arms-out, belly-down slide. Knee and elbow bloodied, no permanent damage. Dirt-packed scabs and little bruises and mysterious 3-day pains, all part of the game. Are bigger injuries possible, ones that could leave us stranded in the woods until someone comes along, or even an unplanned overnight praying for search and rescue? Yes. But what are such risks compared to the devious silent injuries inflicted by laying on the couch with our phone for another hour, by inhaling the next gulp of exhaust, by hoovering one more Double Stuf Oreo? When we run trails at least we are moving our bodies, imbibing nature, and earning that hunger which makes the best sauce. All fall sooner or later, quickly or slowly, on dirty trails or in deceptive comfort. This is how we choose to fall.
Do you know the sensual pleasure of running your fingers over a topographic map, of combining disparate dashed lines into a grand loop or lollipop or out’n’back or Frankenstein-pretzel, of estimating elevation change by little puff-pastry clumps of topo lines, of guessing the lay of the land when color codes indicate only green (trees? bushes? swamp?) or white (granite slabs? volcanic hell? sandy wonderland?), of wondering whether a trail that appears on one map but not another really exists, of asking just what kind of day am I signing up for? How seldom we must carefully read maps today; how much navigation is taken for granted. I have no qualms with the satellites whirring hundreds of miles overhead that indicate my precise location in the form of a tiny blue dot at near-zero cost to myself. Thank you, satellites. Thank you, smartphones. But you’ll only ever be a companion to the topographic map, that old friend who shares every essential for today’s run without revealing too much, who despite all his wisdom still contains mysteries, still delights and surprises.
Do you know the utter magic of being the only person around for miles (or so it seems) in the Blue Ridge mountains, the Sierra Nevada, the south island of New Zealand, the Cascades, the Black Forest, or the spine of the Rockies? Even New England and the Bay Area and the Front Range offer decadent solitude if you just run far enough, if you venture beyond the trailhead, if you embrace less popular routes. To be alone in a wild place buoys the soul, no matter how momentary or illusory. Like some twisted prosocial kidnapper-trafficker, trail running whisks you away to solitude faster than hiking, injects you with endorphins and endocannabinoids and dopamine, and then shoves your face into an iconic vista and says There, have some hope for life! Indulge your wild dreams! Don’t you remember that anything is possible, you fool?
Do you know what it’s like to immerse your entire body in an icy stream on hour three of a particularly sweaty, humid, unforgiving run? Or into a hot shower after pushing through a frigid, unforeseen windstorm? Do you know the sweet tingle of evaporative cooling through your squishy socks after wading through a creek, because damn, that log bridge got swept away! Do you remember how exposure to the elements in remote places synthesizes such intense desires and poignant memories? Yet you still get to sleep in a bed at night! Do you see how trail running offers all of the physical and mental benefits of backpacking, sans boots, sans heavy pack, sans rough night’s sleep? How it squeezes an entire outdoor odyssey into a few joyful, tempestuous hours? How in such moments you, too, may play the role of the sweaty psychopath?
Do you know how all these ridgeline traverses and dusty footfalls and lakeside naps and bear sightings add up? If you do, please tell me. Tell me how not to fill my heart to bursting, how to stop loving the taste of salt in my sweat, how to forget the pride of blistered feet and dirt-tanned ankles, how to ignore the wild hallucinations of pizza and ice cream. Tell me how to remember God when a great trail run borders on religious revelation, when I scream to no one in a mountain meadow, when shafts of sunlight pierce the trees just so, when I feel nothing but gratitude for this pounding heart and these burning thighs, when I have five more miles and 1500’ more vertical to go, and all I want is to go, go, go.