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Habits of a Landscape

How the trails we run shape our experience of place.


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This article is featured in the Summer 2022 print issue of Trail Runner

 

The route was slow to reveal its shape, but with enough miles and minor hallucinations, it eventually did. The volcano’s profile emerged once my identity as an athlete shape-shifted into a child clutching to the frills of his mother’s dress as she spun. In reality, nothing was spinning. There was no dress, only glaciated mountain. And I was no boy, only a twenty-five-year-old attempting to circumnavigate Oregon’s Timberline Trail in one day, a 42-mile route around what the Multnomah tribe calls Wy’East, or Mount Hood.

Purple dawn had welcomed our group of six—including ultra-notables Yassine Diboun, Joe Grant, and Ian Sharman—as we embarked counterclockwise from Timberline Lodge. The first miles felt linear, not circuitous like the maps rendered. Here at ground level, the trail shot straight, metered in gels-per-hour, elevation gain and loss. I wanted to feel the curvature of this route, but I simply couldn’t. 

Nothing about the run felt rounded until the miles stacked up. After thirty-three miles, bored of my own hyperrational-linear gaze, I succumbed to clomping around like the dumb animal I was. At that moment the path started to swirl. It curled. It looped. Shutting off my mind, the body was what remained. For a second, I synchronized with the path’s turns and we spun together like a top. 

This was the first time I took seriously the interplay between perception and landscape. I wondered:

How might we more readily access these shifts in perception, to feel deeper into a route’s shape, to hold onto this intimacy? I’ve been curious about the shapes we offer the world, about how land, sea, and culture conspire in their co-creation. Do the stories and language we live by give shape to a life, or do shapes we follow draft the stories we live?

Shapes We Live, Lives We Shape

Whether you use Strava or some other GPS platform, so much of what we use them for is following each other’s activities – loops and lines, lollipops and snaggle-tooths. With each route there’s a conversation happening between the shaper and the shaped. We are never outside of a landscape.

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Naturally, this brings up interesting questions: How attuned are we to the shapes we create? Might our routes reflect where we are, who we are, and how we are in proper relationship with land? What if the more we became conscious of the routes we run and the shapes we follow, the more these shapes can, in turn, shape us?  

If you’re anything like me, running often feels more practical than poetic. Sure, it’s fun to create creative linkups. This spring I connected every major ridgeline in my hometown of Missoula, Montana, for a 50K from my backdoor. Most days, however, it’s miles and hours. Many carry no shape at all, shuffling through neighborhoods and alleys, simply logging miles.

 

What if the more we became conscious of the routes we run and the shapes we follow, the more these shapes can, in turn, shape us?  

 

In The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane writes that “paths are the habits of a landscape.” Habit shares etymological kin with habitat, a linguistic nudge that maybe an effective way to attune to a place is to stay awhile, listen to the habits of the habitat. 

I have this hunch that the more conscious we are of the habits of landscape, the closer we become to glimpsing important insights about being human. What’s empowering is that I can engage in this little exercise every time I set out for a run.

To explore this further, I peered into five distinct routes made by our running community. Here’s what surfaced. 

Photo: Getty Images

1. The Out-and-Back

At the crest of Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains, you’ll find Jaws Trailhead at nearly 9,000 feet. Perhaps the platonic standard of the out-and-back, the Big Horn Mountain Trail 100 starts and finishes in Sheridan. Fifty miles out to the crest, fifty miles back. I’ll never forget arriving there in the middle of the night as a spectator, just as a runner was starting his return. His headlamp beamed east in the direction of the fifty muddy miles he’d just covered. This time, he’d have to run them in the opposite direction. Something about the scene felt mythic and heavy.

The out-and-back concerns itself primarily with calculation, halving the full distance to cover. Out-and-backs are chosen when we don’t yet know a place, or if we are intent on completing a specific number of miles. It’s the most calculated shape, the safest, and yet also sometimes the most mentally challenging, as you are always tempted to turn around and shorten the day. 

Out-and-backs keep you close to home. No matter what, all I need to do is retrace my steps to find refuge. The out-and-back is the up and down, summit to descent. I’ve seen this landscape heading in one direction, and now an entirely novel experience awaits in the other. 

This points to the gift of the out-and-back: the magic that you could experience a whole new universe just by turning around and retracing your steps on the same path upon which you arrived. Coastal running is an easy example. An out-and-back up into Santa Cruz, California’s Wilder Ranch State Park offers a lush inland terrace of alder and buckeye, while turning to descend exposes arresting views of the Pacific coastline. We travel outward but stay forever conscious of that inward source, for in this route-shape we experience overlap, an adventure that tugs more at our heels than our toes.

Photo: Getty Images

2. The Circumnavigation

In 2014, I walked thirty-two miles around a 21,778-foot Himalayan mountain in far western Tibet called Mount Kailash. The mountain is considered by over 2 billion Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Bon to be the single most sacred mountain on the planet, a tent pole holding up the cosmos. Because of this, no humans are allowed on the summit. Pilgrims instead walk a circular path around its base, which hovers above 16,000 feet and climbs to 18,500 feet. Here is a shape that marks kinesthetic restraint, leaving the mountain’s upper reaches alone by staying at its circumference. 

Circumnavigation (or circumambulation) can be an intentional distancing from the middle, the peak, the core of a place. In contrast to a more linear-objective mindset, the circumnavigation appraises all sides of a mountain, its shadowed, icy northern exposures and its sun-drenched southern flanks. Perhaps the most recognizable human-built circumnavigation in running is the track. A more obscure example is England’s Bob Graham Round, a 66-mile circuit that links over 40 fells in the Lake District, with roughly 27,000 of vertical gain. Salomon athlete Rickey Gates is a devotee of the Graham Round – first established in 1932 – something he and Scott Jurek completed in 2014. 

“It’s a circular route, but it has a few important aspects,” said Gates. “Obviously it starts and finishes in the same place, but that same place is the center of town, the public square.” This weave of wild and human-built was critical to the route’s magic for Gates. “It’s also a 24-hour challenge, which incorporates a circular dimension of time.” 

Photo: Getty Images

3. The Point-to-Point

Homer’s The Odyssey is the most widely known point-to-point in literature. You start here and you go there, as if shot out of a cannon. The contours of a point-to-point always require planning – a shuttle or at least a hitchhike. There is requisite commitment in a point-to-point, a full send that’s worth the logistical effort in order to bathe in the aesthetic. In a point-to-point you pummel forward, headlong toward a finish, as if a magnet pulled you toward some final destination. The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run is the best example in ultrarunning. 

Of all our foot-carved shapes and lines, the point-to-point might be our most consequential, this sense that you were someone when you left and you’ll be someone else when you arrive, somewhere far from home. What’s most interesting about a point-to-point is that you cover the most amount of novel ground in a given time. Whatever emerges in front has yet to be experienced, and what is behind will never see in quite the same way again. 

Photo: Getty Images

4. The Grid

City running invites some of our most creative shapes. Blocks and squares meet roundabouts and parks. Barking dogs and traffic jams. Much of the human-built environment directs how many of us move through spaces. Sometimes efficient, sometimes not. 

Since the pandemic, Vancouver ultrarunner David Papineau heads out daily in his neighborhood with one pair of kitchen tongs, one baggie, one pair of gloves, and one mission: to pick up as many discarded masks as he can from the street. The shapes of his urban routes, posted on Strava, are gridded and serrated and always paired with a selfie, not of him but of his litter bounty. “I haven’t yet figured out the world’s problems while I’m out picking up masks, but it gives me plenty of time to think,” says Papineau. “Why do people feel free to drop so much trash on the ground? Are there patterns to littering that can be explained with demographic data?” Papineau keeps a spreadsheet of his trash pickup – so far, well over 40,000 masks. 

Then there’s Strava art. Runners etch-a-sketch activities into creative shapes as the grid invites the runner to create diagonal lines and imaginary edges using blocks as pixels. Notable Strava shapes include Darth Vader and mermaids, Thanksgiving turkeys and Santa hats. Engagement proposals have been etched in city grids, alongside more obscure art like “Trapped Alligator.” (Look it up.) There are political messages crafted into grid runs, solidarity with Black Lives Matter, Ahmaud Arbery, climate action. There’s the “The Picasso of Strava,” Lenny Maughan, famous for running a fifty-mile shape of a tiger for Chinese Lunar Year through San Francisco, one of the most impressive feats. (I think his Krampus is better.)

Yes, some of these might seem absurd. Yes, running the shape of a floppy disk can sound unreasonably useless. But there’s magic here, too. There’s something special about the creativity in using technologies to express a consciousness of a place in movement. We draw our lives into the places we travel, and are simultaneously drawn by them.

Rickey Gates experienced being drawn by the North American continent after running 3,700 miles across the country in 2017. Through running east-to-west, Gates better understood the fraught histories and complexities of the land: the shapes of colonization, of westward migration and Manifest Destiny, capitalism, the claiming of the West. “I’d been partaking in a study of human movement without really knowing it. Obviously running across the country was a point-to-point thing, more linear in nature.”

After running across the country, he settled into San Francisco and started his Every Single Street project in 2018, running every street in the city, twelve hundred miles over forty-five days. Gates referred to the project as if it were a body scan, a common Vipassana meditation tactic where one slowly scans their own bodily sensations, head-to-toe, over and over again for greater awareness. Covering every street afoot was sort of like taking inventory of an urban body and its cultural sensation. Was that anger on 4th street? Smells of rot on Market? The euphoria of direct sunlight over at the Panhandle

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“I didn’t really realize as I was doing it, but I was essentially doing one body scan of my city surroundings, doing it as quickly as possible, one fluid motion over forty-five days. I was taking a snapshot of the city at that moment in time. Along those same lines, I was also taking a snapshot of myself during that time as well.”

Through his Transamericana and Every Single Street projects, shape literacy is one of Gates’s lifelong curiosities, specifically “how you’re able to express your relationship with nature in figuring out how to get from one place to the other.” Hundreds have been inspired by Every Single Street and are drawing city grid shapes into cities around the world. If you’re willing to accept that each street and each shape is a new offering, “you’re always going to see something different, the more you pay attention to things.”

Photo: Getty Images

5. The Infinity Loop

Imagine a standalone mountain. Start at its base and beeline to the summit. Then travel up and over the top, descending off its opposite side. Next, curl a halfmoon clockwise around its base, back to where you started, and then ascend to the summit, again. Reach the far side, again, before traveling counterclockwise in a halfmoon, back to where you began. 

The Infinity Loop is a rare species of shape, a giant figure-eight. There are very few established infinity loops in the world, and for that reason alone they are particularly compelling. 

“I’ve never had a run where I’ve been more connected,” said Dynafit mountain athlete and sports nutritionist Alex Borsuk, referencing her 2019 FKT of the Infinity Loop around Mount Tahoma (Mount Rainier), with The North Face athlete Kaytlyn Gerbin. The full route: 135 miles with 47,000 feet of elevation gain. It took them just over four days. “Climbing up this iconic mountain and down it, then connecting with the Wonderland Trail, one of the most beautiful trails in the world—it’s seriously the best of both worlds.” 

The route was first envisioned by legendary alpinist Chad Kellogg, but he was killed in a climbing accident in 2014 before attempting it. Both Borsuk and Gerbin mentioned Kellogg as inspiration for their attempt. 

A high point for the team: their first summit at sunup, seeing the world unfurl below them, being on top of a volcano while seeing the entire circumference they were required to cover below. “When you get to the summit, you keep going. You don’t turn around the way you came,” said Gerbin. “You just keep going up, over, and down to the complete other side of the mountain. And then you have to make your way back somehow. I remember that moment at the peak, it was really exciting but also kind of committing like, okay, we’re doing this.”

 

The more creative and embodied we can be for our next run—no matter how short or long, wild or urban, straight or rounded, gridded or tangled—the closer we become to receiving their gifts and responding to their needs, in right relation.

 

A low point for the team: when they had thirty miles to finish after finally completing their second summit (the two nearly bailed due to horrendous weather conditions). Borsuk and Gerbin grew so hallucinatory that they decided to bundle up in a shared emergency blanket and take a nap, right next to the trail.

“People were nearly stepping over us to go to the top of Ipsut Pass,” Borsuk said. “No one was like: What are these two girls in an emergency blanket doing on the trail? Are they okay? Everyone just walked right by us. That was a low point, but also kind of the funniest point because we were both like, What the fuck? Why is this not concerning to anyone else?!”

When discussing the Infinity Loop, one thing that came up was the navigational comfort in always being able to orient yourself: “We always had a connection with where we were,” said Borsuk. “Depending on what side you’re on, there are different glaciers and features, and we felt connected to the mountain. The mountain was like a guiding star.” 

Though unclear if either would try the route again, both were enthusiastic about what establishing an FKT here might do to empower future attempts by women. Despite being two of the most competitive ultrarunners in the world, their focus was on the shared experience, perspectives gained and camaraderie built, problems solved and creativity strengthened.

“One of the coolest things about the Infinity Loop was that you’re able to see the mountain from every angle,” said Gerbin. “That’s a pretty unique thing about circumnavigating, but with this route you’re splitting directions, too. It’s everything.” 

The Land Shapes Us

Of course, there are infinite shapes and lines formed in our ongoing pursuits afoot. This heightened perception of our body’s movement through space seems more vital than ever in an era of climate precarity and displacement. With GPS wearables and the near-impossibility of getting lost, to be conscious of a run’s contours suggests something radical, edging us close to Macfarlane’s notion that “paths are habits of a landscape,” or habits of a running life.

In their own unique way, route shapes offer us a grounded perspective. They put us in perpetual dialogue with the quality of our attention, the foot travelers who follow them. Our only requirement is to listen, because the more creative and embodied we can be for our next run—no matter how short or long, wild or urban, straight or rounded, gridded or tangled—the closer we become to receiving their gifts and responding to their needs, in right relation. Because after all, it’s the land that shapes us.