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All in the Jeans

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The halogen beams lit up the snowy parking lot as I coasted to a stop at the trailhead. The dashboard readout showed 19 degrees.

A hot dinner at home sounded like a far better idea, but I had to do this run. It’s a runner thing: You set the goal to run on a given day, and you can’t miss it, even if the work day spirals out of control, ending with a half-hour meeting that takes two hours when everybody had more than two cents to offer (which is what happened).

In addition to occasionally running in blue jeans, I’ve hit the trails in a decidedly low-performance, thick-cotton hoodie

Also a runner thing: discreetly changing clothes in the confines of a car. Sliding the driver’s seat all the way back, I slipped on a long-sleeved baselayer, my running jacket and a stocking cap. I checked for any cars up and down the road, began to undo my belt, and …

Stopped. Out of laziness, I simply didn’t feel like squeezing into tights. So I kept on my blue jeans, donned my running shoes and headed up the trail.

Three miles later, I returned to the car with a healthy sweat and a soaring, endorphin-fueled notion of launching a business: “High-performance denim running pants.” Maybe I’d diversify and offer denim running shorts, too. Daisy Dukes, even.

The business plan never took shape—and I discovered some itchy chafing—but that run sparked some reflection on other unorthodox gear and fuel choices that have worked for me over the years.

In addition to occasionally running in blue jeans, I’ve hit the trails in a decidedly low-performance, thick-cotton hoodie. For pure comfort, there’s nothing better—and I’ll take it over a snug running shell any day, except for longer runs when, O.K., it becomes a sweat-soaked blanket.

Another time I arrived at a trailhead practically drooling in anticipation for some miles at one of my favorite open spaces, Mount Falcon, in Morrison, Colorado. I popped open my trunk and discovered I’d left my running shoes at home. And running in my work-required loafers was not an option. I rummaged through jumper cables, blankets and duffel bags before finding a pair of baseball cleats, still mud-packed from a recent beer-league softball game.

My desire to run overruled my desire for comfort, and I laced them up. They clawed into the mud like a wildebeest, though scraped and slipped over any rocks. They got me through the miles, and by luck I didn’t wipe out.

I’ve also stumbled upon far-out alternatives to my trusty energy foods and drinks. On a six-day trek on the Tuscarora Trail, a 252-mile spur of the Appalachian Trail from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to Shenandoah National Park, West Virginia, I needed maximum calories for minimum cost (living in the New York City area was draining my bank account faster than I could refill it). Shopping at a gas station in rural Virginia, I picked up a Hostess Fruit Pie and perused the back label. Tons of sugar—33 grams, in fact—and nearly 500 calories, for less than two bucks. I survived a week of gnarly trail on those pies, plus Pop Tarts. 

Another time, I set out early one morning from Leadville, Colorado, with only two handheld water bottles and a gel. The dirt road took me over 13,000-foot Mosquito Pass and down the other side. Basic gravity and my zeal for discovery pulled me several miles down to a main road, farther than I planned. It was a hearty run by any measure, except that I still needed to re-trace my steps.

Around noon, I ducked into a saloon where several locals were testing the theory, “It’s five o’clock somewhere.” With no money in my pockets, I filled my water bottles in the restroom and snagged 10 packs of saltine crackers from the soup bar. As I crawled back over the pass, those crackers saved my bacon (which would hit the spot for dinner that night).

Lately, it seems that other trail runners are exploring the outer boundaries of eccentric gear and fuel. Note the polyester short-sleeved, collared shirts out there. Or trash bags instead of Gore-Tex worn when a flash storm hits. The bulky (and warm!) landscaping gloves for those chilly races or routes through fallen trees. Rickie “Too Much Information” Woodring occasionally tucks a wool scarf down his tights to avoid frostbite in cold weather and sensitive regions.

None of this threatens our mainstay suppliers, but I’d like to think of a few of us as ahead of our time, if not future magnates. Consider that pickle juice—yes, pickle juice—is now a mainstay on the aid-station table. A few years ago, only the freaks touched that stuff.

Garett Graubins is contributing editor of Trail Runner. He often runs in dress socks and drinks French Vanilla coffee creamer straight-up.