10 Things I Learned from My Summer As a Dirtbag Runner
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Two friends hit the road with little more than their car, trail-running gear and a desire to see the country—here’s what they learned (Dirtbag Tips included)
The author enjoys a view from Byers Peak in Colorado.
This past summer, I hit the road with one of my best friends, Cat. We lived out of my car and drove from national park to national park—taking every opportunity to run and explore new trails, as well as crew at several ultramarathons across the country. We bought maps and circled our goal destinations, plotting out our adventures while drinking stale coffee at small-town diners. We got lost more times than we could count.
Somewhere along the way, abandoning societal norms just kind of happened. What was the point of washing our clothes every day (or showering) when we were constantly getting dirty? Why brush our hair when Buffs and trucker hats solved the problem so easily? There was no one to impress, no jobs to interview for, no parents to question our behaviors and no reason to feel sorry about any of it.
Our nomadic lifestyle took us to ice caves in Washington, to slot canyons in Utah, to the tops of 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado. I crewed for six of my friends during a 50-mile race through Leadville, Colorado. In Ashland, Oregon, we shared beers with a few famous runners. By the end of our trip, we had skinned knees, blisters, dirty clothes, a messy car, dangerously low bank accounts and deeply enriched souls.
Here are 10 things I learned from our summer being dirtbag runners on the road.
1. “Dirtbag” is not an insult—it’s a badge of honor.
The first time I heard the word dirtbag, it was used as an insult. As the trend toward a nomadic lifestyle has flourished in the last decade, I’ve noticed the term being used with endearment.
At one point, while crewing at the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in California, I was drinking a beer with a couple of friends in the back of their pickup truck. Another one of our friends walked by, saw us sitting in the truck, and laughed. “You guys are such dirtbags,” he said, smiling ear-to-ear. “Can I join you?”
Seeing others abandon preconceived notions about what is acceptable behavior or not is liberating. Drinking beer in the middle of the afternoon in the back of a pickup? All right, I’m in!
- Dirtbag Runner Tip: Embrace being different and not conforming to the kind of lifestyle society thinks you should live. Chances are, others will start to follow suit. It can be the most liberating feeling in the world.
2. Showering every day isn’t necessary.
Being on the road means one thing for sure: you never know when you’re going to shower next. It could be tomorrow, and it could be next week. Letting go of your “I-must-shower-every-day” mentality will help you adjust to the dirtbag lifestyle. It’s OK, you’ll get used to it. Human beings have survived on this planet for thousands of years without a shower every day. Smelling bad really isn’t that big of a deal.
- Dirtbag Runner Tip: Always have baby wipes on hand, they are the perfect hobo shower. Take advantage of any opportunity to shower, because you never know when you’ll get another chance.
The author with friends Tyler, Sean and Cat, Bryce Canyon, Utah. Photo by Molly Nugent
3. I learned how to live minimally and save money.
I was so concerned about money before I embraced the dirtbag lifestyle. It’s not that money magically appeared when I needed it—I just learned how to spend money wisely. Instead of paying for an expensive hotel, we would find free places to camp, pay a small camping fee or crash on a friend’s couch. In Colorado, you can camp in many places for free. Each state is different, so do a little research ahead of time and save yourself the money. We didn’t go out to eat at expensive restaurants. We didn’t go shopping or buy expensive gear. Most of our things were second hand and if something broke, we fixed it.
- Dirtbag Runner Tip: Duct Tape fixes everything.
4. Never assume that weather will stay consistent.
When we were in Zion National Park, it was around 100 degrees at one in the afternoon. Worried about overheating, we ditched all our layers and filled up our hydration packs for our six-mile run. About 30 minutes in and deep into the slot canyons, the weather changed drastically. A cloud system rolled in, and, within minutes, a torrential downpour unloaded on us.
The rivers in the canyon started to rise faster than we could run. Lightning began to strike the trees around us. As we ran out of the canyon, we slipped repeatedly on the muddy trail—but we made it back to our car just in time before seeing a lightning bolt hit a tree 10 feet away.
- Dirtbag Runner Tip: Mother Nature is unpredictable. Educate yourself about the weather patterns of the places you are going to visit and plan for the unexpected.
Dirtbag runners Tyler Clemens and Cat Bradley. Photo by Molly Nugent
5. Every person you meet has the potential to become a lifelong friend.
Someone once told me to treat new people you meet like old friends you haven’t seen in a very long time. During our journey, Cat and I stayed with countless individuals we met on the road. They offered us their couches, spare bedrooms and garages to crash at. We had the opportunity to share dinners, listen to other travelers’ stories and make new friends all over the country.
(Note: We felt much safer traveling together than we would have on our own. Use your best judgment when offered a place to stay from a stranger, especially if you’re traveling alone; it’s better to be safe than sorry.)
- Dirtbag Runner Tip: Strike up conversations and never judge a book by its cover.
6. Not everyone will understand this lifestyle, and that’s OK.
I was standing in line at a dilapidated gas station somewhere between Arizona and Utah. The smell of sweat—old, dirty, lived-in sweat—turned my stomach and I wondered which of the people in front of me forgot to take a shower. Then a moment of realization hit me hard—that smell was coming from me.
I looked down at myself: my running shoes were covered in a thick layer of mud, both of my knees were skinned from a recent fall on the trail and my shorts hadn’t been washed since I left home a month before. I hadn’t worn make-up in over a month. My hair was beginning to develop dreadlocks.
I had one of two choices: to feel embarrassed and shy away from public places, or to shrug my shoulders and say, “Who cares?” Seriously, so what if you aren’t living up to another person’s standards of living? It’s only a problem if you let it bother you.
- Dirtbag Runner Tip: Don’t forget to put your shoes on when you go in a store. They might yell at you about it.
From left: Jess Soco, Crista Scott, Robert Shackelford, Vanessa Runs, Tyler Tomasello, Cat Bradley, Dan Wolfe and Tyler Clemens, sharing a good time in Ashland, Oregon.
7. It’s possible to cook just about anything with a Jetboil.
While crewing at a 100-mile race, my friend asked me to cook some sweet potatoes.
“Sweet potatoes? How am I going to do that?” I asked. What was I, a magician?
“In the Jetboil, duh!” my friend said.
I had only ever made coffee and instant noodles in it. Then the realization hit me—I could just make smaller portions. So I went to work chopping up a sweet potato and boiled it in the water. It turned out perfect.
Relatively speaking, you can cook just about anything you want with a Jetboil or portable stove. Its relatively small size is its only limiting factor. Realizing this changed a lot for me in terms of food choices on the road. Portable stoves are worth every penny and are a must for every dirtbag on the road.
- Dirtbag Runner Tip: Always have a spare can of propane and a lighter handy. Top Ramen is also a staple of every dirtbag runner’s diet on the road.
8. Volunteering and crewing at races can be just as fun as actually running them.
During the summer I only ran a handful of races, but I crewed for more than I could even count. While many runners would rather do something else than spend their weekend volunteering for a race, I see it as a wonderful opportunity to make new friends and give back to the sport I love. There is something so rewarding about helping a friend complete a 100-mile race and seeing the look of satisfaction on his or her face at the finish line.
Plus, no one crews better for a runner than another runner.
- Dirtbag Runner Tip: Wait to have a beer until after your runner finishes his or her race. The nights are long during a 100-mile race, and you don’t want to be driving from aid station to aid station with a buzz. The beer will taste better, anyway, when you’re sharing it at the finish line with your runner.
9. I learned that beer absolutely is a food group.
Speaking of beer … in my personal opinion (and I’m sure many others’), beer is an essential part of the dirtbag-runner diet. I’ve found that a good craft brew in the middle of a race was exactly what I needed to help loosen up my tightened muscles, elevate my mood and give me a quick boost of carbs to finish strong.
- Dirtbag Runner Tip: If you’re ever going to do a beer mile (which I highly recommend), opt for the cheap beer instead of a craft brew. Pounding four IPAs in a row during a beer mile is extremely challenging and is a straight ticket to your sleeping bag.
10. Spending a summer as a dirtbag runner will completely change your life.
When I returned home after my summer of traveling, I looked around at all of my things, just thinking, “I don’t need this, this or this. I don’t need any of this junk.”
I’m not the same person I was at the beginning of the summer. Life on the road and on the trail completely reshapes your ideas of what is necessary to live a full and happy life. I realized I need a few important things: Meaningful relationships, a stomach full of good food, a place to lay my head at night and a beautiful trail to explore. Everything else is simply fluff.
- Dirtbag Runner Tip: Rid yourself of excess materialistic possessions, the job you hate, the relationships holding you back and the lifestyle that doesn’t serve you. Discover your true potential by hitting the open road with only a few goals in mind: To see more, to live more, to be more. You won’t regret it.
Crista Scott is an ultrarunner, writer and researcher in Sports Psychology. She lives in Santa Barbara, California, and in her free time she loves trail running, rock climbing and practicing yoga. You can find her personal blog at RunEatCreateRepeat.com, or find her on Instagram (@CristaScott) or Twitter (@Crista_Scott). For more information about her and her friends’ dirtbag running adventures, visit DirtbagRunners.com.