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Every trail runner’s life list begins here

What do trail runners share in common with Morgan Freeman? More than you think. For starters, we’re all going to die …

Photo by Chris Hunter

What do trail runners share in common with Morgan Freeman? More than you think. For starters, we’re all going to die one day.

OK, maybe that’s harsh. But as all things must come to an end, so too will our days running free on gladed singletrack. In fact, many physicians subscribe to the idea that your legs, joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments have a finite quantity of miles in them. Some of us (see David Horton or Diane Van Deren below) are just blessed to have more genetic miles than others.

Trail running lacks the urgency that faster road races inherently possess. In fact, many trail lovers eschew tracking miles in favor of logging only time run and maybe elevation gain.

But, whether your feet strike asphalt or soil, time is a terrible thing to waste, and Trail Runner surveyed many devotees of the sport, asking the question, “What are the must-do experiences for every trail runner?” Here is the list, in it’s dirty, idyllic glory.

As Morgan Freeman advises in Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

#1 Run the Grand Canyon

Trail running summons images of cushy paths meandering among towering pines and across windswept alpine ridges. So it’s perhaps ironic that nearly every off-road runner expresses passion for running across a gigantic hole in the ground. Yet crossing the Grand Canyon is a rite of passage for trail runners.

Beginning on the South Rim, runners hit the Bright Angel trailhead well before sun-up to avoid the crowds. For six miles, the switchback route nosedives toward the canyon bottom, more than 4000 vertical feet below. What follows is a rolling, curling tour through rock formations and camera-summoning vistas. At roughly mile 8.5, a silver suspension bridge ushers runners over the Colorado River, in many ways the Canyon’s mother, and eventually up the North Kaibab Trail for an eternal ascent to the North Rim, grinding up 5000 vertical feet to the turnaround point. All said, the Canyon is roughly 23 miles Rim-to-Rim (often called “R2R”).

Many runners pause only briefly before heading back, making for a tough, 46-mile R2R2R day. If you’re not an ultrarunner, don’t sweat it. There’s the Grand Canyon Lodge at Bright Angel Point on the North Rim and it’s relatively easy for a friend to pick you up. Just do your research: summertime R2Rs can be hotter than Hades and the North Rim gets socked with snow in the winter. Also, it’s advisable to reserve rooms at the lodge several months in advance.

Dave Mackey of Boulder, Colorado, has R2R2R-ed twice, once in a record time (6:59:57) that still stands. The other time, he covered it with friends and admits he enjoyed the views and whole experience much more. “The Grand Canyon is the most beautiful run I have ever done,” he says. “Nothing anywhere matches its grandeur and sweeping vistas.”

Photo by David Clifford

#2 Work an Aid Station

It’s sometimes not enough to run a mile in someone else’s shoes (and, besides, who knows what sort of foot fungus thrives there). Often the best way to discover a fresh perspective on trail running is to not run. Instead, swap the steely-eyed focus of Race Day for the furrowed brow and warm heart of an aid-station volunteer.

“I think it’s an essential element of the sport to spend some time volunteering,” says 39-year-old Brian Wyatt of Berkeley, California. “I feel a debt of gratitude to the volunteers giving up a day to help me pursue my passion, so [working an aid station] helps balance out the self-indulgent aspect of the running lifestyle.”

Matt Hart, a 34-year-old ultramarathoner from Seattle, agrees and practices what he preaches. In early 2009 Hart volunteered for the Orcas Island and Chuckanut 50Ks. “When I can’t race or a race doesn’t fit into my training schedule, I still really enjoy being a part of it,” he says. “It keeps my fire for the sport burning.”

The best part? Volunteering is as easy as slicing bananas and clapping your hands. What’s more, it’s easy to find work; it will be a cold day in hell before any race organizer turns down volunteers. Simply look up a race (see Trail Runner’s Race Calendar), and send an email.

“Races don’t happen without great volunteers,” says Hart. “And it gives you an appreciation for all the hard work that goes into your race day.”

Photo by Duane Raleigh

#3 Run the Classic Races

Some trail races drown you with scenery. Others are steeped in more history than Fenway Park. Still others attract elites like bees to Honey Stinger gel. But some events stand tall above all others as especially memorable, meaningful and soul stirring.

For Jasper Halekas of Oakland, California, it’s the one and only Dipsea. The oldest trail race in the country (2009 was the 99th running), the 7.4-mile Dipsea (www.dipsea.org) is both quirky and legit—much like the eccentric vibe that permeates the surrounding communities of Marin County, north of San Francisco.

“Dipsea is in some ways the Boston Marathon of trail races,” says Halekas. “It’s also classic because of its unique features: the handicapped start, which regularly allows everyone from 60-year-old men to 13-year-old girls to finish top 10; the (mostly) open course that allows secret shortcuts; and the spectacle of 1500 people battling on a gnarly singletrack.”

Also, your life won’t be complete until you hit these:

  • JFK 50-Miler in Washington County, Maryland. The country’s oldest and biggest ultra, with 25 miles on the Appalachian Trail. (www.jfk50mile.org)
  • Golden Leaf Half Marathon in Aspen, Colorado. Imagine running through a bronzed impressionist painting, and the crunch of leaves under your feet as an elk bugles off in the distance. Now stop imagining and just run it. (www.utemountaineer.com)
  • Mt. Washington Road Race. OK, it’s on pavement. But every elite trail runner has endured the 7.6-mile, 5000-vertical-foot climb up New England’s behemoth. (www.mountwashingtonroadrace.com)

Photo by Justin Bastien

#4 Organize a Race

Even the famed Dipsea began with a single trail runner’s vision. One day over 100 years ago, somebody was on the trail between Mill Valley and Stinson Beach, California, and thought, “I’d be darned if this wouldn’t make an amazing race!” That one person’s vision has since brought joy (and plenty of poison-oak rash) to tens of thousands of athletes. And what trail runner hasn’t had a similar fantasy while out on a training jaunt?

Lisa Smith-Batchen did. And she acted on her idea, in 2005 hosting the inaugural Grand Teton Trail Races. Since then, she’s added distances and today it’s a journey of 13.1, 26.2, 50 or 100 miles in the shadows of some of the world’s most iconic peaks.

“When we first moved to the Tetons, one of my dreams was to put on a race,” says the 48-year-old Smith-Batchen, an elite ultramarathoner, triathlete, and running coach. Smith-Batchen explains how friends helped her to quickly learn the ropes of race directing: obtaining Forest Service approval, finding sponsors, and accomplishing her main goal—to make the Teton races a family event.

Despite the endless hours of hard work and early morning anxiety attacks, says Smith-Batchen, “The joy comes in watching people toe the starting line, coming through aid stations with their son or daughter helping them out, and then crossing the finish line.”

Photo by David Clifford

#5 Run Shoulder-to-Shoulder with Giants

Imagine if you could go back to the early days of your favorite sport and spend time with legends in their prime: Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Wilma Rudolph, Walter Payton, Steve Prefontaine, Jackie Joyner Kersee. While trail running is still in its infancy, it has produced world-class performances and athletes.

There is Scott Jurek, the only seven-time winner of the Western States 100. Nikki Kimball, also a Western States champion, who casts a shadow longer than her list of trail-running wins. Wasatch Speedgoat Karl Meltzer, who has won more mountain 100-milers than anybody. Former Trail Runner Trophy Series champion Diane Van Deren, fresh off a 430-mile trail race in the frozen Yukon in early 2009. David Horton has run the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and across the entire country—and is still going strong. Anita Ortiz has been named USATF Mountain Runner of the Year four times and won the 2009 Western States in her 100-miler debut. Simon Gutierrez is a seven-time member of the U.S. Mountain Running Team, more than any other U.S. runner. There is even legendary ultrarunner Ann Trason, named the 65th greatest female athlete of all time by Sports Illustrated, who now directs the Dick Collins Firetrails 50 in Oakland, California.

The cozy nature of trail running makes it easy to reach out to and maybe even get to know them. Several top runners maintain blogs and are quick to run some miles with a new friend. Dean Karnazes, author of Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner and quite possibly the most recognizable trail runner in the world, spends several hours per week emailing with many people he’s never met.

“Trail running has introduced me to many lifelong friends,” says Karnazes. “It has also introduced me to myself.”

And, unlike big road events, in trail races everyone toes the same line at the same time, so you too could queue up right next to Meltzer, Ortiz or Jurek. And some top athletes even offer personal coaching services.

Photo by Matt Hage

#6 Have a Fastpacking Adventure

Few things are better than running trails from Point A to Point B. That is, except for when there is an overnight or two sandwiched between those points. For those willing to slow the pace and run with essential overnight gear on their backs (bag, tarp, food, additional clothing, water-purification tablets, etc.), fastpacking runs are the equivalent of total trail immersion. This is the difference between learning a foreign language by studying for an hour a day or spending a year overseas.

Andrew Skurka has be-come Generation Y’s unofficial spokesperson for fastpacking. Skurka, who took second in the 2008 Leadville Trail 100, has “gone light,” covering the 6875-mile Great Western Loop and the 7778-mile Sea-to-Sea Route. He was also named the 2007 “Adventurer of the Year” by National Geographic Adventure magazine.

Skurka opts to put a pack on his back for days at time because, he says, “The experience is much deeper. It takes more perseverance and fortitude, so you end up pushing your limits.

“And by removing yourself from the daily grind, you gain a greater sense of clarity. You are better able to put things in perspective, and come back much fresher than if you had just gone out for a long run.”

Start out with a two-day, one-night run with friends (just be sure to buy a great dinner for the person picking you up at Point B). You’ll be amazed at how two days can feel like two weeks.

Photo by David Clifford

#7 Declare Your Mission

Perhaps it’s a morbid thought, but don’t we all wonder how we will be remembered? When we retire to the great singletrack in the sky, where the temps are cool and there’s a fully stocked aid station every mile, what will our loved ones say about us?

Stop wondering and act on one of those ideas you’ve undoubtedly hatched on a trail run.

Nancy Hobbs will be remembered. That is for certain. Few people have done more to advance the legitimacy of trail running than Hobbs, who lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado. For over a decade, Hobbs has devoted herself to building a bridge between mountain, ultra and trail running (cleverly called “MUT”) and running’s main governing body, USA Track & Field. Today, as Chairperson of MUT, Hobbs helps to oversee championships, coordinate national teams and generally ensure the sport’s healthy growth.

In a less visible way, Roch Horton of Salt Lake City, has been reflecting on his own legacy. On a run through the streets of San Diego in fall 2008, Horton happened upon a mosh pit of second graders enjoying recess at an inner city playground. He smiled at a group of them, off to the side, running back and forth, seemingly just for the hell of it.

“Then I realized, how many of these kids will ever actually toe the line at a local 5K, the Berlin Marathon or the Leadville Trail 100,” he explains. “How many Kimballs, Meltzers, Mackeys are hidden away in those little legs, that soon decay behind a cloak of trans-fats, high-fructose corn syrup, DVDs, underfunded schools, deadbeat dads, gang life, crime or a sedentary lifestyle?”

So Horton has declared a mission: to see that ordinary kids get to express the genetic running instinct they are born with. He recognizes that there will be obstacles, but seems driven by the same determination that he has forged on the mountain trails: “How to penetrate inner city schools and/or the underprivileged is beyond my capabilities … what I do know, is we were all kids at one time, and now our adult lives are steered by this self-propelled, foot-powered forward momentum.”

One of Horton’s first steps? “To encourage kids (parents, really) to expose their children to running.”

What is your mission?

Photo by David Clifford

#8 Pace or Crew in an Ultra

Not everybody will, or can, run an ultramarathon (some people are simply too smart to even consider it). But it’s easier than Moonpie to vicariously experience the magic of running 30, 50 or even 100 miles.

Simply put, things happen during ultras that are not common to the local five-mile hill climb. Waiting with other crews by a campfire, at the end of a box canyon, at 3 a.m., with a band of stars overhead, late in a 100-miler brings a sense of remoteness to new extremes. It also magnifies the drama of trail running a hundredfold. The unexpected happens and the dead often return to life.

Just ask Steve Pero. Pero, a long-time ultrarunner from Hancock, New Hampshire, crewed for his wife, Deb, at the 2003 Massanutten Mountain 100 in the mountains south of Front Royal, Virginia.

Late in the race, but still before sunrise on the second day, Pero waited at the Woodstock Aid Station (Mile 84). Deb was already late when her pacer came into the station, explaining that Deb was staggering on the trail. “We didn’t think she was going to make it,” says Pero, who went out in search of his wife.

Pero helped her to a chair while Deb pled to drop. “She told me over and over, `I can’t go on,’ and I got her soup, Coke, stuffed electrolyte caps down her.” Deb and her pacer promptly fell asleep, as in completely comatose.

That is, until the next female runner passed through the aid station. At the sound of clapping and cheers, explains Pero, “Deb’s eyes opened. She got up and said to her pacer that she was ready to go and the two of them stumbled away down the singletrack trail.” Deb, once a zombie, held on for a third-place finish.

Photo by David Clifford

#9 Embrace the Minimalist Spirit

Doesn’t every trail runner identify in some small way with the bohemian spirit of Chris McCandless, the main character in Jon Krakauer’s opus, Into the Wild?

Any trail runner with a credit card can reserve a ski-resort chalet for a training or race weekend, perhaps receiving a massage while savoring views from a balcony. But the essence of trail running resides closer to the ground —for some, even on the ground. The sport was born from the Earth, and so it follows that we should return to basics every so often.

It should involve camping, cooking your pre-race breakfast on a camp stove and washing up under a sun shower. Many call it dirtbagging.

Channeling the spirit of McCandless, Tim Long, a Bay Area trail runner, doesn’t look at it as “dirtbagging” so much as leading a “pioneer lifestyle.” Says Long, “The point of it should be not how bad it can be — like sleeping on the floor of an office at a stranger’s house and having the owner come home and go into his office while you’re lying under his desk, like I did last month at Moab—but the focus should be how good it can be, how, through skill and experience, how many creature comforts you can eke out of an otherwise Spartan setting.”

Long could write a book about some of the simple pleasures he’s savored while taking a minimalist approach to the sport (many are detailed on his blog, www.footfeathers.com). He has slept in the back of a truck and then had coffee fresh from the race director’s personal coffee maker. One summer, he found an unlocked window in a clubhouse at a ski resort during the Tussey Mountainback national 50-mile championship. He went from having to sleep in the back of his rental car to sleeping on a sofa, with a television, fridge and bathroom all to himself.

“It’s about being resourceful and opportunistic, bordering on the edge of societal norms without crashing over the line,” he says.

So, while Trail Runner does not endorse trespassing, there is certainly virtue in focusing only on the trail race at hand—even if it means sharing the back of a truck with a smelly dog and two friends.

Photo by Justin Bastien

#10 Be One with Nature

A recent experience by Paul Sweeney of Truckee, California, defines the essence of trail running. Far from the pavement of the interstate that runs through his hometown, Sweeney enjoyed part of the Tahoe Rim Trail, a 150-mile route around Lake Tahoe—a run through endless thickets of pine trees interrupted only by views of the glacial lake down below or gumdrops of white granite piercing the Earth.

“The twisted old junipers looked warm and inviting,” recalls Sweeney, who soon found one that looked climbable and headed skyward, one leg above the other. “It was a struggle to reach a comfy roost about 20 feet up. It was really quiet, very peaceful. No birds, no nothing. I sat a few minutes enjoying panoramic views and basking in the sun.”

On the way back down the trail, Sweeney’s heavy foot plants startled some wildlife in a trailside grove. “The tree exploded with limbs snapping … I heard crashing through bushes,” says Sweeney. “For a split second I saw the enormous cat land and leap. Its tail seemed four feet long.”

Sweeney hightailed back toward his parked car, shaking with excitement. “Overcome with emotion, I felt puny, but alive, very alive, more alive than ever.”

Who can say they felt as alive after a road run? Exactly.

Explore the wild, but do so with open eyes, ears and senses. Seek out the flora and fauna on your checklist: maybe a black bear, high-alpine columbine, a bald eagle, redwoods, a porcupine or some sage that is best savored when crushed between your fingertips and inhaled deeply.

Maybe even a grizzly … from a safe distance, of course.