How Microadventures Can Give Your Running a Boost

Interesting mid-run offshoots and alternatives can mix up the monotony of serious training

Photo: Getty Images

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I was sitting outside a cafe in San Francisco when Rickey Gates offered me a bite of his chocolate croissant. 

“No thanks,” I said.

“Are you sure? It’s really delicious.”

My rebuff stood. But why? The croissant did look pretty good, and Rickey knew the city like the back of his hand, so if there was ever a tour guide I could trust, it was him.

The reason I said no was: we were one hour into a two-hour run. And the idea of stopping at a cafe, much less eating something there, went against everything I knew as a runner. Sitting and snacks was the realm of cyclists. Running was serious business. 

We weren’t on any old run, though. I thought I’d signed up for a fairly standard slog along the waterfront, but the whole undertaking had caught me off guard with its adventurous tilt: under Rickey’s guidance, we meandered through short ribbons of singletrack in Golden Gate Park, slogged up the impossibly steep paved inclines of Twin Peaks, and skirted down alleyways. Pace and distance goals were out the window. In a crowded city that was anything but unexplored, it felt like we were piecing together a unique experience–a sequence that had never been attempted in the order we were doing it. 

The adventurous nature of the run was amplified for another member of the group, who showed up in jeans, unaware we were running. (He dropped me on the climb to Twin Peaks.) 

Rickey, of course, had a knack for finding adventure in plain sight, running every inch of every street in San Francisco as part of his “Every Single Street” project in 2018. “Passing through a city provides very little context in terms of truly understanding that place,” he wrote on his website chronicling the project. “I thought I knew San Francisco pretty well before taking on this project and came to realize I hardly knew it at all.”

Inspired by Rickey’s knack for finding a unique view of a place he knows well, I started welcoming more detours–if you can even call them that–into my routine in my hometown of Minneapolis. Circumnavigating a lake I’d run around a hundred times, I let myself leave the paved patch for a small dose of singletrack. A creekside park that crossed the entire city offered a mostly-dirt artery crossing streets I’d run down but never seen from below, or in passing like this. A park in the center of the city offered a destination and mid-run reprieve from the tarmac–I didn’t necessarily have to drive to the trailhead and run entirely on dirt, or eschew it entirely on a road run. 

In At Home, Bill Bryson describes the unique thrill of seeing a place you know intimately from a new vantage point. Mid-run microadventures sure helped mix up the monotony of junk mileage, and made me look at my city differently–like a friend whom I’d just discovered is an ace classical pianist. 

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Running Sucks. Sometimes. 

“I’m tired,” I said to my training partner. “This sucks.”

We were five miles into one of several 20-mile long runs we’d done in preparation for The North Face trail races that winter, and the gradient (and rising temps) made another 15 seem daunting.

“The race isn’t going to be this hard,” I continued.

“Yeah, but there’s nowhere else to run.”

He had me there.

When I’d moved from Minneapolis to the California coast, I was thrilled at the prospect of trading microadventures for their macro cousins: the Santa Ynez Mountains rose starkly behind town, providing a peak-laden playground of two to three thousand foot prominence. These were real mountains, and I’d have access to them nearly every day.

There were just two problems. First, as I’ve written before, the trails were particularly arduous–steep, exposed, and technical. They were epic, but they were also so difficult that I wasn’t always quite up for doing my long runs on them. 

Second–as my training partner pointed out–there weren’t really any tamer trails to use. If the trail system was graded like a ski hill, all we had were black diamonds. Sometimes, even an expert skier likes to cruise around on a blue or green. And sometimes, if I had to run 20 miles, I just wanted to get into the flow on some easy trails, and not destroy my will to live going up San Ysidro.

But we didn’t have that choice. Sure, I’d traded up to get the backyard mountain playground of my dreams, but in doing so I gave up the trails I actually felt like running on most of the time.

You see, it turned out having access to macroadventures every day didn’t make them any easier. And I tire out just like the rest of you. (Pro trail runners in places like Boulder excepted.)

So give me back my flat city-bound nature reserve, my regional parks I share with horses and students on field trips. Take me to the “city trails” and runs that look like perfect marketing for an “all-terrain” shoe. Give me those gravel roads, the smooth flowing singletrack that meanders through the trees instead of making like hell for the nearest, steepest peak. 

On that sun-soaked Saturday, 5 miles into yet another 20-miler, as my water bottle (and enthusiasm) already felt precariously low, I sure would have gone for that. 

RELATED: Process Goals Are The Keys To Performance

What Are You Training For?

My friend looked at me incredulously, and asked with open disdain: “What are you training for?”

It was a fair question. This was the summer of 2020, when most races had been postponed or canceled for the foreseeable future. In one sense, there wasn’t anything to work toward. But in another, there was everything to work toward.

During the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, I did what most people did: I largely stayed home and avoided close contact with people. The result was a reduction of about 90 percent in the scenery changes and social interactions I experienced. All the curiosities and sensory moments and in-between experiences vanished, and it revealed just how big a portion of my life they’d comprised. 

Faced with the loss of a lot of what made life interesting–things I took for granted before we had to take a pause from them–I found training more important than ever. Even without a race looming, the act of chipping away at my fitness and making progress on something–anything!–provided a crucial outlet. The simple act of getting outside every day and mixing up the scenery was imperative, too. 

Training through the pandemic gave me a reason to get out of the house–and was the actual vehicle by which I did.

RELATED: Jacob Puzey Reflects on the Pandemic, His Brother’s Cancer Journey, and Mental Health Awareness

So I ran base mileage. And did workouts. And stuck to my long run schedule. I continued doing strength and prehab. Faced with a perfectly reasonable incentive to sit and atrophy, I chose instead to pursue something–even if it wasn’t grand. 

There was no mountainous ultra, self-supported FKT attempt or even particularly engaging scenery awaiting me as a reward for these efforts. The efforts themselves were the reward: the microadventures that kept me level when the macroadventures were off the table. 

Of course, racing and travel returned, and I was glad not to have been a bum for a year when they did. That was the answer I provided to my friend when he suggested I was wasting my time: racing will come back, and I want to be fit when they do. 

But the real answer was that I didn’t need the carrot to get out. I found the adventure was in the process of working at something every day, through setbacks and breakthroughs and all the other days when nothing noteworthy seems to happen. Taken together, those days are precisely when something happens.



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