Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
“Trail running made me an asshole.” Amid a mindless scroll through my Facebook feed, I braked.
Not because Emelie’s powerful and honest declaration stood out amid a feed full of humble bragging and lookwhere-I-am selfies. Though it certainly did.
I stopped because I knew exactly what she meant.
And that right there is one of the hardest sentences I’ve written this year.
Emelie’s not her real name. I’m not using her actual name because she’s not, in fact, an asshole. (Besides, calling her Emelie is funny, because word on the street is that Emelie Forsberg is anything but an asshole, a fact I intend to confirm once she wises up and dumps Kilian for me.)
I fired off a quick instant message, acting all breezy, as if I hadn’t already learned the same hard lesson. “Hey! Your post caught my attention. Why do you think trail running made you an asshole?”
Her reply compressed a decade into a dozen sentences.
Before running, we all just did stuff for fun. No one cared about pace. Then it became about Strava and podiums. Friends became too slow, or too fast, so we stopped hanging out. We stopped eating for fun, and instead it was all about eating to run. Life became training, and we all got coaches. Friendships became shallow. Then came the Irunfar interview, and the next day I got 50 new friends on Facebook. People liked me until I lost a race. Then I was a has-been. My relationship struggled because I was too slow in the mountains, he was too slow on the road. We fought. It sucked. I’m still not sure if trail running has made my life better or worse.
Trail running can make you an asshole. And you don’t have to run at an elite level, either, like my friend—though maybe it speeds the degenerative process. You can run mid-pack and still be a world-class jerk. I know because I’ve been that person. With a marquee event closing in on the calendar, I’ve run when my recalcitrant body was asking for just one fucking day off, please, and a good night’s rest. With Strava ticking away during a long trail run on an iconic 32-mile course, I’ve casually prodded a friend who was enjoying a refueling break. I’ve thought 30 seconds was enough when I had just arrived at a summit with a 100-mile view that would make others drop to their knees in wonder.
Asshole to yourself, to others, to the cosmos. I’ve even been one to my dog. She’ll take exploring the woods over hauling in more kudos any day of the week, proving for the hundredth time that she is wiser than I am. (Sorry, Sam. On the up side, it still beats the animal shelter, right? Right?)
Along the way, you shed the things you loved, because they’re encumbrances. (Pro tip: The immovable ones will be there when you get back. With others, you’ll beat your fists into the wall for being such a dumbass, and promise yourself it won’t happen again.)
Fortunately, it’s reversible. Vestiges of our old selves remain within us, dormant. Last fall, I gave away my two most prized finisher vests for donations of $5 each to the Junior U.S. Mountain Running Team. It was one of the best transactions I’ve made in a long time and brought back the happiness that flows when you’re caring a little less about things and a little more about people.
Not all of us spiral down into trail-running assholedom, of course. And the ones who dodge it are there to lead the way out. Take David Laney, for example. At last year’s Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, he came in fourth. Laney and I crossed the same finish line—but he ran UTMB five hours faster, and his race was 46 kilometers longer than the one I ran, UTMB’s sister race, TDS. Yet when we met, all he really wanted to hear about was how my run went. Whenever I feel myself getting sucked into the abyss, I think of Laney, as an example and a lifeline.
Doug Mayer lives in Randolph, New Hampshire, and leads the trail-running tour company Run the Alps. He’s pretty sure that his dog, Sam, can vouch that he is not always a jerk.