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Why Climber Alex Honnold Runs Trails

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Trail running is probably one of the tamest things Alex Honnold has ever done.

Honnold, 30, is regarded as one of the world’s best rock climbers; he holds numerous big-wall speed records, including on Yosemite’s Triple Crown. But what has made Honnold a household name – as climbers go – has been his conquest of some of the world’s best-known big-wall climbs sans rope or harness, a method known as “free soloing,” where a fall will almost certainly result in death. His free-solo ascents of the Regular Northwest Face on Yosemite’s Half Dome and Mexico’s Sendero Luminoso have been heart-stoppingly captured on video and shared repeatedly on YouTube and elsewhere.

Once in a while, though, Honnold does something most of us can relate to: he laces up his shoes and goes for a run, either for the exercise or just because he wants to.

“I don’t really think [running] benefits my climbing,” Honnold clarifies via e-mail from Chile. I’ve mistakenly inferred he runs as training for his primary sport. “I just enjoy moving quickly through new areas outside. I really like new trails and hills. I like seeing new things.

“Sometimes it’s just nice to run!” he continues. “Like a kid.”

I asked Honnold more about his running: why and where he runs, whether he tracks his mileage, how his sole attempts at the marathon and 50K went, and so on. Here’s what he had to say.

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Looking down on Yosemite Valley. Photo courtesy of RXR Sports

My first running was just for PE class, never anything serious. I never did any running sports (since I was only climbing) and if anything I preferred cycling (for commuting).

My motivation now stems more from hiking and being in the mountains. Running for me now is just a way to cover more terrain and get around quickly. And a way to get some exercise when I’m stuck in cities.

In general I’ve always felt like running is bad for climbing. It uses energy that could better be used doing my actual sport. But at the same time I like running around and seeing new trails. So [how much I run] fluctuates: I run when I’m unable to climb as much as I’d like or when there’s no climbing to be had at all. But when I’m in a place like Yosemite climbing big walls day in and day out I’m much too tired to consider running for fun.

This spring I took some time off climbing just to recharge the batteries a little bit. I wound up spending a lot of time running the trails around the park, partly for fitness but also just for tourism.

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Not your average trail runner. Photo courtesy of RXR Sports

I’ve always enjoyed hiking a lot, but many of the trails in the park would take all day to hike. Running them gets me back in time to eat lunch and chill for the afternoon, which seems much more civilized overall. The longest “runs” I did were maybe five hours, but that’s with a ton of vert and stops for enjoying the views and all that.

My use of technology varies a lot. This spring I was using a heart-rate monitor a bit just to learn more about it all. I’d never used one before and I wanted to get a feel for what numbers corresponded with what kind of effort. Generally I only keep track of time and a rough distance, though when I’m in cities I use mapmyrun to keep track of my pace. Which is mostly just a fun tool to make myself run faster. It’s all a bit haphazard though.

I ran the California International Marathon in Sacramento in 2009, mostly because my mom had run it the year before and I figured I ought to. I was on a five-month overseas climbing trip beforehand, so I didn’t really train in any real way. I would run on my rest days, but never too far since I was trying to rest. I think my longest run was maybe 11 miles or so in some random area in rural China. So the marathon felt terrible. I ran 3:35 or so but basically tore my legs apart. [Author’s note: Honnold finished in 3:33:04, with a 3:35:11 gun time.]

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Living the van life. Photo courtesy of RXR Sports

Then I didn’t run for a long time. But I was dating a really serious runner who did a bunch of ultras so I signed up for a 50K with her. I don’t remember if I ran at all beforehand. I figured it would be more like hiking (which I do a ton of) so I would be OK. That was not the case at all. Again, I felt like I tore everything in my legs. [Author’s note: Honnold ran 5:49:34 – good for 20th place – at the Woodside Trail Run 50K in 2011.]

I’d love to run a sub-three-hour marathon in my life, just because to me that sort of represents really running quickly. But I’ll never do a really long run like that [50K] again unless I’m somewhat prepared for it. I don’t want to injure my legs.