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I’ll just say it: Singletrack is a heck of a lot harder when you’re on a bike.
When I’m running, it takes a lot for any particular section of trail to faze me. Some sections might present precipitous drops or steep climbs, but at the very worst I’ll find them arduous – not dangerous. Unless I’m super exposed, the biggest physical hazard a “technical” section of trail presents to me is usually a rolled ankle or a skinned palm where I catch my fall.
Not so with the bike. Even the 2.1” tires and super-sharp handling didn’t prepare me for just how quickly every turn came up; the unending series of rocks, washouts and steps I had to power over or white-knuckle down; or how constantly I felt I was walking a tightrope between full health and a body cast. Or the trees, for that matter. There were so many! And they all felt so close! So inviting for my shoulder to slam into!
Ahead of me, Kurt Decker – my long-time friend and trail running mentor – put on an impressive display, cleaning rock gardens and cornering confidently on damp Northshores with the skill of someone who’d been riding for decades. I think he even popped a trackstand to wait while I unclipped and walked my bike up a chossy hill behind him.
“So that was the green loop, for beginners,” Kurt’s voice called, ahead of me. “Do you want to try the blue loop?” We’ve probably already been out here for an hour, I thought. Surely I have an excuse to turn it in. I glanced at my watch. Fifteen minutes. “Sure,” I replied, as if I had a choice.
Not bad for a guy who’d only started riding a couple years ago. Being fifteen years younger than Kurt, I was used to being the stronger of the two when we were running up a climb or even pedaling in a less-technical setting. But here he was, looking stronger, more athletic, and younger than I’d seen him…maybe ever.
The Mountain Trail Runner
Kurt wasn’t just a runner. He was the runner. His name is so synonymous with trail and ultrarunning in Minnesota that I don’t think anyone would argue with his adoption of the Instagram and Twitter handles @mntrailrunner. It’s as objective a handle as @POTUS. He’d run every trail, and he knew everything about the sport. And even as he left his PR days behind, he quite simply loved running every day he could – on the trails whenever possible.
But the injury bug bit. Kurt limped into his job at the running store immediately following his 40th birthday with what turned out to be a fractured vertebrae and sacrum. Over the next eight years, he would heal and run plenty, but he wasn’t quite the same, and he raced less frequently, with less success. It seemed that the “Godfather of Trail”, as those in the local community had started calling him for him omnipresence at all trail events, was being relegated to his post on the perch of wisdom, dispensing advice to people looking to tear it up on the trails rather than tearing it up himself. That’s a tough spot for someone who loves anything as much as Kurt loved running.
“I was so mentally frustrated by not being able to run without hurting like hell,” he explained to me later. This led him to Nordic skiing in the winter, which worked great – “but then the snow would melt in April, so I turned to the bike.”
Kurt – who deftly navigated one tricky section of trail that left me dabbing after another – started riding at about the same time the pandemic started. First, some any-surface-and-distance adventures on a friend’s old cyclocross bike – then, when he wanted to ride rougher trails, a hardtail mountain bike. (The same one I was riding on that day.) When he realized Minnesota’s gravel roads offered endless potential, he picked up a gravel bike. Then a road bike, for all-tarmac days. Then he promised his wife his bike quiver was full – and promptly bought a full-suspension mountain bike for even more capable handling on trails. (Cyclists will recognize this phenomenon as the “N+1” compulsion, where the perfect number of bikes to own is one more than you currently have.)
He dove into cycling with his trademark enthusiasm, riding every day and following the professional ranks of the sport so closely that his expertise soon rivaled that of any cycling journalist. He rode in places like Leadville, Colorado, that he’d once covered only on foot. He even picked up a new nickname: the Godfather of Gravel.
So how did someone whose identity was so tied up in running so heartily embrace an entirely new pursuit?
“I just realized that whether it’s running, or cycling, or skiing – or heck, even things I’ve never tried like climbing – sports are a vehicle to achieve,” he said, kind of shouting, since I was falling behind again. “They help you experience things like joy or disappointment or accomplishment. It doesn’t matter if I’m on two feet or two wheels – as long as I’m outside, moving forward, I get the same feeling.”
As long as I’m outside, moving forward, I get the same feeling.
Running and Identity
I’m no Kurt Decker, but running is pretty central to my identity. I’ve been running for over 22 years, including competing in middle school, high school and college. I’ve also been lucky enough to work in the running industry in one way or another for a decade.
Which is to say, I’ve also had to contemplate that inevitable question: How will I handle things when my passion outlasts my body’s ability to withstand it?
Fortunately, I guess, I’ve had a couple dress rehearsals for the occasion. At the end of college, I sustained a series of injuries that meant I wouldn’t run a step all summer. With no fall season to train for, and needing something to pass the time, I bought an entry-level road bike. With a sleeveless jersey, low socks, and what I’m sure was an atrocious bike fit, I rode like a madman all summer, soaking in the sunrise fog and the buzz of the bugs at sunset, basking in the feeling of aching quads and searing lungs.
A few years later, I tore a meniscus, so trail running was a no-go for nearly a year. But I bought a pair of skate skis and – with the help of an elite Nordic skier of a roommate – learned to slide forward, descend hills, and round corners without crashing. Soon, I relished cutting first tracks in the corduroy as much as any moment in running shoes.
Through both of these new sports, I realized that my identity wasn’t tied to running. If anything, it was tied to being outside in nature, to the way an exercise routine improved all aspects of my life, to the satisfaction of feeling myself getting fitter and stronger. Just like running, cycling and skiing were just vehicles for those experiences. And for bonking: Oh my god, can you bonk hard on the bike.
The morning I went to meet Kurt at the mountain bike trailhead, I woke up to dark skies, snow and freezing temps. It was a characteristic Minnesota October weather about-face from 80 degrees the weekend prior. And in a rare moment for me, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go. I felt a strong urge to return to bed. But I didn’t, and Kurt even lent me some sturdy gloves so I’d stay warm.
The snow had been light, and the trails stayed pretty clear, and not a lot had gotten on the trails. As we rolled through the fall-colored forest, the sun started to show through a thin layer in the clouds, lighting up the sugar piles of snow atop all the tree branches. I’d have taken a picture if I wasn’t so concerned with keeping my clavicle intact. But trust me when I say it was just about the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen, and one of those moments when you’re just plain glad to be alive.
We rode a six-mile loop in about the same time it would have taken me to run it – I was wide-eyed and white-knuckled the whole way, and even though I hadn’t aerobically strained the entire time, the sheer stress tired me out on a level consummate with a long run or interval workout.
“That was awesome,” I said.
“Heck yeah, man!” Kurt replied. “So are you hooked?”
“It’s hard to say that right now,” I said, my hand shaking just a bit as I came down from fight-or-flight. “But I could see it happening, yeah.”