Seeking Novelty in the Familiar

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Like many of the trail running epicenters in the Unites States, the Seattle area has access to miles of awesome singletrack. Due to scheduling and weather constraints though, many Seattleites find themselves running the same routes time and time again over the years. As a busy psychotherapist and father, I’m no exception to this and have come to know my local trails very well over the decade that I’ve been trail running.

In an effort to keep my regular runs feeling fresh, I decided to consult some fellow PNW trail runners and see how they keep things interesting while training in the same area year after year.

You can only get bored if you lose your creativity.

First, I consulted one of my local trail running friends, Stuke Sowle, of Issaquah, Washington, who had recently posted an intriguing project on Facebook. Stuke said, “I’m trying to become more creative with small challenges to keep trail running fun. I started and finished a project I called #EverySingleSummit (inspired by Rickey Gates’ ambitious #EverySingleStreet project, wherein he ran every street in San Francisco within two months), where I gave myself a couple of weeks to run to 16 different high points in the foothills surrounding my home. Each summit trip had to start and finish at my front door. I loved the new take on old trails and have decided I want to increase the scope of the project to summits farther away from my home.

“At the same time, it has given rise to smaller challenges where I try to take different routes to specific summits and give myself a goal of seeing how many summits I will accomplish in a certain time frame. I am also looking at starting a project called #EverySingleTrail, where I will give myself a time frame to run all the trails in the foothills surrounding my home.”

Stuke is also a hiker and mountaineer, so he mixes in those activities to add a little variety and recently, he added mountain biking to the mix.

Clearly, Stuke is doing something right. He’s sporting an 85-week streak of running at least 20 trail miles per week, and is closing in on nearly 52 consecutive weeks of climbing at least 10,000 feet of gain.

Stuke continued, “I used to struggle at times with using the same trails over and over again, especially in the winter months. This was a time though when I lived further away from these trails so I would have to commute to them before work, which added to what at times felt like a chore when running them.

“However, in the past couple years this feeling of being bored on these trails has completely gone away. One of the factors is moving close enough that I could run to the trails instead of drive. Despite adding mileage, it feels easier to just run out the front door than get into a car and drive. I have also gotten much better at cultivating my sense of wonder. Whether it be noting the changes in seasons and the small cues of that happening while I am out on the trails, or just being fully receptive to being in the moment and knowing that any trail run could bring a completely new experience (i.e., wildlife sighting or meeting someone new on the trail).”

Next, I gave Gary Robbins a call. Gary’s been living, training, raising a young family, building the local trail-running community and race directing in the Vancouver, British Columbia, area for over 15 years. Among his many accomplishments, Gary has held the record at the Hurt 100 for the last ten years and is the subject of the Ginger Runner-produced movie ‘Where Dreams Go to Die – Gary Robbins and the Barkley Marathons.’  According to Gary, “You can only get bored if you lose your creativity.  During one season, my goal was to not run the same trail twice. The only exception I made was when I had to retrace a trail while race directing.”

In years past, Gary would often hang up his running shoes during the colder months. “In winter, I’d rather be on skis; otherwise, I’m post-holing on trails that get a lot of traffic. I’d have to stick to the same trail to run. But on skis, I can access mountain tops and terrain you couldn’t otherwise access.

“Skiing during winter also allows for the body to recuperate from all the impact that comes with running. Running beats the hell out of you, it’s just not sustainable. I’m a big sports fan and I like to mix it up. Biking, road biking and mountain biking all help,” Gary said.

Admittedly, Gary has had to deviate from this approach during the last couple of years due to the training necessary for competing in the Barkley Marathons. “November through February is the best time for big training blocks” he said. During the summer, Gary is focused on race directing as opposed to pursuing his personal running goals.

If you don’t have the time and resources to be race directing, an alternative is volunteering at a local race as a way to re-stoke your fire.

I also consulted Krissy Moehl, who moved back to Bellingham, Washington a few years ago after living in Boulder, Colorado. A nineteen-year veteran in the sport with wins at UTMB, UTMF, Hardrock and HURT (among others), Krissy is also the author of Running Your First Ultra, Customizable Training Plans for Your First 50K to 100-Mile Race, and the race director of the much-loved Chuckanut 50K.

During our conversation, Krissy told me about a loop that she’d run regularly when still living in Boulder. I asked her how she kept that feeling fresh, and she said, “It’s really a mindset. Instead of thinking of it (a four-to six-mile trail around Wonderland Lake) as a tedious loop, I watch the light and how it changes in different times of day and in various seasons.

“I’m not looking under foot so much as what’s around me. I don’t drive to run unless I’m meeting someone and I have a variety of ways for leaving home. Sometimes I walk out the door and see which way I’m pulled.”

As a photographer, I resonate with Krissy’s idea of observing the varied impacts of light during the different seasons. Admittedly, I don’t want to carry my camera very often during my regular training runs. I do however run with my iPhone which is equipped with a couple of relatively impressive lenses.

Sometimes, I allow myself to pause my run for a few moments, take out my phone and capture the scene. I’m especially keen to take a photo when running through rays of light darting through the forest or when I’m with a friend in the alpine and the scenery literally stops me in my tracks.

Using the burst feature of my phone’s camera, I’m even able to take a series of action shots (this works much better when there’s adequate light which allows for faster shutter speeds) and choose among them when I get back to the car.

Notably, both Krissy and Gary mentioned that race directing (as well as coaching for Krissy) is the thing they’re the most proud of, along with the way that these races contribute to the trail running community. No doubt, this focus on the bigger picture and a sense of purpose beyond their (formidable) personal running accomplishments helps them feel happy and fulfilled in their trail-centered lives.

If you don’t have the time and resources to be race directing, an alternative is volunteering at a local race as a way to re-stoke your fire.

It’s heartening to know that there are many ways of creatively approaching familiar trails. Incorporating different approaches to mountain fitness, integrating creative ways of challenging ourselves, race directing or volunteering and being mindful and appreciative of the nuances around us all offer valid benefits to approaching this challenge in a healthy and adaptive way.  

—Ben Luedke is a contributing writer, photographer and gear reviewer for Trail Runner magazine. When not trail running he can be found hiking or backpacking with his son, SUPing on an inland lake or driving to and from the coast to score some surf in PNW waves. You can follow him on Instagram @CascadeRunner.

You can follow Stuke, Krissy and Gary’s adventures on Instagram: @stukesowle, @krissymoehl, @garyrobbins

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