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Walking is an essential part of trail running. Almost every trail runner on the planet walks, from the fastest superbeast to the superathlete just starting out. Walking is imperative for efficiency, speed and health, even if it might not be on every magazine cover. So the message of this article is simple: walking is something to celebrate with love and joy. Walking doesn’t make you less of a trail runner … in fact, embracing walking may be part of what makes you a true trail runner.
It all gets back to the challenge and variability of the sport. “Trail running” is a catch-all term that captures a lot of different activities. There’s Northern California-style singletrack, where the presence of a single rock will start a criminal investigation against the park manager. There’s Colorado-style high country, where I’m guessing the trail designers take extra-strength CBD gummies before drawing straight lines to the top of mountains and calling it a day. There’s Pennsylvania, where the rocks seem to be sentient, and all of them are free-market jerks that voted for Gary Johnson.
I could make gross generalizations all day, but to channel Walt Whitman, the point is that the sport contains multitudes. There are different trails, different distances, different mindsets. Every athlete with every different type of trail experience is welcome under the trail-running tent. And no matter where they live or what their goals, almost every athlete in that tent will be doing a lot of walking.
At the Western States 100 this year, Matt Daniels ran some of the fastest times in the brutal canyons sections. To be precise, he walked many of those trails, but I don’t think anyone would call what Matt did that day a walking race. He’s the ultimate runner, a sub-4-minute miler with unlimited ability. Now, he channels that speed with lots of power walking all over the globe.
My mom is a trail runner just like Matt. She is 68 and suffered from a near-fatal internal bleed in May. A few months later, she is stronger than ever on the trails. For her, that means mostly walking, with some running when the terrain is smooth and there is less fall risk.
At the Trail Runner Running Camp back in July, the fastest runners walked consistently on uphills. At the World Mountain Running Championships back in 2014, a 12K race up a mountain, I got passed by the whole Italian team as they walked faster than I could ever dream of running. Jim Walmsley walks, Kilian Jornet walks, Courtney Dauwalter walks, Clare Gallagher walks. So does the beginner athlete on their first trail run, the intermediate athlete in their first trail 10K, and the expert veteran racing a trail marathon.
Own Your Walking
Walking is ubiquitous in this sport. But behind the scenes, I don’t see people being as loving and accepting of themselves when they find themselves walking. Athletes will lament in their training logs, “Walked the whole climb, wouldn’t even call myself a runner,” or “Had to walk over the technical trails.” It will be tinged with sadness and self loathing as if walking is something to be ashamed of.
Screw shame! In all contexts, shame deserves to be locked in a chest and buried on a remote island, as it’s an emotion that ignores just how amazing and perfect you are no matter what. But even if you don’t agree with that touchy-feely stuff, shame about walking as a trail runner is ridiculous because everyone walks. Put Kipchoge on some trails and he’s walking, just like my mom has to walk on some trails. If we start making value judgments on what type of walking is OK and what isn’t, we’re just looking for reasons to exclude others or harmfully evaluate ourselves.
So embrace your walking swag. Walk with purpose, using good form and training it like any other skill. Lean forward, use your arms, mix in some run steps if the terrain calls for it, walk the whole thing if not. Walk when you need to based on your background and goals, whether that’s on uphills, on flats, on downhills. Walk with passion and love and joy, because it’s sometimes the most efficient way to cover ground and explore your limits, and other times it’s just the most fun option in the moment.
For some of you, that might mean that you walk the whole time you’re out there. Are you a trail runner? I bet you can guess where this is going. HECK, YES, YOU’RE A TRAIL RUNNER.
Run/walk up a steep mountain? You may be Kilian Jornet, and you’re a trail runner.
Walk during an ultra? You may be Matt Daniels, and you’re a trail runner.
Walk during a short mountain race? You may be a member of the Italian national team, and you’re a trail runner.
Walk consistently for breaks? You may have been a rockstar at the Trail Runner Running Camp, and you’re a trail runner.
Walk most of the time? You may be my mom, and you are a trail runner.
Walk the whole time? You ?? are ?? a ?? trail ?? runner.
Crutch on some dirt, roll a wheelchair over some gravel, think about one day maybe shredding some single-track? Trail runner, trail runner, trail runner.
Does this article have a point? I’m not really sure, thesis statements are not my strong suit. All I ask is to not let the speed you go on trails or the method of locomotion you use to go that speed define how you interpret your experience. You and Kilian and my mom are all going to walk sometimes, and that is such a cool shared experience. Trail running can be unconditionally inclusive. And it gets back to what I see as a simple truth of trail running:
Walking is not a momentary break from being a trail runner. I’d argue that owning your walking awesomeness is part of what makes you a trail runner in the first place.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.