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Often in trail running, our training is geared toward a big race at some point in the future. Those long-term goals keep us motivated day to day, adding purpose to 5 a.m. workouts and early bedtimes. But not all runners find inherent value in racing. Some runners just need a dose of adventure for inspiration.
Fastest Known Times (FKTs) on established routes are all the rage, but they are out of reach for most of us, unless we’re talking about an FKT from the office chair to the fridge and back. If you don’t have an FKT to chase, or a race to inspire you, what are your options?
Creedence Shaw, a 39-year-old banker from Santa Cruz, faced the adventure dilemma. “I wanted something before the end of the year to structure my training all fall, but the only race that would have worked with my life commitments lacked that feel of adventure,” Shaw says. “So I made my own adventure.”
Back in July, flummoxed by a lack of race options that met his goals, Shaw had an idea: “I was looking at a map and saw that there may be a way to connect the [San Francisco] Bay and the [Pacific Ocean] Beach in a day.”
He talked to friends and no one knew of a runner doing it before. “Once I heard that it was some barely-run route connecting two points, I knew it had all-caps ADVENTURE written all over it,” he says.
On November fourth, after months of diligent training, Shaw did his first 50-miler on a custom point-to-point route from the San Francisco Bay near San Jose to the ocean near Santa Cruz. He called his route 4Bs, short for Bay to Big Basin to Beach. The 4Bs route climbs the highest peak in the area (Black Mountain) and winds through iconic redwood groves on its way to the ocean. At the Beach, he organized a big barbecue with friends, turning his personal adventure into a party.
As fall winds down and race options become more limited in some parts of the country, self-made adventures are a great alternative goal. Here are four tips for designing your own adventure.
1. Plan a route that motivates you a lot and scares you a little
The best adventures are like the best Mexican food—extra spicy, but not dangerous to your health. Think about a route in your backyard that combines challenge with an aesthetic that appeals to you, while still being safe and fun.
For Shaw, the 4Bs route was both beautiful and a little brutal, which lit his fire. “I thought the route had some aesthetic potential, as it had a few good climbs and tons of epic scenery without a lot of contrived connecting of trails to make some arbitrary mileage.”
By making the adventure point-to-point, he got to see more of his backyard while also gaining extra satisfaction from covering lots of ground.
Consider connecting two points that you couldn’t do on a normal long run. Or: design a big loop that never retraces trails, even if it means fording a few streams along the way.
2. Logistics are half the fun
Years ago, I spent a summer in Nederland, Colorado, in a cabin previously rented by Geoff Roes, one of the top ultrarunners of all time. On the fridge was a map of the area, worn down from fingers tracing trails and elevation contours. Roes had clearly spent a lot of time learning his environment before exploring it.
Shaw likewise advocates for studying maps before setting off on a self-made adventure route. “There won’t be any tape markings to let you know you’ve gone the right way,” he says. “I had three different maps for one section alone.”
In addition to knowing the route, Shaw needed to plan to have all of his supplies, since there’d be no aid stations on this adventure. A week before, Shaw provided a drop bag for a friend to put at the halfway mark, and sent an email to potential pacers about what time he’d show up at a checkpoint if they were interested. He got water from fountains along the route.
For your own adventure, include bailout points, so that a DNF won’t mean wandering the wilderness, foraging for berries like a continental Robinson Crusoe. Consider using Strava or a mapping program to create a GPX route you can enter into your watch for extra safety. Plan your route to intersect with water sources (using purification if not potable) and, when in doubt, start with all you will need to finish in case something doesn’t go according to plan.
3. Involve the community
The research on happiness indicates that interaction with your community and those you care about is one of the most important elements in wellbeing. A solo adventure can be memorable, but get your community involved and it can be unforgettable.
“One of my favorite side effects of backyard adventures is you can bring your community into it,” says Shaw. “Not everyone can take a weekend or more off to do some epic adventure run, but most of the time people can squeak away for a day to be a part of something special.”
He organized a barbecue party at the beach for his finish line, and recommends others get their friends involve too. “Then your community gets to be a part of it all,” he says. “Nothing is better than finishing a run with hugs from your loved ones (and furry friends).”
You can have partners join for some, or all, of the run itself, or plan a party for when you finish. Says Shaw, during low points, the post-adventure party added extra motivation to get to the finish line.
4. Treat it like a race
The reality of being an adult is that if a spot in the calendar is flexible, some conflict will arise. So plan the event and schedule it like you would a race itself.
Shaw was worried about that reality, given his busy work schedule and volunteer work with Search-And-Rescue operations in his community.
His advice: remember that your goal adventure is just as significant as a race, and treat it as such.
“Let those close to you know the importance of the day and to respect it,” he advises. “Just because you didn’t pay $50 to $200 to do it doesn’t mean it is any less important than a race. Everything we do is somewhat silly when you get down to it, but it’s what we want to do and that’s what makes it important.”
Choose a date, train for it like an “A” race and embrace the pre-event jitters that come with big goals. Nerves let you know that something is important.
Shaw trained his butt off all fall, running 200 or more miles each month from July through October, his first time running that volume since starting running just 2 and a half years ago. He set PRs in training at every distance from the mile to the marathon, and on November fourth, after conquering the 4Bs route, he celebrated with a community party at the beach.
David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.