Trail Running and Creativity

In my personal years of running, I’ve had a real, tangible connection between it and my mental state. With thoughts often being juggled in my mind, trail runs seem to bring things together. After a good trail run, I notice a stronger focus and enhanced creativity. After starting my internship with iRunFar, exploring the connection between the two was an article idea I was really excited about.

As life usually goes, life got in the way of making consistent progress and by the time May had come, I realized it was finally time to move from the thinking stage to the writing stage of the article. At that time, I assumed it would go pretty smoothly. I’d do a few interviews, read some research, and the article would really just put itself together. As I started making progress, I still thought it would. I was able to interview Joe Uhan, iRunFar’s resident sports-science expert, alongside three artists, Sada Crawford, Joe Grant, and Sandi Nypaver. I assumed this combination of science and art would come together and reveal just how creativity did interact with trail running. This was unfortunately not the case. I went through the interviews time and again. To my dismay, there really wasn’t one specific way that trail running and creativity interacted.

For weeks I thought that there was a fault somewhere in my research and writing. What was I missing?

I reached the point where I was hoping to have this article done weeks ago. I had graduated, moved to a new city, and started a new job. I knew there was a connection between trail running and creativity, but how does it really come together for everyone? How can I write this article in a way that brings something of value to the iRunFar community? Luckily the answer came to me in an “A-ha!” moment while having one my best runs in a long time, running up the fabled Green Mountain in Boulder, Colorado. What is the connection between creativity and trail running? Well, that is a really good question that everyone should probably think about.

At that moment, I finally realized that the connection between trail running and creativity is an individual thing. It works differently for me than it does for anyone with whom I interviewed or chatted. Each interviewee thinks about the subject differently. The science side of things revealed there is definitely connection between creativity and trail running. The artists I talked to revealed that they have noticed an interaction between the two. But each of them expressed it differently.

Joe Uhan, iRunFar’s resident sports-science guru:

I feel the more extreme the physical endeavor, the more important mental toughness is to performance, or ‘survival.’ An excellent resource into the physiology/psychology of survival situations is the book Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. He writes about both the psychology and neurophysiology of survival situations, the different parts of the brain that are in play and psychological ‘resources’ used in survival situations. One of the points Gonzales makes in his text is that, the more mental resources a person has, the more ‘tools’ he/she has to survive. You could say that creativity is the notion of tangible (or intangible) production from tangible (or intangible) resources. That said, the bounty of creative products could be used as part of the ‘survival resources’ in a long ultramarathon, for example.

Anecdotal reports suggest that creativity is frequently used in ultramarathon performance: whether it is mental distraction (game play, counting, etc.), or to enhance mental fortitude via positive imagery. One top ultramarathon runner, Rory Bosio, is known for telling knock-knock jokes at aid stations. While most might find this quirky or irreverent, I feel this is a prime survival mechanism that generates elements of distraction, humor, and camaraderie/support amongst the community of an ultra race. Gonzales speaks to the importance of these elements, especially during long survival situations. Most ultrarunners would suggest that optimal situations to enhance this mental ‘growth’ (be it creativity or clarity, or otherwise) would be wilderness/mountainous terrain (beauty, solitude), and/or ultra-long distance (100-mile or 24-hour events). Both extremes of ‘alone-ness’ and time tend to push the envelope toward ‘psychological enlightenment.’

Sada Crawford, photographer/jewelry and accessory designer:

I think to a degree all endurance athletes, especially ultra-endurance athletes, are creative because we have to be. We have to come up with scenarios to keep us from getting discouraged. We have to come up with creative ways to as diversions and distractions in the stories that we tell ourselves. I think my fine-arts background has taught me how to think outside of the box a little more quickly. I think I may have more endurance with that than most people. Like if I start to get burned out on thinking creatively, I can plug it back in.

I think it does enhance creativity when I’m totally wasted from a run. When I have gone out and just done something hot and hard and technical. I’m fried and that’s exactly what I wanted to do to myself on a long day. I’m really happy with it and know that I couldn’t have done anything harder or better. I’ll rest for a little while and then I’ll feel really inspired and really creative. I don’t know if it’s because I’m letting that side of myself out now that I know I’ve trained really well or I think part of it is it gets the adrenaline and the good cocktail of hormones surging through your blood for awhile so you just feel more inspired. I think that’s a lot of it.

I think the neat thing about how trail running inspires us, even more so than regular running, it’s one of those sports that is just for yourself. It’s one of those sports for your exhilaration and your inspiration. With most sports where you are creative like figure skating or gymnastics, or when you’re making music or art, there’s an audience and you always have that in the back of your mind. For trail running, especially in the longer runs, you are just out there. It can be pure bliss and truly inspirational and it doesn’t depend on anybody seeing it.

Joe Grant, photographer/writer/mountain traveler/iRunFar columnist:

I mean, it’s kind of why I do it, really. Running in itself is interesting to me but certainly more just being in the mountains and the creativity inspired by being in the mountains. It’s not so much to create a result, not necessarily to create a good photo or a good piece of writing. More so, just how it inspires me inside. Every time I go out, I’m inspired by different aspects of it, whether it’s the beauty of the scenery or what is going on in my head. It’s more of a holistic thing, the whole experience that I really like.

Recently I took a trip to Japan and I spent two weeks there. I would definitely say that it’s visually rich, whether it’s the culture, the environment, the old Buddhist temples, or shrines. Really an interesting mix of a lot things. It felt like a layered, textured place. There’s just certain places you go where you can’t put the camera down or you can’t stop thinking and want to take notes about everything. Japan was definitely a place like that. I’ve been to other places that have a similar effect but in recent memory, I’d say Japan was probably the most inspiring and also just thought-provoking place that I’ve been.

Sandi Nypaver, charcoal drawer/painter:

I feel like there is a lot of inspiration. Especially when you’re out on run and your mind is wandering. I feel like that’s when I come up with my best ideas, when I’m just free to think and free to allow ideas to come into my head. I definitely get my best ideas when I’m running.

Probably on the days that you just feel good. On the days you struggle, it’s hard to think of anything else. Definitely on days when you’re out on a great run on trails. Especially out here in Colorado, it’s amazing. It’s so pretty. I just need to capture this somehow. The nice thing about painting is that you can’t get everything you can from a photograph but you can add emotion to it with the colors you pick.

Call for Comments (from Ryan)

  • The connection between trail running and creativity varies. How do you see the two interacting in your life?
Ryan Lindemulder

is iRunFar’s Spring 2013 Intern. Born and raised south of Chicago, Illinois, he ran cross country and track for 11 years and is now directing his passion into trail and ultrarunning. An English major in his senior year at Trinity Christian College, he looks forward to cultivating his running and writing skills. While spending most of his time on the trails near Chicago, Ryan has spent summers working and exploring in Nevada, Utah, and Colorado.

There are 11 comments

  1. Steve

    Good food for thought article. As with a previous post on a similar topic, one of the most interesting extended pieces I've read on running and general mentality (whether that be mental well-bring, creativity, declutter) is the Japanese author Haruki Murakami's 'What I Talk About When I Talk About Running'. He touches upon the influence that running (and latterly some ultra distance events and triathlons) have had on his writing. Considering how lauded he is as an author, being granted access to his innermost thoughts on the writing/creativity process was fascinating.

  2. Bartman

    Interesting article Ryan. From my own experience intensity is the key to creativity on the run. In other words if I am struggling with a particular problem (typically an engineering problem I am dealing with) I intentionally keep the pace and intensity at low levels and the let the trail and run work its magic.

    Thanks for a thought inspiring write up.

  3. Eric C

    "For weeks I thought that there was a fault somewhere in my research and writing. What was I missing?"

    …um, you just needed to go for a nice, long run… ;)

    1. Eric C

      But more seriously, I was fortunate to figure out a long time ago, early in my engineering career, that intractable problems can sometimes be solved via "oxygen therapy." I would quickly run out of fingers and toes if I had to list all the times I was completely stumped by a technical problem, would deliberately force myself outside for a ride or a run, and have the solution in my head by the time I got back.

      Professionally, while there are many problems that are only overcome by traditional blood/sweat/tears, there are also many problems that are best overcome by walking (running) away from them for an hour or two and letting fresh air and endorphins work on them for a while.

  4. Anonymous

    As we're all starting to see, there are a lot of connections being made, there's something "out there" that connects with what's "in here" and somehow "crazy" running is one of the triggers…I'd like to quietly recommend Bone Games, a book recently recommended to me on good authority, we're all on the right track, the dots are being connected…

    JV in SD

  5. Charlie M.

    "Those who know, don't talk about it"

    "Those who talk about it, don't know"

    Can't adequately describe trail magic without losing the magic. Otherwise one is just pointing at the moon and mistaking the pointing finger for moon magic.

    Also, art and science are two sides of one coin. And a coin can't be divided.

    But I still enjoyed reading all of it.

    Run on grasshopper

    (sound of feet scratching a dusty trail)

  6. ScottD

    I work with a lot of creative types, and generally find that all of them have an all-encompassing hobby that compliments their work. When you take on something that consumes your brain and soul, it gives them both the ability to re-assess the problem itself in the background and come at it from very different angles.

    My coworkers are familiar with the semi-gross site of a dirty, sweaty runner filling up a white board with concepts. It all flows once you are done!

  7. Stephanie

    Thought it would be nice to see some of the artist's work and how/ if running showed up in it. Here's the artist's websites:

    Sada Crawford-Idea Farms Designs: http://www.etsy.com/shop/ideafarmdesigns/sold?ref… Running probably helps her have the patience to do some of her intricate pieces!

    Joe Grant- Alpine Works: http://alpine-works.com/ His pictures really say it all.

    Sandi Nypaver- I Believe Art: https://www.facebook.com/BelieveArt Looks like she has done quite a few awesome drawings of runners and has done some paintings/ finisher's awards for races.

  8. Travis Macy

    Running and creativity are closely linked in my daily work. I work creatively as a teacher, writer, and coach, and I'd say about 80% of my creative ideas develop while exercising. Honestly, I don't know how anyone can produce anything creative without running in the woods!

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