Activation Dust

As a runner I feel that my connection to the land I run in is the most valuable part of my habit of going outside for a run each day. I am immensely drawn to, almost addicted to exploring wild and remote places on foot. Running up onto a mountain ridge and looking out at the views in the distance is one of the most simple and yet substantial joys that one can experience. I run primarily to have these experiences.

Another more nuanced aspect of this connectedness to the land that I have been noticing a lot more lately is just how much the subtle changes of the landscapes around me change who I am as a runner at a given time. I can run the same trail, with just one small change in the natural world around that trail, and the energy of the entire run can be completely different than it was a week, a day, or even an hour previous.

Perhaps it’s the first buds forming on the trees in the spring, or a first thin sheet of ice on puddles in the fall, or a huge herd of elk in a meadow that had previously felt lifeless. These simple and in many cases predictable things can have a shockingly large and definitive effect on my energy, mood, and the overall experience of a particular run. Essentially every time I go and run through the outdoor world my experience that is that run is subtly carved and influenced by all these various nuances. For this reason no run is exactly the same, even if I have done a particular trail 100 times, it will feel definitively different the 101st time.

Another thing that I noticed (somewhat to my surprise) while running this past week is that changes in the world around me can have a completely different effect on me and my overall experience than the same change has had in the past.

This week in the mountains around Juneau, we received our first dusting of snow. In the past this ‘termination dust’ has always been a dark, ominous, and almost depressing feeling for me as a runner. In a place like Juneau where the mountains rise 3,000 to 4,000 feet up straight from the edge of town, once you start to see the first bits of snow on the highest peaks, it’s only a matter of time before everything is going to be buried in snow. Every time a storm rolls through the snow comes down a bit lower until inevitably you are stepping in a few inches of white fluffiness right outside your front door. For me this has always created an anxiety, knowing that it’s only a matter of time before the trails are going to disappear under several feel of snow, not to be seen again for six or eight months. Because of this, I have always felt frustrated, desperate, and even somewhat angry as a runner when I start to see these first dustings of snow in the mountains.

This year, though, for various reasons I didn’t feel any of this. At first it didn’t make sense to me. For some odd reason seeing this ‘termination dust’ didn’t have any of the usual feeling of desperation tied to it. The first day I noticed a bit of snow on the peaks up above 5,000 feet (September 23rd) I was instantly energized and excited. I immediately texted my wife: “fresh snow up high!!!” For whatever reason I felt entirely energized and excited about this new snow. I began thinking of it in my mind as ‘activation dust’ instead of ‘termination dust.’ I realized that this must be how skiers feel each year when the snow begins to fly.

About a week later the snow came even lower (down to about 3,500 feet), and I felt a need to get up in this snow. I headed out that morning and couldn’t wait to get above the snowline. As soon as we got to snowline on that run I was instantly put into a completely different mindset and mood. It had been a few weeks since I had been in that same location and this time it felt like I was in an entirely new place altogether. Perhaps it was because I was out with two avid skiers that day, or perhaps it was because I have plans to ski much more than usual this winter, but for whatever reasons I now have a completely new relationship with this ‘termination dust.’ Something that has always felt like an end to me now feels like a beginning. I always get excited for the coming of winter, but for the first time in my life this first dusting of snow seems to be an aid, and not a hindrance in this excitement.

The rest of the route that I ran that day was one that I have done a few dozen times. It is a route that I have enjoyed immensely every time I do it, but this time around, as a result of the subtle change of having an inch or two of new snow I had a hugely different feeling and experience of being there. To me these kinds of surprises and nuances are the biggest reasons why I run, and why I use my fitness and ability as a runner as a way to get out into wild, scenic, and remote places as often as possible.

I came down from my run that day and decided to make it official to do a winter session of Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camp this coming Feb 20 to 26. This is something I have considered for some time, but my experience and excitement with these first hints of winter were enough to put me over the top toward making this idea a reality. Winter running is a unique, serene, and wonderful thing that has potential to be a completely different, and in some ways even more gratifying experience than running in the summer. I am super excited to share these nuances and experiences with folks that choose to make this a part of their winter.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • If you live in Northern Hemisphere temperate climate and are welcoming winter right now, how are you feeling about its arrival? Are you excited like Geoff, or are you trying to eke as much out of fall as you can?
  • For those of you in the Southern Hemisphere who are moving into summer, how does it feel to have your favorite trails now melting out of the snow, to be welcoming the prime time for our sport?

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There are 10 comments

  1. From Sofa To Ultra

    I always dread the onset of winter. I think this is because England is so temperate that we rarely get snow, but merely rain, wind and darkness. Whenever I visit places like the Alps in winter everything seems so bright, despite the same amount of daylight. For me, winter is now a case of head down, speed training and wait for April. Sad, but true.

  2. nykosba

    Living in Quebec, Canada, one has to embrace winter and its conditions in order to keep "positive minds". Many fly South as soon – and as vacation wise – as possible. For as long as I can tell, and particularly as a runner, I've always enjoyed the fluffiness of running in fresh snow. Running gate and pace are completely different from other seasons and it's a good time to focus on mechanics. Crisp air and sometimes freaking cold temperatures enhance the well-being of the outing and of the after-run when back under a warm shower… I personally seek for rough conditions to be humbled by Nature and Winter in Quebec is often a good time for this, unless you are unprepared ;o) !
    So yes, I’m excited for the winter to arrive !

  3. dparker828

    Running in the winter is tough. Living in the Northeast US, the wind and snow can make a daily regiment nearly impossible. Resorting to treadmills is a brutal alternative. I try to get the most out of the beautiful fall weather that I can. Once the cold sets in, my distance and motivation decrease significantly. Spring usually comes by late March or early April…I just keep pushing as much as I can until then.

  4. E_C_C

    "Giddy" is the best word. I feel this irrational joy when the first storm (and the 2nd, and the 3rd…) of fall arrives. I grew up a skier, but surely that doesn't explain this reaction entirely. Have you ever seen a puppy go completely ballistic the first time they get out in the snow? Yeah, it's like that. I don't know why.

    My skate skis are calling to me now. And my extra-fat mountain bike rims. And my snowshoes…

    Thanks a ton, Geoff. Now I have to try to get some work done today. Right.
    See you at the Sourdough again?

  5. mmarti37

    In Breckenridge we had 400-something inches of snow last year and I didn't do a single treadmill run. I also didn't let weather deter me from any planned runs. Fortunately, the cross country skiers and snowshoers keep several trails well packed all winter. I'm not excited for the snow, but when it comes I'll just stick some screws in my regular trail shoes and keep getting outside to play. It's just a matter of having the right gear and realizing that pace and distance are both going to decrease and that it's alright.

    And, like Geoff said, routes I've run dozens of times turn into all new adventures when they're buried in feet of snow and the light is coming from lower angles over different mountains…activation dust indeed!

  6. @ATHuttnerKoros

    Living in Australia, the coming of summer means that I need to get early starts to escape the heat, and that the trails I've been running for the past few months are about to get harder and sweatier. I'm energised by the change in weather at this time of year, but I've got to respect it too: stay hydrated!

  7. hopi808

    Couldn't agree with you more Geoff. _Think our moods and experience with nature changes almost systematiclly with the season or even weather and light ,_Dependant on our exceptance of it ,turning one run into a thousand different forms of perception and expression . Keep enjoying the trails as I reading your posts._alohas also from the southern Hem… Paul Hopi.

  8. Eric Ashley NJ

    Awesome post Geoff! It got me thinking (as a decidedly non-enlightened non-buddhist) about nirvana. Maybe enlightenment is the ability to see every morning as sprinkled with activation dust?

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