Flowing With The Natural World

Every run we go on is influenced by the natural world around us. The weather, the terrain, the type of surface we are running on, flora and fauna, and the visuals of everything around us all have some level of influence on every mile we run. I think this is the number-one thing that makes running such an appealing activity. In a sense, because of these influences, every run we do, to varying degrees, is different than any run we’ve ever done before.

This can play out in very subtle ways, and it can play out in very extreme ways. We’ve all been on runs that feel almost exactly the same as a hundred other runs we’ve done, until we notice one small difference that comes to define the run. Maybe it’s a deer darting across the trail, or a strong gust of wind that kicks up unexpectedly on an otherwise calm day. On the other hand, there are the runs in which everything seems completely different right from the start. Maybe it’s a zero degree day with 30 mile-per-hour winds, or maybe it’s a run through a 3,000-foot-deep canyon. We all have these runs on occasion when Mother Nature seems to be more integral to our run than are we ourselves.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as here in the Northern Hemisphere, winter has given in to spring, which has now flowed into the early phases of summer. It depends a lot on where you live and run, but in most places the difference between running in winter as compared to running in summer can be huge. There can be a tendency to develop an idea of what it means to run and then try to do it in pretty much the same way throughout the year. The reality is, though, that the natural world around us is so different throughout the year that it only makes sense for our style of running and our understanding of running to change dramatically throughout the year.

I’ll use a personal example to more specifically describe what I mean by this. Here in Juneau, Alaska I like to do the vast majority of my running up in the mountains surrounding town. There are miles and miles of mountain ridgelines that can be accessed from the edge of town. This is all very challenging, remote, and rugged mountain running that often walks the line somewhere between what you would call running and what you would call mountaineering. This is most definitely the type of running that Juneau excels at. As a road-running location, Juneau is below average. There simply aren’t enough roads to satisfy an avid road runner over the long term. As a more typical trail running location it is maybe average or a little above average. There are dozens of good running trails, but there aren’t a whole lot of options if you want to do regular long runs that don’t include several sections of powerhiking and scrambling. Nearly all of the long-run options here include huge vertical and off-trail route finding.

Furthermore, we get a ton of snow here in Juneau. Even this past winter, which was way below average, the mountains above treeline (about 2,000 feet) were generally buried in several feet of snow. In big snow years, it becomes several dozen feet of snow. This, of course, has a huge impact on running in Juneau, especially if you are someone who likes to do the vast majority of your running above treeline.

For the first few years that I lived here, I had a hard time transitioning between the seasons and these huge differences created by the natural world around me. I wanted my running to feel as similar to itself as possible throughout the year. Because of this I did most of my running lower down, on the roads, and on the enjoyable but somewhat average system of trails that are mostly runnable year round. Over time, though, I felt somewhat uninspired by these options and I began to do much more of my running high up in the mountains, exploring new places, and finding the style of running that truly inspires me, and that makes Juneau, in my mind, a world-class running destination. When I swung in this direction, though, I swung really hard and it often became bland for me to do any running that wasn’t up on alpine ridgelines with dramatic views in all directions.

I feel now though like I have been able to swing back to a more content middle ground in which I am happy to take what the natural world offers and run with it (pun intended). I certainly had a handful of times this winter in which I rammed my head against Mother Nature’s wall and forced myself up into the alpine at the wrong time, only to be turned around by ice and snow, but for the most part I am much happier now to run down low when that is what the natural world dictates, knowing that as soon as spring and summer roll around, I will be doing almost all of my runs up in the mountains.

This all leads to a huge difference in what it means to go running at various times throughout the year, but I find it to be easier for my body to adjust to these differences than it is for it to fight Mother Nature and try to do the same type of running year round. I certainly find this to be challenging during the transition phases, but I think the key to making these transitions as smoothly as possible is to just accept them as a natural part of being a year round runner in a place with such drastic changes in climate throughout the year. On one hand it’s very disruptive to go from doing nearly every run on a relatively flat, runnable surface to doing nearly every run on such a steep and technical surface that you are hiking as much as you are running, but I’ve come to find that my mind and body both adapt to these changes within a matter of days.

I certainly like to feel like I am in control of my running to the extent that I am choosing for myself when and how to run, but as I evolve more and more as a runner I realize that part of being in control is giving up control and letting the natural world be a little more in charge of things. This may force us to make some huge transitions throughout the year, but with enough willingness to accept what we are offered, we will find that making these transitions can be a lot more logical of a way to be as a runner than to fight the natural world around us.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • When do your runs ‘go with the flow’ with nature? Does this happen intentionally or at random?
  • And when do you find yourself running opposite to or not quite in line with nature? In what circumstances does this situation arise?
  • Do you ever find yourself full on fighting with nature to get what you want out of a run?

There are 3 comments

  1. rtockstein

    Hi Geoff, awesome article. I have a question that is completely unrelated to this article, but is about southern Utah. I'll be in the abajo mtns and dark canyon wilderness late July. What are the best maps for that area? I was thinking I'd buy some 7.5min usgs maps, but didn't know if there would be anything else you would recommend. Thanks!

  2. grroes

    I would grab the National Geographic Trails illustrated map #703 titled: Manti-LaSal NF; Dark Canyon & Natural Bridges NM. This will be a good compliment to the usgs maps as it will include a lot of recreational user info. Trailheads, camping areas, popular hiking routes, popular geologic features, etc.

    Enjoy your time there. I'm pretty sure that area has the least amount of light pollution anywhere in the lower 48. The nighttime sky will make the trip worth it on it's own.

  3. jie2fu1

    I enjoyed reading this. Thanks for sharing and reminding me to keep things in perspective. Running in the summer heat of Hong Kong feels unnatural and against the flow, especially on the roads which can be exposed to the sun. I am learning that I just need to slow down and go for the shady trails. So maybe that means 'hiking' and forgetting about marathon times, paces, etc. Every place and pace offers its rewards.

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