Where The Road Ends: Welcome To The Journey

[Editor’s Note: These are exciting times for us here at iRunFar as Senior Editor, Meghan Hicks, and Editor-in-Chief, Bryon Powell, have written a book called Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running (published by Human Kinetics). In this article is the very first sneak-peek excerpt from the book, which officially publishes next week on April 13th. iRunFar’s ‘Blaze a Trail’ columnist, Rhielle Widders, follows this excerpt with a discussion that attempts to answer the question, ‘who is a trail runner?’ Stay tuned for next week as we are hosting a week-long Where the Road Ends online launch party with big-haul giveaways every day!]

Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running Excerpt

Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail RunningStepping Off Road
Short, long, fast, slow, dirt, rocks, snow: It’s your turn to step on to the trail. You’ve found Where the Road Ends because something about trail running speaks to you.

The basic beauty of trail running is that it’s at once a simple and dynamic sport. Its simplicity is based on the facts that running is a natural human motion—one of the first things we figure out how to do as toddlers—and that it doesn’t require much preparation or gear for each outing. On the other hand, the sport is dynamic because of the diversity of places you’ll run, the obstacles you’ll work your way through, the wildlife you might encounter, and the people with whom you’ll share the trail.

For some, the appeal of trail running goes even deeper. Many people find that trail running helps them navigate an interesting, new way of experiencing the world. As the population grows, humans gather themselves into cities for the convenient concentration of workplaces, schools, supermarkets, doctors’ offices, family, and friends. Although humans live inside homes and apartments, in close proximity to more buildings and many people, some are still called by something inside themselves to spend time outside. Many people say they need to breathe a little fresh air, to let sunshine fall on their faces, to see some greenery, and to move their bodies to feel, well, human. An hour or so on the trail makes many people feel refreshed in returning to the rest of life.

Trail running might speak to you in other ways, too. Perhaps you are already a runner who revels in your daily dedication to mind and body. You take to roads, bike paths, and treadmills. Maybe you race, entering local 10Ks and marathons to help sate the competitive fire inside you or to satisfy your desire to spend time with likeminded people. Maybe you’re on the hunt for a new venue for the sport you love, and you’ve heard about trail running through Twitter, a magazine, or a neighbor.

Maybe you’ve gravitated to Where the Road Ends because you already spend time beyond this point. You are a hiker, mountain biker, backpacker—someone who already spends a good amount of time on the trail. You don’t need anyone to sell you on how enjoyable time spent in wild places is. Chances are you’ve seen another breed of trail lover in your explorations, trail runners, and you’re curious about becoming one, too.

Maybe you’re a competitive gymnast or tennis player who has ended your career but is looking for a place to play with your competitive drive. You might be a new mom or dad who’s seeking quick access to quiet and calm, and a way to reconnect with yourself. Perhaps you’re coming off an injury from another sport and have heard that the soft surfaces of trail running might cradle your delicate body. There are almost endless reasons to try trail running.

As you begin your journey into this sport, you might find that you have some questions about what to do and expect. In this chapter, you’ll find basic answers to the very first questions you might have about trail running. What follows in this chapter should be enough information for you to enjoy your first trail runs. Let’s do this!

What Is Trail Running?
The short answer is that trail running is the sport of running off paved surfaces. The longer answer is that trail running is the act of running on an unending diversity of substrates: dirt, gravel, grass, wood chips, roots, rocks, sand, and more. Across flat ground, along rolling hills, up steep climbs, or down bomber descents—trail running is traveling over whatever terrain Mother Nature delivers. Trail running can include traveling short distances very quickly and long distances somewhat slower. It’s a sport in which your sweat comingles with dirt and mud. Trail running allows you to flow through shady forests, over treeless alpine terrain, atop steep cliffs, and through endless grasslands. It’s a sport whose community is strong and gritty but also filled with warmth and welcome. The sport is as much about running with interesting people or in beautiful places as it is about minutes-per-mile paces.

Where the Road Ends 600px photo

Photo: Kirsten Kortebein/Human Kinetics

Why Trail Running?
Wow. That’s a great question, and, perhaps, the least straightforward one of all to answer. We are all uniquely motivated in life, aren’t we? A survey of all of us trail runners about our motivations for spending time off road would yield widely varied results. Some of us trail run to be fit and fast, and to win races. Others trail run as means to relieve stress, to carve out “me time” from each day, and to instill confidence in ourselves. Still, more of us trail run so that we can spend time in nature, away from highways and skyscrapers. And some trail run to enjoy the company of the amazing people who do our sport.

As a two-time winner of the UTMB (formerly the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc), a highly competitive race that circumnavigates Mont Blanc in the European Alps, Rory Bosio is one of the fastest female trail runners out there. However competitive she is, Rory finds deep joy in the act of running along a trail: “I love the simplicity of running. The act of putting one foot in front of the other is such a natural movement that one doesn’t need to be taught how to do it. Do you remember someone teaching you how to run? Probably not. As toddlers we progress from an unsteady walk to a full-on trot, no instruction needed. Running is ingrained in our DNA. Running outdoors provides an intimate connection with nature that at times feels magical. I live for that feeling of flow: speeding down a trail, opening up the stride, the worries of everyday life evaporating with every step, the clarity of the mind that comes from being truly in the moment, feeling enmeshed in the natural world as opposed to just being an observer of it, the body moving in harmony with the earth.”

[Editor’s Note: This new book, Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, provides details on essential equipment; information about trail safety, including navigation, map reading, and wildlife; the development of trail running training plans; and advice on competing in off-road races. It features a foreword by Kilian Jornet and the advice of many top trail runners, including Emelie Forsberg, Anna Frost, Max King, Stephanie Howe, Anton Krupicka, and others. Purchase it at HumanKinetics.com, your local bookstore, or major online bookstores like Amazon.com.]

Who is a Trail Runner?

Hello, my name is Rhielle Widders and I’m a trail runner. I’d like to introduce you to the part of yourself that claims this same title. You likely claim other titles, those things you say to people when you are just getting to know them:

“I’m a mother of three.”
“I work for company X.”
“I live in New York City, but I’m from New Jersey.”
“I mountain bike on the weekends.”

I’d like to invite you to become acquainted with the trail runner’s title, but I’ll warn you ahead of time, it may forever become a part of your identity.

“I’m a trail runner.”

A trail runner can be anyone. If you ask around, I think you will be surprised by how many ‘normal’ people are trail runners. You don’t have to be an expert in navigation or map reading, you don’t have to have a 100k on your bucket list, and you don’t have consider yourself ‘outdoorsy’ to enjoy this sport. Trail runners come in such a variety of personalities. We are a most inclusive group. Unlike many other outdoor sports that require an intense knowledge and a lot of practice to become an expert, the entry into trail running is simple, which is what makes the group so diverse.

However, one thing trail runners have in common is being a group of standup people. When you encounter another runner on the trail, you are likely to be greeted with a smile, a wave, and a quick “hello.” Don’t be surprised if you stop for a sip of water or a breather at a lookout and find yourself in a conversation with another trail runner before going your separate ways.

Still not sure that trail running includes you? Let me introduce you to a few people who also call themselves trail runners:

“I am a 67-year-old retired physician living in Moab, Utah, and I’m a trail runner. As I grow older I have come to realize that I deeply love any activity that would be maximally enjoyed by the rambunctious 10-year-old boy in me. Running the steep, twisted trail system near my home, over ancient sandstone, under towering orange cliffs, around stooped, gnarled old junipers and tall, proud cottonwoods, through narrow secret passages and under a wide blue sky is the epitome of satisfaction for the child in me.”

“I’m a 29-year-old attorney who works too much, living in downtown Denver with my boyfriend and two dogs, and I’m a trail runner. I trail run for the quiet and solitude, to clear my mind, and escape from work and city living. To reset.”

“I’m a 41-year-old property manager and handyman, and I am a trail runner. I started road running with my wife five years ago and never felt a runner’s high until I transitioned to the trail. Running through the city with traffic and pavement feels unnatural after experiencing the beauty and peacefulness that I have on the trail. I love the challenge and the soft surface the trail provides for my aging body. I feel calm and natural when I am trail running.”

“I am a 46-year-old single mother of four teenage boys, and I’m a trail runner. I trail run to set an example. Recently one of my boys said, ‘Mom, you’re like an old teenager.’ When I asked what that meant, he said, ‘Well, you do cool stuff and you’re strong. But you’re wise like an old person.’ All those years of trail running, mountain biking, rock climbing, skiing, etc. paid off in that one moment.”

Whether you are stepping onto the trail for the first time or you are familiar with your local trail system, whether a trail is the unpaved pathway in your local park or on the summit of a mountain peak, whether you run three miles off the pavement each day or you are training for a 100 miler, you are a trail runner. This group includes everyone and more.

So, given that we come in all forms, can we really answer the question of ‘who is a trail runner?’ I think we still can. We are the people who are driven to get out there, out of the gym, off of the rubber tires, out of traffic, and in search of the most primal part of us. We are all part of the same clan. We are all looking to run wild.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Can you remember the first time that you identified yourself as a trail runner?
  • Has your definition of being a trail runner evolved over the years? Can you describe this?
Meghan Hicks

is iRunFar.com's Senior Editor, the author of 'Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running,' and a Contributing Editor at Trail Runner magazine. The converted road runner finished her first ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world's wildest places. For more information on Meghan and her adventures, please visit her personal website.

There are 7 comments

  1. Mathieu Van Vyve

    Over the years, when I was young, I sometimes participated to a 10k or 20k road running event, found it nice, but not fantastic. What I was really into was any kind of “truly” outdoors activity: windsurfing, rock climbing, (ski-)mountaineering, canoeing, cycling trips,…. The thing is, many of these sports require at least a full day, and usually more. But with kids of small age, that became essentially impossible, if we were to share equally the family duties with my wife *and* still spend time together.

    That’s when I started doing trail running. That immediately felt just great, both the activity itself, and the practical easiness of squeezing one or two hours of it at any time of the day. Trail running is like any of these outdoors activities, but simplified to the extreme (in a good sense). There is a minimality aspect to it that makes it truly beautiful.

    The first time I identified myself as a trailrunner was when I arrived at a bbq at some friends place 25k from home, sweating, with compressive socks and a running backpack. I had no choice I guess.

  2. Dawsonovitch

    Looking forward to it. Watching Gordy Ansleigh from horseback run the Western States in 1974 always made me curious. Now, 40 years later, as I turn to ultras after not running for 30 years, I find myself reading everything I can to help put the pieces into place. Looking forward to the read. Thanks!

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