I’ve been fortunate enough, partly by choice, and partly by luck, to live in some pretty incredible trail running locations in my life. The five places I have lived as an adult – Salt Lake City, Utah; Homer, Alaska; Juneau, Alaska; Nederland, Colorado; and Boulder, Colorado – all have some pretty incredible trails. At this point it’s hard for me to imagine living anywhere without access to mountain trails.
I’ve spent some time recently thinking about the things I’ve liked about running in these various places, and why I’ve enjoyed the running in some of them more than others. I don’t necessarily care to get into a conversation about what is the best trail running town, but rather I’m intrigued by what my difference in opinion about these places tells me about what (for me) makes a location a more desirable location to live in terms of the running. The points I will bring up here might seem really obvious, and kind of pointless to discuss in such detail, but often in life I think we decide that we like one thing better than something else, but never think about why that is, and what we might be able to learn from this. Certainly there are a lot more important things in life than examining why a certain location may or may not be a satisfying place to live as a runner, but most of us here are involved in running to such an extent that the next time we’re thinking of moving (whether across town or across the country) we will likely take into account what it would be like to be a runner in our new location. Not to mention, if you’re anything like me, any time you vacation, you base at least part of your decision on where to go on what the running is like there.
The first thing to consider is the proximity of the trails to the locations in town in which you would choose to live/visit. This might seem to be a really obvious and somewhat silly point, but often when I mention this to people they seem a bit confused by my suggestion that this is something you might actually have to think about a little bit. My point here is that not all towns with nearby trails are created equal in terms of how nearby the trails are. Take Salt Lake City for example. The area surrounding Salt Lake City has some of the most incredible running trails anywhere in North America. Anyone who disputes this probably hasn’t done much running in the area. There are some pretty good trails accessible right from the edge of town, into the foothills, but most of the more desirable/extensive trails begin up one of the nearby canyons – 15 to 45 minutes away, depending on where you live in town. Compare this to Boulder or Juneau and you gain a better sense of proximity. In Boulder no matter where you live you will be 5 minutes or less (in most cases on foot) to the nearest trailhead leading into the extensive network of trails in the Flatirons. Juneau takes this even one step further. Due to the unique geography of the region, everyone who chooses to live there is by default also choosing to live within a few blocks of the closest mountain/trail access.
The next thing that plays a huge role for me is what exactly are these trails/mountains that you are accessing, and what type of running do they offer? Again this sounds like a really obvious point, but if you don’t take this into consideration you aren’t really painting the entire picture. For my personal liking (and this certainly varies from person to person), I like to get out in steep, wild, rugged, remote terrain as much as possible. When I apply this preference to the towns I compared above suddenly some things get flipped around. The trails which are so nicely located right next to Boulder are tame, crowded, controlled, and feel more like a city park than mountain wilderness. In comparison, the Wasatch mountain trails around Salt Lake feel much more like true mountain wilderness. There are dozens of trails in the Wasatch that are more appealing to me than any trails in the Flatirons. If only you didn’t need to drive so far from town to get to them. By comparison, in Juneau, as soon as you leave town in any direction, you are instantly into steep, rugged, remote, and wild terrain.
The last thing which I think makes up the bulk of the appeal of a running location is the local running community, and how well it meshes with one’s own personal relationship with running. This point, like the previous point, varies greatly from person to person. This is a huge part of why one runner thinks town A is the perfect place to live as a runner and another prefers town B. If you’re really into the scientific, high performance-based approach to running then you are going to find yourself very at home in the Boulder running community. If conversely you prefer to do your own thing in a place where most people don’t even know that trail running exists, then Homer or Nederland would be a great fit for you. If you’d ideally want something a little more in between these two extremes then Salt Lake or Juneau would be a great choice.
Again, I’m not that interested in raising the conversation about what everyone’s favorite running town is (Runner’s World, Outside, Trail Runner, and other publications seem to do this kind of thing every other month.), but, instead, I simply think it’s worth noting that we can all learn some things about our running style and preferences by closely examining our opinions/thoughts about the various places we have done the bulk of our running. If you read this article closely (or if you know me at all), you can likely figure out my favorite “running town.” (Hint and shameless self-marketing plug: I host a running camp in this town which is currently taking applications for next summer.) What’s been fun to me, though, as I’ve now run extensively in so many different places, has been the examination of why some places stand out to me as so much more satisfying than others. I’ve come to realize that it’s really important to me to live somewhere where I can run out my front door and be in wild and remote mountains within minutes, and to share this experience with a community of other runners who value these wilderness experiences, but aren’t very caught up in a scientific approach to running. Through looking at this I think I’ve come to a much better understanding of why I run and where I want my running to go in the future.
In conclusion then, what have you all learned from the various places you’ve run? Feel free to share the locations you’re referring to, but more importantly what have your opinions of these locations taught you about yourself and your running?