The Hunt

[Editor’s Note: This story includes images of an elk carcass as well as incidental blood from a hunt. The images are a great deal less gory than, say, most modern horror films, but we’re letting you know in case you might be uncomfortable with such images. -Bryon]

Mike Wofle Hunt

Thank god for this rock to rest. Me taking a much-needed breather while packing out my bull taken November 2013. We packed out the bull in one carry. Each of our packs weighed over 150 pounds. Photo: Nick Silverman

Another year ends. It’s supposed to be that time of year when we self reflect. Reflect on the year past, and on what we want the new year to hold. Blah, blah.

I’ve been thinking about a certain question for a long while. I’m sure all iRunFar readers have been, too. This is the big question that you continually ponder, no matter what time of year it is. I was able to put some of my thoughts and beliefs into coherent sentences now, at the end of my two favorite seasons, race season and hunting season. This is because I finally figured out that hunting is racing, and racing is hunting. I love to hunt because I’m human, and I’m human because I hunt.

The question: Why do I (you) run?

To some, it may feel like a tired and old endeavor to even attempt to answer this question. Others can instantly rattle off any number of personal reasons they know firmly in their heart for why they run. Every ultrarunner gets the question: why (or how) do you run 100 miles? Or 50 miles? How do you answer it? Is your answer always the same?

Sometimes I think I know why. Sometimes my reasons shift and change. Sometimes after a long season I hate running, but I’m still strangely compelled to go out the damn door every morning. What is wrong with me?  I was asked this question, on camera, a few weeks ago at The North Face Endurance Challenge. Why do I run? I felt awkward answering it. I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn’t want to say it on camera, and I felt annoyed that I was even asked such a grand and all-life-encompassing question. So, I’ll answer the question now.

I figured it out. Well, at least in part. Or, maybe I should say this is intuitively what I believe, based upon personal experience, and reasoned self-reflection.

Why I’m driven to run. Human evolution. Instinct. Its in my (our) DNA, that’s why. Predator. Prey. Survival. The drive to hunt. To provide meat to our families, our tribes. Hunt. Gather. Eat. Survive.

* * * * *

Crawl out of the bivy sack. Shake off the shivers. Try not to get the thick, flake-y frost into the long johns as I pull them on. Find headlamp. Stumble to the frozen creek nearby. Break ice. Fill Jetboil with water. Make coffee. Though, I don’t even need coffee on this morning, excitement and adrenaline are already coursing through my veins. Almost like pre-race jitters. Only thing is, I’m not racing today.

It’s 5 a.m. in mid-September. It’s going to be best the best day ever. Why? Because it’s bow-hunting season in Montana, and the elk are full throttle in the rut, all around us.

Mike Wolfe - elk tree rub

My brother gawks at an insane rub tree, where big bulls thrash trees with their antlers during the rut, September 2012. Photo: Mike Wolfe

I am not gearing up to race a long running race in the mountains. But mentally, and physically, I’m gearing up for an equally long day— running, thrashing, climbing, descending, crawling, packing—in serious, rugged, mountain terrain. If all goes well, I’ll be just as exhausted after this day of elk hunting as I would be after a good, hard, 50-mile race.

When most non-hunters think of hunting, running is probably the last thing that comes to mind. Even for avid hunters, I would guess hardly anyone thinks running could have any possible use in hunting, other than getting into shape pre-season. When most people think of hunting, they think of guys sitting in tree stands or duck blinds drinking beer and whiskey. Or, packing deep into the mountains, where horses (or ATV’s) do all the work.

I will certainly admit, for those of us who hunt on our own two feet, it is not at all similar to going for a run. There’s no short short-wearing, no gels, no single-minded focus on the trail immediately in front of you. Hunting is slow most of the time. Deliberate. Quiet. Trying to consciously move slow, be 100% aware of your surroundings. Every sound, sight, smell. Completely in tune with the world around you.

But, you have to have this laser focus throughout an entire hunting day because at the moment you least expect it, you have to be ready to pounce. To pull the trigger. To pull the bow back. Animals, especially elk, are like ghosts. They are never there. Then suddenly, they are there for a split second, and you must act. Racing a running race is the same. It requires long, arduous periods of laser focus to endure. Then, you have to be ready to make a move on your fellow competitor at just the right time. Kill or be killed.

the hunt coffee

Literally drinking up ‘The Hunt’ the morning after packing out my bull harvested in November 2013. Photo: Mike Wolfe

The more I run, the longer I run for, the more I question why I do it. The more I hunt, the more intimate experiences I have stalking animals in the mountains (or have animals stalking me in the mountains), the more I understand why I run. Why our ancestors ran. Why it’s in our DNA to be runners. The thrill of uncertainty. The unknown. The risk. Risk of failure. It’s the same hunting as it is in a race. The competitive drive. This is nothing new to the field of evolutionary biology. If you believe in that sort of thing, as I do.

Many have written on this firmly established theory that humans evolved to be long distance runners, in order to hunt and procure food. Legendary ultrarunner Bernd Heinrich writes about this in Why We Run. David Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, outlines the details in The Story of the Human Body. Christopher McDougall touches upon the idea in Born to Run.

Lieberman sums up my belief perfectly:

“Today, humans run long distances to stay fit, commute, or just have fun, but the struggle to get meat underlies the origins of endurance running. To appreciate this inference, try to imagine what it was like for the first humans to hunt or scavenge 2 million years ago. Most carnivores kill using a combination of speed and strength… [i]t must have been extremely perilous and difficult for slow, puny, weaponless hominids to enter into the rough, tough, and hazardous business of eating other animals for dinner. An important solution to this problem was endurance running.”

Science may or may not convince you. My convincing has come from personal experience. I have run numerous times during exciting hunts. I have run with a loaded rifle in my hands. I have run with a bow in my hands, arrow nocked and ready. The most exciting hunts I’ve ever had were those running wild and reckless after animals. I chased after a group of antelope with my brother in 2009 where we all-out sprinted three or four times in attempts to get ahead of them for a shot.  We were successful in the end.

Again hunting antelope, with my father and my wife, I chased down another buck in 2011 with a serious of crazy uphill sprints and belly crawls through cactus. The same fall, my season ended with a last-minute effort to shoot an elk. My brother and I spotted a small group on the run and I sprinted to the verge of blacking out to head them off and get a shot. Running allowed me to fill the freezer again that year.

Pat Wolfe - elk hunt

Bull harvested by my brother, Pat, during bow season and height of the rut, September 2012. Photo: Pat Wolfe

It gets my blood pumping just thinking about all of it! Way more than any thought of racing. I start to feel like a carefree kid again, wild with enthusiasm, thinking about those hunting memories.

Although these stories may sound like a crazed, blood-lusting redneck out carelessly killing poor, helpless animals, my intentions, and ethic, is quite the opposite. Though certainly having a solid upper hand while wielding a rifle and a slight edge with a compound bow, my hunting ethic is absolutely fair chase: only hunting and harvesting animals via the fairest means. In the broad spectrum of hunting these days, hunting on public lands only on foot is as fair as it gets. Putting in a 12-hour day hiking around on steep, off-trail terrain, ending in a few uphill sprints with a rifle and pack on your back, evens the playing field. It is extremely difficult to by sly enough to get the jump on an elk. Ever tried it? If you happen to be lucky enough to harvest an animal, then the real work begins. Put your headlamp on, spend three hours butchering a 900-pound animal perched on a 45-degree snowed-covered slope, then put on a 100-plus pound pack and hike four to five hours back to the truck. Pretty fair in my book.

I believe all the crazy, thrill-seeking sports we see these days are very rooted in our evolutionary makeup. The drive to survive gone completely haywire. Or, maybe just evolving to the next level. But, I know where the drive comes from, what it was meant for. Survival, not an adrenaline rush after a base jump, or the endorphin rush after winning a race, or finishing a 100 miler. It comes from the satisfaction after a 10-hour day hunting when you finally killed that antelope, and the knowledge that your family will survive another few weeks.

The drive to get up the next day and do it again. In 2014, it’s burning in your subconscious because you know your competitors are out there training, that you have to push it to stay competitive, that will power to feel the endorphin rush and feel alive. But, that push out the door used to be that urge to stock up more meat for winter. Pure survival. You know that deep appreciation for the simple things in life after running a 100-mile race? The taste of beer. The taste of bacon. A shower. A pillow. Ever experience the satisfaction of eating a steak you harvested, quartered, packed, sweated for, butchered? All the hours you put in?

I swear that’s where the drive comes from. The OCD. At least in me. I will speak for myself. We have let our beautiful, perfect, evolution be warped into wildly different motivations than what nature intended.

Lieberman goes on in his book to describe how weak and feeble early humans evolved to hunt. Persistence hunting. The unique ability of humans to run for long distances, take advantage of no hair and millions of sweat glands, and push a wild, game animal to the point of exhaustion and overheating. Then, the hunter would kill the exhausted animal with a spear, bow/arrow, or other blunt, throwing object.

I freely admit that I did not kill any of the animals I ran after by running them to exhaustion, or using a spear. I have killed animals with bow/arrow, but certainly not what my ancestors were using. I used a compound bow that is more lethal than a rifle up to 60 or 80 yards. Or, I used a high-powered rifle that allows a hunter to take an animal from hundreds of yards away. But, I know what inspires me deep down inside to run. The age-old, simple instinct ingrained in my DNA to hunt.

Now, I know what you are thinking, and you are correct. Yes, I cannot call myself a man until I have successfully killed an animal like my ancestors did, with the persistence hunt. Some have tried it, almost all have failed. Hence, 2014 and the next adventure.

Elk skull

Back to camp after a successful harvest and pack-out. Photo: Mike Wolfe

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

We are aware that Mike’s essay will not align with all readers’ beliefs on hunting for food. We do ask you, however, to respect Mike’s ethic in reading and commenting upon this article. Thank you!

  • While running, have you ever felt connected to something other than the actual process of running, in that moment? Connected to human evolutionary history? An outside force you can’t explain?
  • For those of you who do run and hunt on foot, what connections between the two disciplines have you found?

There are 118 comments

  1. jaxcharlie845

    Great article. Your excitement bled through the article and for a moment made me feel I was in the wild and on the hunt. Very much like the feeling I had on Sunday's long run, doing a section of technical single track through the swamp at break neck speed with one of my running partners hot on my heels and my dog right there with us. What a blast!

  2. frankandonion

    Respectfully, NOT a great article for iRunFar. Myself, along with my fellow trail ultrarunning friends, run for the beauty of our surroundings and that includes the live animals we gratefully encounter along the way.

    There is no connection between ultrarunning and hunting. Ultrarunning is gentler and far more courageous at the same time.

    We have evolved to not having to kill and it's proven that we don't need to eat meat (i.e. look at many of the top athletes).

    Also, why include the photos at all? Who likes looking at or posing with a dead animal? I feel like we should be past this.

    1. Bryon of iRunFar

      Thanks for sharing your perspective. Folks run for a great multitude of reasons. Here's /one/ of those reasons that /is/ present in our sport, but that we never hear about. This article and its premise certainly won't resonate with /most/ of our readers, but that's ok. I certainly don't run to hunt. However, I appreciated Mike sharing his perspective and having the courage to do so when it surely wouldn't be more popular. I know I'm made a better person when I'm exposed to new ideas and perspectives even… or especially if I don't necessarily agree with them.

      On the other hand, the premise of the article was made clear upfront such that those who don't want to be exposed to such ideas, images, and what have you, could move along. Soon enough there'll be more stories of folks who like to gallivant over hill and dale simply for the joy of motion, presence in the moment, and shear aesthetic beauty around them… with pictures to suit. We trust you'll enjoy those more. :-)


      1. frankandonion

        Having grown up in the Midwest and with a dad who hunted, I've been more than exposed to hunting. It just seems more of an unfair "sport" at this point in time. If Mike were to tackle the elk with his bare hands, maybe it would be fair, but the need is no longer there. He doesn't need to hunt for food, so it's just cruel, unnecessary, and indulgent.

        Most of all, it only misrepresents evolution and our beautiful, gentle, courageous, bad-ass sport.

        Thanks Bryon for your kind reply.

        By the way, my dad in his later life gave up hunting because it reminded him of his service in WWII. Now there's a connection.

        1. Bryon of iRunFar

          Thanks for taking my comment as intended. This topic is emotional for many (understandably!) and it's hard to convey respect in the written word.

          At the end of the day, we all do share one thing in common… a love of running on the trails! :-)

          1. frankandonion

            Thanks Bryon for your respectfully kind responses.

            In short, killing what we love to see on our runs is confusing and sad, and a story I didn't expect. I wouldn't expect a story of a runner who works in deforestation either.

            Different perspective or not, it comes off as unnecessary and a killjoy.

            Thanks again Byron for your responses.

    2. Justus

      Respectfully it is not up to one man to say why any other man runs or spends time in the wilderness. We all have our reasons for the things that we do. God created the creatures and gave man dominion over them. Part of that responsibility is treating them with respect, even when that means killing them for food or to control the population. Nothing in the article shows a lack of respect for the animals, in fact it shows a great respect.The idea that man does not have the right to harvest game within the law is a ridiculous one. This is a God given right, just as we all have the right to run.

      I respect that you consider ultra running courageous, but for most of us, including me, I would bet it is just something we do. Being a soldier, a firefighter, a police officer, the person fighting cancer, the single mom working 2 jobs to feed and shelter her family are the courageous ones. Not someone who goes and runs a lot. Ultrarunning is more selfish than courageous.

      It may also be true that one can live without eating any meat, but in reality this is not practical for 99% of us. Personally I would much rather harvest wild game or purchase grass fed free range products than consume commercial mass produced meat.

      Lastly, Congrats on the hunt Mike. Taking an elk like that is an accomplishment.

      1. frankandonion

        Who says it's up to one man? I didn't.
        And as far as the God bit, I'm not buying it.
        It's cheap to throw in "soldier, firefighter, etc" into the argument as those are all obvious forms of courage; albeit in a different subtext.
        Also, posing with the "kill" shows a lack of respect and little accomplishment. Taking someone's last breath is nothing to be proud of.
        Justus, I carefully read what you wrote and admire your passion, but I respectfully disagree.

        1. Justus

          You did state “There is no connection between ultrarunning and hunting” therefore you are being that one man. Hunting has been a part of life since man first existed (regardless of we got here). My point is it is not up to you or anyone to make broad statements on why someone does or does not run. It is a deeply personal thing that we all have.

          Out of respect for Bryon and his comments in a post much higher I will leave the God thing alone. I suspect we have very different views on this.

          We will have to disagree on the courageous thing. There are so many more important things in life than running, so on the grand scale it cannot qualify as courageous. I have never felt courageous at mile 80, I only feel like I am an idiot for doing such long efforts.

          1. frankandonion

            "Courageous at mile 80" is pretty funny. Thanks for lightening it up a bit.

            It's not my intention to make any broad statements. All I can say is that when I run with my friends (and I've been running for a very long time) we never once hunted in the process or even spoke about it. We usually admire our surroundings and when we're lucky enough to see an animal we're in awe that it's with us, running with us.

            As for courage, perhaps you took my words too literal. You don't have to tell me there are "more important things in life than running." You're assuming I don't already know that. Life is just that. As for us and an animal, it's for the living.

            Happy trails, tread lightly, and thanks for the lively conversation.

    3. DavidGel

      Hi Frank,

      I for one completely agree with you. I especially like 'Myself, along with my fellow trail ultrarunning friends, run for the beauty of our surroundings and that includes the live animals we gratefully encounter along the way.'

      I have to say that I am extremely surprised that the ultra community on iRunFar seems to be pro-hunter judging from the thumbs-up/thumbs-down.

      I wish all runners were to be in harmony with their surroundings including animals.
      That being said, I wish everyone happy running!


      1. frankandonion

        Thanks David. Somewhat surprised as well. Might be a small group, because these are not the ideologies I've encountered throughout my years of trail running.

        Keep saying your thoughts regardless of popularity. That goes for the opposing argument as well. Civil debate is a clearer path to hearing one another.

        Leave no trace.

      2. Justus


        It is very possible to be in harmony with your surroundings and also be ok with people who hunt. I have not counted myself as a hunter in about 10 years, but see no issue with legal and ethical hunting. I stopped simply because I became addicted to running. My life is busy and there is not time to do both. If one day I can no longer run I will go back to hunting as it achieves a similar goal of being in nature and taking in the beauty of it all. Any way you look at it running in nature in hunting are connected now and will always be due to the fact that both are done outside and in remote areas. I suspect that many runners also hunt, or used to before starting to ultra run. I know that you can be pro hunting and still in harmony with your surroundings. Your statement that assumes this is not possible is simply ridiculous. Have you ever hunted? If not then you are not qualified to comment on this.

        1. DavidGel


          Thank you for your comment. I have to respectfully disagree with you. It is not because you haven't experienced a situation that you cannot have a opinion on it. Otherwise, myself and many people wouldn't be allow to comment on topics such as slavery, abortion, and poverty. I believe it is important for people to voice their opinions as we live in a democracy.
          On that note, I wish you a nice day my friend!

          1. Justus


            I fully respect your right to have an opinion on any issue. This is one of the foundations that makes the US a great place to live. We all have to rights to our opinions. My intent was not to detract from yours. You implied with this statement "I wish all runners were to be in harmony with their surroundings including animals." that it is not possible to be in harmony with ones surroundings if you hunt or are hunting. In my experiences this is not the case at all. My love of animals and nature was forged in my youth through early mornings sitting in the woods hunting whitetail deer in Pennsylvania. You would be amazed at what you see when you just stop and sit. I remember one occasion when I watched a squirrel collect acorns for at least 30 minutes. You could never witness that as you ran by. I have seen so many more things when slowing down and taking it all in than when running. Maybe that is the lesson we can all take away, slow down and sit a while and see nature. I bet for most hunters (especially ultra runners) the harvest is just one part of their reason for hunting.

  3. jeffinNH

    Congrats on the kill Mike . Fortunate enough myself to get a nice whitetail in New Hampshire this season . You should think about a trip east for a little bit of hunting and White Mountain running .

  4. Lane_E

    It’s a very pleasant surprise to see iRunFar demonstrate tolerance and give a voice to ultrarunning’s atavistic twin. Running and racing the trails all year allows me to stay fit for the rigors of bowhunting hunting deer, elk, turkey, etc., in rugged terrain. Trail running gives me a great excuse to commune with nature when it’s not hunting season. The much slower pace of hunting guarantees a higher level of discovery and contemplation. I won’t apologize for the tiny percentage of time spent killing animals, and neither will I deride non-hunters. It’s a learned skill and most people haven’t had the choice or opportunity to acquire it.

    To help answer Meghan’s second question, see my comparison of trail racing to elk hunting at [broken link to Feral Pursuits blog removed]

    1. Bryon of iRunFar

      Hi Lane,
      Sorry for the delay in your comment going up… it was caught in spam filter's automatic moderation queue for some reason. Just getting around to looking at iRF's comments on a Saturday morning. :-)


  5. Alex_Kaine

    I found the article very interesting and then I got to the images…. After that, continuing to read the article became difficult. I scrolled down to the read the comments to see if I was the only one who felt this way, and I was relieved to see that I am not.

    I am not vegan, nor vegetarian and I highly doubt I ever will be. I am not opposed to hunting. I have a great deal respect for someone that bow hunts rather then hunts using a rifle. But I do take issue with including images of the dead disembodied animals, or corpses being modeled for a post mortum photo op. I feel it detracts from the message which (from my reading and understanding of the article) Mike is exploring innate primal drive of survival and sharing how that drive connects and is expressed through his desire to run and hunt. The images seem to suggest something else entirely – that the reason we run and hunt is to collect trophies and pose with them (again very human and evolutionary based but a completely different topic and before you judge who hasn't taken a picture with that 100 mile buckle). However, I don't think the point of the article is to explore the human desire to trophy collect and so I find the images not only graphically inappropriate but disconnected from the articles theme. Images of people cooking or eating or an image of the boots fashioned from the animal pelt would not only be less graphic but better demonstrate how the animal's death fulfilled the survival drive.

  6. DaveC

    Bryon, big ups for publishing this.

    I'd submit that on a landscape level the trauma inflicted by industrially farmed grains and produce shipped between hemispheres makes an ungulate with a bullet through the lungs inconsequential by comparison. Not seeing the virtual blood in your oatmeal is nothing but a failure of imagination.

  7. hugoportugal

    Can one image stop me from reading the article? Yes it can…
    Can one image stop me from reading the i-used-to-love-it-irunfar?… Yes it can.

    All the best… well not really.

  8. samh

    And I begged, "Angel of the Lord, what are these tortured screams?" And the angel said unto me, "These are the cries of the carrots, the cries of the carrots! You see, Reverend Maynard, tomorrow is harvest day and to them it is the holocaust." And I sprang from my slumber drenched in sweat like the tears of one million terrified brothers and roared, "Hear me now, I have seen the light! They have a consciousness, they have a life, they have a soul! Damn you! Let the rabbits wear glasses! Save our brothers!" Can I get an amen? Can I get a hallelujah? Thank you Jesus. Life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on…

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