The Virtues of the Solo 20-Mile Trail Run

AJW's TaproomBack in September and as I was emerging from a several-months-long running funk, I wrote about a long-time personal benchmark, the 40-mile week. In the 30 or so weeks since penning that article, I have managed to cover at least 40 miles on all but a few occasions. And, the accruing fitness has felt satisfying.

And so it was, last weekend, that I set about to accomplish another one of my typical benchmark tasks, the solo 20-mile trail run. Now, to be clear, I had run over 20 miles several times in the months since my September column, but all of those runs had either been in running events or group runs. To me, there is nothing quite as simply satisfying, and at times dismaying, than a solo 20-mile trail run.

It was forecast to be a muggy day in the Mississippi Delta, so I decided to set off early. I packed a full two liters of water and three gels and decided to run an extended out-and-back course at the local state park, Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park in the Memphis, Tennessee area, that has become my second home of late. The early start would also help me steer clear of the masses of hikers that have been enjoying the park too.

Every time I lace ’em up for a solo 20 miler these days, I find myself reflecting back to my years as a beginning runner. Brimming with enthusiasm and training with gusto for a road marathon in the hopes of achieving a Boston Marathon qualifying time, much of my running in those first few years consisted of mind-numbing 20 milers on flat, every-half-mile-marked bike paths in large urban areas. In those years, I was a slave to my chronograph watch and eager to hit my splits and not waste a second.

As I settled into a rhythm for what was to be my first solo 20 miler in quite some time, I reveled in the fact that I had no expectations about how long it would take me to finish or what kind of pace I could maintain. Rather, I found myself absorbed in the moment, listening to the birds and the squirrels, watching the green leaves explode before my eyes, and feeling the gentleness of each footfall on the soft, muddy trail that stretched ahead of me for miles.

For this particular outing, I intentionally chose a route with moderate vertical gain and as much singletrack trail as I could squeeze into the 20 miles. As most of my weekday runs are on gravel paths near my house, whenever I can get out onto singletrack I want as immersive an experience as I can find as there is something so unique and special about singletrack trail running. On this day, the wild and wonderful world of Tennessee trail running did not disappoint.

As I expected, after about three-and-a-half hours and a little over 15 miles, the run started to get hard. I didn’t quite have the same spring in my step and the birds and the squirrels were more annoying than joy inducing. Yet, the pleasure of the 20-mile run persisted. As I neared the end of my route and my watch ticked over to the magic number, I smiled, gave myself a little pat on the back, and gave thanks to the fact that through it all, even a full 28 years after my first solo 20 miler, I was still healthy and willing enough to do this sort of thing. And that, my friends, is as good a reason as any to do it again sometime.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Taproom favorite Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Their recently released Official Hazy India Pale Ale is a classically Bells-like take on this super-hyped variety. Nicely hopped and just hazy enough to be noticeable, Official is a smooth-drinking summer beer that’s perfect on the tail end of that solo 20 miler.

Call for Comments (from the Editor)

  • What kinds of benchmarks do you set when it comes to long runs?
  • What does hitting the 20-mile mark mean to you?
  • How about running long while solo? Like AJW, does being alone carry some extra meaning?

All photos: Andy Jones-Wilkins

There are 9 comments

  1. lonelyguy

    There is weakness in needing to be in a group, or in a race, to log big miles. Finishing a 50 mile race is a fun fight. Going out for a 50 mile solo effort take complete mental mastery. Nothing to distract, no outside crutches. Just you and the miles.

    Ultra-running **is** loneliness.
    Ultra-running **is** a long run that no one else hears about or knows about (because let’s be honest, no one else cares).

    Not saying that the sport shouldnt be fun. But for folks who want a test, ditch the #squad. Learn to be happy with the company when the only company you have is yourself.

  2. Andy M

    I’m with you, Andy, on the 20-mile solo run and the 40-mile week benchmarks and the satisfaction that comes with them. And now, thanks to COVID, after 10 years of ultras, I did my first solo 50-miler recently. Maybe not 2.5 times the satisfaction of the 20, but not bad either :)

  3. Henry Bickerstaff

    In my 30+ years of running most of my runs have been solo. Not because it was a choice but because in my little town of 5,000 people there are few runners, fewer that run at 5AM and only one other that runs Ultras and he runs at 3:30 AM.

    I always enjoyed running alone even 4+ hour efforts. There is something satisfying. However, this past year I found a training partner in another town to share long runs with. It has made those run even more enjoyable. Maybe because I ran alone all those years and change is good or maybe I changed as a person.

    I still enjoy running alone but I certainly look forward to a companion at times.

  4. Matt

    Great article. I smiled as I was reading it.

    I run solo 99% of the time and rarely do I ever get bored. Since the COVID “lockdown,” I haven’t been able to get to my favorite, hilly singletrack trails as much, so I’ve found some new routes that are a mix of relatively flat gravel roads, pavement, snowmobile trails, and a bit of singletrack here and there. Regardless, the joy of running solo is still there.

    My target race was canceled in April so I ran my first-ever 100-mile solo “race” in its place. I don’t believe I was as focused or motivated as I would’ve been in a race situation, and to be frank, I was nervous that the lack of social interaction would cause me to lose focus. (My wife was the only person I saw the entire time.) My favorite moment was running on a snow-covered snowmobile trail in a wide open field with the moon shining bright enough to cause shadows and light up the landscape around me. I wonder if I would’ve noticed this simple joy if I was running in a “pack?”

    Thanks for your great article. I’m still smiling!

  5. Ryan Montalvo

    One on the things a great about long solo trails runs is it is a good time to reflect because you are alone. I currently run through the Tahoe National Forest and I find my self thinking about how different it is from when I started running in my 20s. I too ran a lot of miles of paved bikes paths with markers every half mile. Now I have a fancy GPS watch but I remember always waiting for the next marker. It has been a while since I have run a solo 20 miles. It is definitely something I need to do again. Thanks for a great post.
    Ryan

  6. Kevin

    AJW

    I may have missed this in a prior article but how’s your resurface tip holding up with all the running?

    I just had mine done last January so I’m curious to see if there’s been any significant changes with the increase in activity.

    Thank you in advance.

    Kevin

  7. Christopher Roach

    Thanks for the excellent post. Also timely, as I read it the evening before a solo unsupported R2R2R. The canyon was so peaceful on Saturday. I only saw about 10 people over 42 miles of trail. Phantom Ranch and the campgrounds were closed.

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