Changes

For the past four years as I have been living in Colorado, I have come back to Alaska each year for a few months while my wife is on summer break from school. We are in Colorado for nine consecutive months during the school year, so when we return to Alaska we have been away long enough that I always notice a few small changes in the local running culture. Essentially every year at this time I find myself wondering, “Have there always been this many runners here?” Running (and specifically trail running) has been growing at a very solid rate for several years now, but being in this unique situation of spending nine months away from a running community that I know so well has really made these changes much more obvious to me. Certainly there has been huge growth in the amount of people trail running in and around Boulder, Colorado as well, but since I haven’t been away from there for more than 2.5 months in the past four years I never quite notice it in the same way. I think my unique situation of spending so much time each year away from a running community that I know so well has given me a great opportunity to notice changes within this community that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Although the overall popularity of running has been the most noticeable change, there are certainly several other nuances to this which I have seen. For one, it actually feels to me like there are fewer people running on roads than there were a decade ago. Being that I know so many of the runners here in Juneau, I notice over and over again people who used to only run on roads out running on trails in the mountains. I still see road runners fairly regularly, but over the past few years I think a shift has occurred (at least here in Juneau) where you are more in the norm running on trails than on roads. A few years ago I would find myself doing a double take when I saw someone I didn’t know out running on a trail around town. At that time I probably knew most of the trail runners in town, and it always seemed a bit strange when I saw one I didn’t know. Now, just a few years later I often go out on runs on some of the more popular trails in which I see a half dozen or more runners I don’t recognize. I’m sure there are still more people nationally who run primarily on roads as compared to trails, but here in Juneau it seems as though there are at least two or three trail runners for every road runner.

Last week, a few days after returning to Alaska (this time to live here year round once again), I headed up into the mountains with a friend to do a rugged mountain run in the evening. Summer in Alaska is always a special time to be a runner. We didn’t start until 6 p.m., and the route we were doing typically takes between three and four hours. Perfect. We would get down at least a couple hours before darkness! As we passed the end of the established trail at Mount Roberts I assumed we would not see any more fresh tracks until we were over the next two peaks (Sheep and Clark) and down into Granite Basin. We came to the snowfield on the backside of Sheep Mountain and could see dozens of tracks descending off towards Clark Summit! Not that this route is all that inaccessible (you can be to the top of Sheep Mountain in two hours from downtown), but as recently as four or five years ago it was unlikely that more than a couple dozen people did this route in an entire season.

Sheep Mountain

Tracks in the snow on Sheep Mountain. Photo: Geoff Roes

This example brings me to another change that has been undeniable to me. Not just that more people are running and that more people are running trails, but that more people are exploring the mountains on foot. Many of them come from a running background, and many of them come from a mountaineering/hiking background, but the line between all of these disciplines has become more and more blurred. Running for so many people has become synonymous with traveling overland on foot in an efficient and fluid manner, even if this means you are in fact hiking much of the time. This has drawn more runners to the vast options of exploring the mountains and more mountaineers to the idea of packing light and moving fast as runners have traditionally done.

I’m sure some of these footprints I saw on the backside of Sheep Mountain were from people who identify as runners, and some were from people who identify as hikers and/or mountaineers, but the sheer number alone is an indication of how much ‘running’ has evolved to become a prominent part of mountain sport, and how much mountaineering has evolved to become a part of running over the past several years.

One last thing that I have noticed in conjunction with these changes is that fewer and fewer percentage of trail runners seem to consistently race. I recently wrote an article called “Happy Place” in which I talked at length about the current state of trail ultrarunning and why I feel that it’s most rapid phase of growth is pretty much over, and how this has allowed the sport to settle nicely into a ‘happy place’ that will allow it to move forward in a sustainable and vibrant way. What I failed to clarify in that article is that those trends really only apply to the competitive/racing culture of the sport. The sport of trail running as a whole has been (and still is) growing at an unprecedented rate, and I think this is being primarily fueled by the non-competitive trail runner. Folks that used to go out and ‘jog’ a couple miles on the road or the treadmill every now and then are doing this more and more often on their local trails. Over time many of these people are getting hooked on this habit, and are running several days a week, but not necessarily with any plans to race any time soon. Just a few years ago pretty much everyone I knew who ran more than 30 or 40 miles a week did so because they were interested in racing. Now, though, I encounter people all the time who just like to get out on the trails and run for a long time.

To me this is all quite exciting. Trail running has had an immense positive impact on my life, and it makes me really happy to see so many other people having these same experiences. Everyone has a slightly different relationship with running, and has different things that they take away from running, but I rarely meet a person who isn’t noticeably healthier (physically, mentally, and/or emotionally) because of their practice of running.

As we descended Sheep Mountain on our evening run last week, we made our way up and over Clark Summit, and then down into Granite Basin where we reconnected with the established trail at about 9 p.m. No sooner did we start down the trail back toward town (but still four or five miles from town) that we saw a runner approach and continue up the trail behind us. This was only one example, and easily could have been an anomaly, but more and more over these past few years I have come to realize that these kinds of anomalies are becoming the norm. People are getting out with regularity on runs in places and at times that were nearly unheard of just a few years ago. It might be easy to get annoyed by this, and feel like the trails are getting too crowded, but I for one get a nice little burst of enthusiasm and inspiration each time I observe this. I might be over romanticizing the situation a bit, but I honestly think the world around us becomes a slightly better place to interact with as more and more people are getting out on trails, exploring the land around them, pushing themselves a little bit out of their comfort zone, and reconnecting with the natural world in a way that so many of us have neglected since we were small children.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you noticed similar changes to what Geoff describes in the trail running community in which you live, or the communities you visit at regular intervals?
  • Are you also seeing more trail runners or more ‘hybridized’ athletes blending disciplines in order to play outside?
  • Are you one of the newer trail runners about which Geoff writes? If so, what brought you to the trails?