Essential Paradox

One of the great things about running is the simplicity of it. You’ve heard it all before,

“All you need are a pair of shoes, a water bottle, and a trail and you’re good to go.”

Truly, it’s that simple concept that brings so many to the sport in the first place. Furthermore, as we increasingly see in the marketing of the sport, it’s the simplicity of what we do that drives the economic engine of this game, as well.

But, is it really such a simple sport, after all?

Certainly, at its essence, it is. We are driven, in fact, by the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other and often the lure of the trail, the mountains, the forest, and the desert brings us to a fullness that can be at once exhilarating and humbling, disciplined and loose, enduring and fleeting, focused and ephemeral. But, I must admit, as much as I like to think I am drawn to the simplicity of the whole endeavor, I actually think it’s also quite complex.

First, let’s look at shoes. As much as the minimalist movement, in general, and some of its practitioners, in particular, suggest simplicity, is there a sport that you know of where there are so many options for footwear? It’s actually mind numbing when you think of it. And yet, thousands of people think and opine about it all the time and, in the process, we painstakingly study soles, midsoles, insoles, uppers, medial posts, lasts, laces, colors, wear patterns, materials, weights, etc… all in the attempt to find the perfect shoe to support us in this wonderfully simple sport.

Then, we need the clothes. Since we’re out in all types of weather, at all hours of the day and night, in many different parts of the world, up high and down low, we need jackets, base layers, tights, wicking fabrics, shells, compression-y things, hats, gloves, waterproof socks, and an entire selection of multi-colored stretch-y things to put on our arms and legs to give us climatic flexibility.

We need headlamps, packs, hydration systems, and fanny packs as well as gels, blocks, powders, and pills. To recover and become more balanced we go to doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists and herbalists. We obsess over food and in the process we eat vegan, paleo, omnivore, and fruititarian. All along, we adhere to what brought us to the sport in the first place, its simplicity. Am I missing something here?

All this being said, I do believe we can, ultimately, “keep it simple,” but it takes work, discipline, and focus. And then, even then, competing in an actual event, particularly a 100-mile race, requires an engineer’s attention to detail and a NASCAR Pit Crew’s approach to efficiency. The simplest, most minimal approach in the world is no substitute for clear and meticulous planning and execution come race day. But, once all that is done, once the stuff is all put away and the game is on, well, then, it is about as simple as it gets. And that, friends, brings it all back together, to the essential paradox!

Bottoms up!

Ps. You can now request a free AJW’s Taproom bumper sticker (4″ x 4″).

AJW Taproom’s Beer of the Week
This week’s Beer of the Week is another offering from Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Bell’s Hopslam Double IPA is a Winter Seasonal that is sure to take the edge off. At 10% ABV and loaded with hops it is one of the finer DIPA’s I’ve tasted. And yet, it has a drinkability that might make even a porter drinker happy. It’s available through the east and midwest and, for some reason, in Arizona. Perhaps that’s because it packs a bite like a cactus!

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • In what aspects of your trail running do you strive for simplicity?
  • In what aspects of your trail running are you willing to embrace complexity and other non-simplistic traits?
  • Numerous trail runners preach the gospel of simplicity. If you’re one who craves simplicity/minimalism (concept, not shoes) in your running, what are the battles you fight with yourself to retain that simplicity in your own running?
Andy Jones-Wilkins: finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.

View Comments (40)

  • As far as "fitness bang-for-your-buck" running is hard to beat.

    Running shoe technology is something I certainly embrace. Like many in the iRunFar community, I have several shoes in my quiver. Need something for mud, something else for hardrock, something for my long runs and recovery runs (yes, Hoka I'm looking at you), road, speedwork...you get the idea. Is all this necessary? Probably not - but if lacing up a new pair of trail shoes motivates me to run 30K on a cold winter day then I say its worth every penny.

    Good technical wicking, windproof and/or waterproof outerwear is something else that I'll research extensively before purchasing. And more recently, I've gravitated to compression wear for my calfs and quads.

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  • "going beyond what is usual or ordinary; excessive; extreme." I think the word "ultra" needs some recognition in this conversation.

    Running around your block for fitness is simple. Jogging is simple.

    Running on trails 5 hours or more is ultra NOT simple. One must separate the two to catch a fair glimpse at what extraordinary feats ultramarathoners are completing on a weekly basis. The products seem fairly simple when one ponders the complexity and requirements it takes to run the absurd amounts of miles/hours we do.

    We could however, most certainly, all run in Montrail Masochists, eat Vanilla Gu and bananas, drink some "electrolyte" mix, and wear adidas "workout" clothes. All be nice and simple. But niche markets are great ways for companies to expand and a platform for smaller, specialized companies to exist. In our economy they will always come up with something else to buy. Especially when athletes get into the product design mix. You just have to "choose" whether or not you need it.

    Funny how your beer selection makes me thirsty even at 6:37 am.

    Cheers!

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  • Good piece, AJW.

    I think simplicity in this day and age should also be considered in the relative sense. That is to say that yes, the sport of ultrarunning has grown inreasingly complex with all the new product offerings and options -- but then consider the gear market for skiing, cycling... or triathlon (::shudders::).

    It seems that any sport, upon reaching a certain threshold of popularity and "mainstream-ness," begings to invite complexity whether it's through individual athletes seeking a performance edge, or opportunistic businessmen capitalizing on a new market.

    I'm guilty -- I get excited about certain new shoes and gear, but I think it's important to maintain a balance between remaining open to new technologies/ideas that might improve my performance and ability to enjoy the sport, while remaining skeptical about all the crap that inevitably surfaces as well.

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    • I agree. If I ever want to diminish the feeling that I'm a gear whore, I just need to visit my biking friend's garages. I won't even start on triathlon ;)

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    • I agree as well. In a relative sense to other sports, it's ridiculously simple. Yes, sometimes we obsess about shoes, the materials, foam layers, lateral stiffness, drop, whatever, but that's because those of us that do are simply gear heads in a sport that effectively has no gear.

      Rock climbing: rock climbing has major shoe issues, where the way the rubber holds (or doesn't), how thick it is, or how the last is formed is the difference between sending a perfect pitch or taking a terrifying 40' whipper. But do rock climbers talk about shoes the way we do? No. Why? Because they have crap tons of more interesting gear to talk about, like cam devices (angles, materials, weights, width range, double vs. single axle, single vs. double looped cam webbing, flexible stem vs. rigid, tri vs quad cam lobes, asymmetric lobes for pin scars, blah blah blah). And that's just the cam discussions, before we get to nuts, big bros, slings, carabiners and all their permutations, ropes, harnesses, blah blah blah.

      Basically what I'm saying is we think running shoes are somehow complicated because it's all we have to talk about, and gear heads have to obsess about something.

      Minimalist or maximalist, running is the most simple sport out there, or maybe tied with warm water swimming and tiddlywinks.

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      • PS- ya'll that think cycling is gear intensive should stay far away from rock climbing, white water kayaking, and for the love of Pete, don't even think about white water rafting or hot air ballooning. Personally I think cycling is pretty minimalist!

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        • Let's not forget about nordic skiing, a very similar sport (from a cardiovasular and trail perspective), which includes skis, boots, bindings, poles, two techniques (classic and skating) which requires two sets of everything, well over 300 individual wax offerings (each for a specific snow condition with some fluoro powder waxes costing in excess of $150 for about 50 gms), a garage full of waxing equipment (bench, form, waxing iron, scrapers, a minimum of 4 different brushes, groove scrapers, etc., etc.), an encyclopedic knowledge of wax application and condition-defined utilization, a plethora of stone grinds for the ski base, surface structure tools for hand structure, hydration systems, and clothing, headwear, and eyewear for conditions ranging from 40F and raining to -15F and blizzarding (races are generally not held at less than about -15F). Not to mention that if you are a competitive racer you will likely have 4 or more skis for each technique with various flexes and stone grinds (some world cup competitors have in excess of 100 pairs of skis and a full time ski/wax tech to manage the fleet).

          A basic race-level set-up for 1 set of classic and and 1 set of skating equipment will cost well over $3,000 just for the skis, boots, and bindings not mention that a single wax application for a race can use over $50 of wax (some races are now providing expert wax application for a fee of $85, including wax).

          So... this compared with a few pairs of shoes (and maybe a few different types for various running conditions) and clothing and hydration systems for a slightly wider range of conditions pales in comparison.

          and... no daily trail grooming and associated ski passes required.

          Ultra trail running is simplistic relative to many other sports and as far as I am concerned, pacers and "crew" should be disallowed in races anyway. This would go a long way to taking the sport back to it's roots and be more of a true test of athletic ability. Each year I look forward to putting the nordic skiing stuff away and getting back to the simple act of running long distances.

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          • Well said!

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  • Occam's Razor or "Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler." In this sense even ultra trail running is simpler than Ironman triathlon since the *minimum* required in trail running is less and this applies to all levels, elites or otherwise.

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  • It is ultimately up to the individual to determine how simple or complicated running, or life in general for that matter, should be. We are experiencing a huge development in products for outdoor activity thus there is always something new to experiment with where we can determine ourselves it’s real value in assisting us in our running ambitions. Personally I am extremely thankful that we are finally seeing running shoes on the selves that actually resemble the shape of a human foot and not that of an Italian dress shoe or some other contorted stylist concoction. We are seeing materials and designs in clothing that wick, shelter, insulate, breathe and function otherwise in making our goals more achievable. Nutritional aids and supplements are a God send. It is a great era we live in and I am pleased at what we are experiencing and the direction it is heading. Keeping it simple is merely picking and choosing wisely and that requires experience and exercising a bit of self-control. I’ve been doing this for over 50 years and self-control is sometimes the toughest part.

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  • Oddly enough, I ran Rocky Raccoon this weekend and the "drop bag" area looked like a multi-day festival picnic area. Also, people carried more gear with them and on them than I have ever seen a triathlete carry while racing.

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  • I think there's a difference in simplicity to running. When we start our planning to run our first 5K, it's simple. But when 5K's got boring and we decided that spending hours on our feet in the woods was more our style, well that takes planning, gear, and skills.

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  • Compared to the climbing world that I gravitated into ultras from, the gear associated with trail ultras is extremely simple.

    The seeming complexity of the shoe issue is, I think, just due to man's need to over complicate things.

    The one area of ultras I might call complex, is the nutrition/electrolyte aspect of long ultras - 100 milers and beyond. Still learning here.

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  • I fully agree with you 100-mile statement about an engineers attention to detail and NASCAR pit-crew efficiency. Still, simple is relative, keep it as simple as you can for the event you're doing.

    I love Hopslam, if you ever get a chance, visit the Bells Brewery, it's a fun place.

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  • Simplicity is indeed a key aspect of luring me into ultra-running and trails. Just the stillness of being in the woods is more simple than a loud run on city streets. There is nothing better than summer days when a pair of barely-there shorts and light shoes are all that separate you from being completely organic. So, often times I am "preaching the gospel" about how ultra-running is so good in that regard...

    But, I find myself complicated things all the time. For me, it is not so much about the gear, hydration, or food while running, as I skimp in those areas - I find my self worrying about training too much... how many miles, do I taper, how can I sustain it, which race do I want to focus on, or which races to train through. I make schedules months and months in advance and try to stick to it, then I get upset if I can't adhere to it. It is probably too complex and goes against my entire running philosophy.

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  • I was lured by the simplicity of running for sure (from triathlon and road cycling), and try and keep all of my gear in one RKB, not including shoes. It helps that I live in an area with a very consistent climate.

    As far as "ultra", I think there is a difference between "ultra running" and "running ultra races". Going out and running long can be very simple. For many, racing long often means pushing some boundary or limit, and getting to that place tends to require more support, and so things get more complicated.

    In the end though, we spend more time training and potentially in that simple zone. Provided we keep our training simple enough, as Michael outlines above :)

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  • Once you have found the right shoes, drinks, food, clothes, toothpaste, condoms, dental floss, etc. - it's one foot in front of the other.

    So simple in a complicated way.

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  • Question.....When I see the Elites running all they seem to have is a handheld. Where's all their stuff? I mean, what do they do on a long training run with no support? I've usually got half a suitcase!

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  • Agree that once you've figured and planned food, gear, etc., the act of running - 100 meters or 100 miles - is pure and simple. As Michel Owen said above, training and straining over workouts and targets and tapers (and GPS data) is probably the biggest complexity that interferes with the pure joy of running. I guess that's why I have still yet to buy a GPS/altimeter. I've settled for uncertainty about the details in favor of not worrying about downloading and tracking my workouts and fretting over the numbers. A long training run on beautiful trails with lots of ups and downs will have to be good enough. Luddites keep it simple!

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  • I think that a big part of the "complexity" of running comes from a simple fact: I can't run for 24 hours a day, every day, even if I really want to. So...I gotta do something else. Like, read articles about the chemical make-up of shoe sole material and ponder the pro's/con's of specific sodium, potassium, fructose, glucose, protein drinks.

    Currently, I prefer to read every single product-obsessed article online as a forlorn wail: "I wish I were running right now."

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  • I agree with above comments about ultra running being simple in comparison to other sports. Even when going out on a short (2 hour) mountain bike ride I have to bring much more gear than if I were to go out on a run of the same trail. It is nice that all the gear you need can fit in a single bag. No roof rack, bike maintainance, helmets, spare parts, etc. Most cyclist also own multiple pairs of shoes, along with bikes to go with them, so it is much more simple than running in that way. I do own several different types of running shoes, but I can still grab a pair of shoes and throw on some running clothes and jump in my car to get to our local trails.

    Preparing for a cycling race also requires complex coordination of your fuel, parts, clothing, and the worst part, you can break your bike relatively easy and then you're done, no more race unless you're also an ultra runner and want to carry your bike around the course. If my GPS watch fails on my run, it isn't going to keep me from finishing. If my front wheel tacos on my mountain bike, then its game over.

    Of course, you can add complexity and make a "simple" activity a bit more complex, but I still feel it fails in comparison to the complexity in almost any other sport. It is also such a simple activity to learn, for the most part of course.

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    • I meant that running is much more simple than cycling in the 1st paragraph...

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  • During my time between runs, off the trails, running is far from simple for me. I read articles here on iRunFar and elsewhere, I study the latest shoes and gear, I pore over my training logs and garmin data, I think about the runs I've done and plan for the runs ahead.

    When I'm out there on the trails, particularly during my long runs, I try my hardest to remove myself from all of that and embrace and enjoy the simplicity of the sport. Yes I wear my garmin, and yes I can't avoid looking at the mileage and the pace, but darn it I try. I feel my body moving and working. I listen to the sound of my footfalls, the sound of my breath, and the sounds of critters and wind. When I'm out there with my feet on the dirt, all the complexities of running vanish. My pre-run preparation -- getting the right clothes, the right hydration, the right nutrition, and a good route -- allows me to forget all those things as I eat and drink by habbit and focus on nothing but the running. Moving forward. Up and down. Simple. Wonderful. Free.

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  • Livining in a busy city makes me really appreciate running as simply as possible. Phones, cars, wallets, projects, e-mail, and other artificial things aren't necessary on the trail. In life you have to carry a lot of things that you don't always need, but have to carry. Yet, on a trail, you can be as simple as possible and carry the bare minimum and be perfectly fine. If you eat and drink a bit before a 3 hour run, do you really need to cary food and water? If you're running in cold weather, do you need 3-4 layers, or maybe just a 4 oz shell, a beanie, and gloves that keeps you warm as long as you keep running? If you know the distance, do you need a GPS watch?

    Always take what you need, and you'll never go wrong.

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  • In my brief time in the Ultra Sphere, I've found myself doing what many of us are sometimes guilty of -- substituting "outer stuff" for "inner stuff":

    - Water, salt and food instead of smart pacing

    - The "special light shoe" or tread for fitness

    - Shoe changes, ice massages, caffeine shots in place of enduring misery

    I realize that these things - in balance with "inner excellence" - equals prime performance, but I am as guilty as anyone of overdoing the external. The goal of training should be the acceptance of "less" and the purity - and toughness - that comes from it.

    In my last long run before Bandera, I did a hilly 30 miles in the foothills of the Cascades. With an hour to go, I was feeling a little so-so. I had plenty of water, calories, and salt left, but I made a decision:

    Take nothing. Run sustainably. "Embrace the Bonk"!

    And bonk I did, and it was glorious! Deep fatigue and dizziness - as I relaxed and ran sustainably - ceded to a peaceful acceptance of "the pain". And with that came a greater level of mechanical efficiency and ultimate survival. I finished the run spent, but not destroyed.

    The pleasure of *deprivation* is (perhaps unknowingly) what many of us love about running. Practice it more in training with a "less is more" mentality, and you might find you enjoy yourself more -- and you perform better!

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    • Bell's Hop Slam: GREAT BEER. Actual complex hop flavor rather than simply a "hop punch in the face". I think I still like "Two-Hearted" better, though.

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      • And I regard that, OOJ, as the best comment so far on this page.

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  • Great post, AJW. The running is simple. Everything that goes into it - especially for ultra - is anything but. BTW. I've actually been to Bell's - a long while back now. Bought a case (of what I can't remember) and a bright pink T-shirt. Cheers.

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