Humanity’s Superpower: Learning From Others

Explore the ways trail runners and ultrarunners can effectively learn from others.

By on January 11, 2023 | Leave a reply

The other day, I headed over to the local ski resort for the first time this season. Last season was my first as an Alpine skier, and I’m still very much a beginner. I’d joined a very beginner group lesson my first time out and had certainly gotten pointers along the way, but my skiing felt mostly like self-taught self-preservation in learning how to stay upright, slow down, and “turn.”

This season, I’ve signed up for a weekly, eight-session ski clinic. An hour or so into the first session, the instructor talked about the early initiation of turns and what that meant in terms of weighting the outside ski. A few turns into the next ski run, and I exclaimed, “Eureka!” Instantly, I was more in control and less afraid of turning on the steeper sections of blue, intermediate runs — the current top end of my skiing ability. All it took was a few words, a bit of gesturing, and the chance for me to test the new knowledge, and it instantly changed my skiing for the better.

That lesson reminded me of how game-changing learning from others can be. In fact, it’s one of humanity’s superpowers.

While trail running or ultrarunning appear simple on their surface — and they are — learning from another’s experiences can go a long way to making any running easier and enjoyable. Below are five easy ways we can learn from one another.

Bunny hill laps on my first day

Bunny hill laps on my first day. All photos: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Mentors

I owe my relatively easy transition into the ultrarunning world two decades ago to a handful of experienced runners that were part of the Virginia Happy Trail Running Club (VHTRC). Joining them on runs or at events was like opening up an encyclopedia and having it stream into my brain. Info they thought I should know? They shared it. My dumb questions? They gladly gave answers. I can only imagine how many years of painful lessons these folks and their willingness to share saved me.

Likewise, in 2004, a few VHTRC members got into the Western States 100 for the first time. A month or so before the race, a few club members with plenty of experience gathered us first-timers for a couple-hour session walking us through the entire course and answering all of our questions. The information gained was priceless. Not only was it my first run at the Western States 100, but it was also my first 100 miler, and their guidance made for a smooth first go at it.

So how to find your own running mentors? Strike up conversations at your next group run, out on the trail or roads, or at the next race you run. No, not everyone you chat with will become your mentor, but over time, you might be lucky enough to fall under the tutelage of someone with more experience than yourself.

Acquaintances (and Even Strangers)

You might be surprised at how willing people are to help one another. If you’ve got questions, find someone who might have the answers and ask! Yes, in some cases, such as medical advice or developing a full training plan, a professional relationship might be more appropriate, but if you’re interested in how technical the trail is at a certain race, what gear would be most appropriate for another event, or how to manage the logistics for traveling to or exploring a trail running area, just go ask someone who might know.

I’ve often been on both sides of this exchange, and almost without fail, it’s incredibly rewarding.

Books and the Written Word

True interpersonal interaction is hard to beat, but sometimes a subject is broad or deep enough that it’d be too much to ask for someone to thoroughly teach another about it in person unless they were a teacher, professor, or a coach. That’s where books come in. If you are looking for a deep dive into the basics of running, trail running, or ultrarunning, there are numerous books that shorten the learning curve and get you up to speed in a comprehensive way.

As someone who’s published this website for a decade and a half, surely much can be learned from shorter-form content as well, whether that’s an article on a website or in a magazine. Such information might not be as comprehensive as in a book, but it’s also very easy to find and digest. In addition, short content can sometimes offer deeper, more detailed information than a book and its constraints.

At the top of Purgatory's Lift 1 for the first time.

At the top of Purgatory’s Lift 1 for the first time. I made it down, but it wasn’t pretty!

YouTube

If one’s more of an audio-visual learner or when it better suits the subject matter, YouTube can be an excellent source of learning materials. If you can think of a “how to” question, chances are there’s at least one tutorial on YouTube explaining how to do it. I’d suggest that YouTube tutorials are more useful and digestible for how-tos that explain physical action, be it how to run downhill or, say, how to reset a stuck chain brake on a Husqvarna chainsaw, than for non-physical subjects like how to choose your first ultramarathon … but maybe that’s my own learning bias coming through.

Lessons, Clinics, and the Like

While an in-person lesson was the inspiration for this article, lessons, per se, are less common in the running world. I suppose a runner could have an in-person lesson on descending a trail or preparing for an ultra from an expert, but this is not common in the running space. That said, many runners also take part in other sports, such as Nordic skiing, Alpine skiing, and swimming, where one or a few in-person lessons can go a long way to improving one’s experience with that sport. And one’s running could easily benefit from that.

While relatively rare, every once in a while, a series of trail running clinics will pop up around the U.S. I’m sure some running stores and festivals have the same. A new or apprehensive trail runner could certainly benefit from joining one of these, both for the pointers as well as the camaraderie that can quickly reduce apprehension and increase confidence.

Call for Comments

  • Where’ve you learned the most about running?
  • What resources have been important to you?
Mountain views on my first day skiing blues in April 2022.

Mountain views on my first day skiing blues in April 2022.

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.