Nature, Community, and Freedom – Our Shared Values

AJWs Taproom“We need these wild places… Even if we do nothing more than drive to the edge and look in… For they are the Geography of Hope.” – Wallace Stegner

One of the things I love most about ultramarathon running are the people. The folks who have gravitated toward this sport are some of the most fun-loving, thoughtful, disciplined, spontaneous, and creative people I know. Furthermore, it is amongst these wonderful folks that I have found my closest friends. Having spent the better part of the last 15 years involved in ultrarunning, I have also come to realize that while those who have made the sport part of their lives are certainly an eclectic group, there are certain characteristics that unite us under that wonderful, quirky, hodgepodge of a flag we call ultrarunning.

First of all, no matter where we come from and how fast or slow we are, we all share an unabashed love of the natural world. While there is significant diversity in our sport, I can safely say I have never met an ultrarunner who does not share a love of nature, wilderness, and the great outdoors.

Perhaps as a result of this shared love of nature, I have also learned that most ultrarunners deeply value their running community – locally, regionally, nationally, globally. While there are certainly occasional differences of opinion and often challenges to our beliefs in the context of running, by and large, the shared values we savor within our “trail family” tend to place a higher value on harmony than on divisiveness.

Thirdly, there is something about running that is truly liberating. As a result, the value we place on the freedom and simplicity of long distance trail running tends to bring out the rugged individual in all of us. While we cherish the egalitarian nature of our sport we also love to get out into the mountains with no agendas, no expectations, and no rules. At one with wild places, with some of our closest friends, in the absence of any daily life structures, we are often made whole.

As a result of this complex dynamic, it has become clear to me that along with the exponential growth of our sport has come a challenge to our values. New, larger events are putting a strain on the wild places in which we run. Relationships have become strained as money, sponsorships, and marketing allure have created wedges in the sport that previously did not exist. And, increasing levels of competition, expanded exposure, and increased media coverage have made race rules more stringent and the challenges to our freedom more acute.

Certainly, whenever we want to, we can just lace ’em up and head out into the mountains to enjoy nature, with our friends, with absolute freedom. But, we must also be aware that as our sport becomes more “mainstream” we must continue to espouse the fundamental values that have brought us to the sport in the first place. From my perspective, environmental degradation, bitter political rivalries, and overly stringent, litigious rules run counter to the very ethos of ultramarathon running. I believe it is up to all of us, those who run in the front and off the back and everyone in between, to sustain and perpetuate that which we hold so dear. Nobody else will do it for us.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week
Rogue Irish Style LagerThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Rogue Ales in Newport, Oregon. Rogue’s Irish Style Lager is a nice crisp summer lager that has a creamy head and a smooth finish. The tagline on the bottle can be inspiring to even the most cynical beer drinker, “Dare, Risk, Dream.”

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What do you think of AJW’s suggested shared values of nature, community, and freedom?
  • What other shared values do you think we have in the ultrarunning community?
  • How do we preserve these shared values?

There are 9 comments

  1. Phil Jeremy

    Lets be honest big money sponsorship WILL have an impact on this sport and so as AJW says it presents unique challenges. I read yesterday that in the Olympic village of the No1 sporting event on the planet has the biggest Macdonalds in the World because they're the biggest sponsor. All those disciplined healthy athletes and there audience is eating crap….what a terrible irony.If things ever get that bad in ultra running I think I'll just get my pack and disappear into the wilderness.

    1. Matt P

      The McDonalds thing reminds of this year's Seattle Rock N Roll marathon Expo the day before the race. Scott Jurek is up giving a talk about Eat Run and directly across from the stage is a huge McDonalds booth, the platinum level sponsorship kind with a big canopy. Wonder if he even noticed.

  2. Miles

    AJW, as always, your passion for the sport is evident. And your observations about the community's unabashed love of the natural world is spot on. I am, however, really interested in which particular new and larger events you feel are straining the natural world we all love. Obviously, the number of new events around the country have mushroomed over the last 5-10 years, but I'm unaware (probably ignorant) of specific controversies about these events' environmental impact. Likewise, from my position toward the back of the pack, I admit to being kind of clueless about the wedges being created by the relatively meager amount of prize money and other financial benefits now available to super-fast gals and guys. And, what litigious rules are you referencing? Is this a nod to the Speedgoat controversy? Your history in the sport means your views carry a lot of weight for a lot of folks. Care to provide specifics on these issues?

  3. Ethan

    Andy – nice article. Don't you think it's important to find a balance? The influx of money and participants creates challenges, as you point out, but it also creates opportunity. For every rule-heavy race of the stars, there are still a dozen fat-ass runs at present which may not even be timed. Sure, some prominent races have fields of hundreds and may focus on marketing (corporate sponsorship, IVs pre-purchased; not to name any names), but others – like Hardrock – remain committed to small fields and a mountain wilderness experience. While I personally don't think the influx of money into the sport will ultimately prove a positive thing, I can see why top runners are excited by the idea of being able to support themselves by running. I think your concluding point is the key – the influx of new runners and sponsors gives established runners an opportunity: if we lead by example and show threw runners the importance of respect for ourselves, our competitors, and the places we run, we can enrich the ultrarunning community. And perhaps help to steer others toward a viewpoint that has a positive impact on their way of being in the world outside of running as well…

  4. Dean G

    My hope is that as more people find the sport, more people will fall in love with the great natural stadiums in which we play…

    I've yet to meet a person who has run a trail ultra and said… "Now that I've been out there, I really want to see some condos on that ridge…"

    What we can do – and what I've been really encouraged too see is already part of the culture- is educate everyone who comes to the sport as to how lucky we are to have these playgrounds and how important it is we work to maintain them.

    1. KenZ

      +1. Totally. When I used to rock climb in Yosemite every weekend (I know, rough life), some people would complain about the large tour buses carting in large numbers of people. My take was that every one of these people would leave with an awe of and love for the, um, 'wilderness' that they didn't have before. Then, when the next vote comes up to increase funding of state parks, or preserves, or whatever, that is going to influence them. Sure, the mobs of people do degrade Yosemite (buses actually do it more efficiently than cars though I'll note), but I see that as not such a bad thing. A similar argument could be made for zoos and their impact on children's appreciation for animals.

      OK, I'm off track a bit, but you (Dean) made a very good point that while getting people, all people, out on the trail has its negatives, it has positives as well.

      1. adam

        Couldn't agree more!

        Our National parks are a great example. Big campfire ring theory, bring them in to see the "high lights" and spare the vast wilderness for those who can and want to get out in it.

        The U.S. is very lucky in this regard, we've had a few great americans with the forethought to save (in it's native & natural state) large sections of wilderness. Some of which are very close to big citys: Muir woods, San Gorgonio Wilderness, J-tree, Olympic N.P. just to name a few.

        I learned long ago that not all "outdoor" people care equally or at all about the outdoor places that they play in.

  5. Matt P

    Trail running, Mountain Biking, Horseback Riding, Day Hikers, Backpackers.

    Anecdotally speaking it seems to me that trail running has the least amount of impact per mile on a trail/wilderness area.

    1. Jeff

      So true…I run on some trails where horses have created some serious ruts…not to mention the stinky $##$ they leave behind…wish they would pick that #$@# up! Runners are the least bit of worry out there on the trails…unless they are cutting switch backs that is…hahahaha.

      Side note – I like McDonald's especially after an ultra…just steer clear of the fries IMO. ;-) Based on some of the posts, its as if one can't like running/trails/outdoors and like McDonald's at the same time…

  6. Mic

    I definitely love the outdoors, thanks for the articles.

    As to McDonalds, one thing some athletes do not understand is that often it's about get in calories – we need calorie and lots. Replenish you're glycogen stores.

    Well often the question is: are you anemic? Then you lack iron, eat stuff, anything. Cheers.

  7. David T

    Thanks, AJW. Another thoughtful editorial.

    When it comes to the changes happening in our sport(s) (larger crowds, international events, etc.), I think we need to be as welcoming and understanding as possible. We don't want to come across like we are thinking: "Life sure was simpler when events were small and everyone looked, thought, and acted the same." The diversity of particpants and of events is a great thing. There will be bumps in the road and differences of opinion, norms, and cultures, but these are all good. I also agree that exposing greater numbers of people to the wonders of the wild will ultimetly benefit all of us.

  8. Ben Nephew

    Andy, do you think that runners who constantly run off trail in vulnerable wilderness areas and post this activity in blogs are acting irresponsibly with respect to the environment?

    I find the contrast between the trails and races in US alpine regions vs. European alpine regions interesting. From what I have seen, the lack of switchbacks in the Alps has not led to massive erosion and degraded wilderness areas. In the eastern US, most of the efforts I have seen at putting in switchbacks have actually led to more erosion. I've been in European races that had field sizes exponentially larger than what is allowed in the US. The trails didn't look any different the days after the race than the days before the race.

    In the US, whether or not there is a big money race, there have been very stringent rules for the use of wilderness areas for many years.

    If runners want organized competitions, there is going to have to be some sort of organization involved. Without an organization and a few rules what you have is situations like at Transvulcania and Speedgoat. Yes, ISF was involved, but not in the way that most sports federations are involved in their sport. If we want to continue to avoid organization and rules, we will continue to have races where drop bags and aid stations are run by Salomon and races with two winners. I think ISF is doing a good job, and these issues are just part of the developmental process.

    1. Chris

      Great question Ben. Being originally from the East Coast, I can tell you the Appalachians are pretty well suited for taking off trail use because they are largely rock. Now go to the Cascade Range, particularly in Northern CA, OR and WA and you have another story. Going off trail or cutting switchbacks does horrible things to the area.

  9. Brian Todd

    Great article, especially on the respect for the fragile and wonderful places we train and race. Many of these areas are protected from development by the efforts of nonprofits like The Nature Conservancy and other local and national land conservation groups. For example, here's a great article about how The Nature Conservancy hepled protect the Marin Headlands from development, making possible the great trail races we have there today like Miwok and the TNF50:

    These groups use private and public funds to do this important work, so give them your support and support the state, local, and national public funding measures that make additional funds available to protect these amazing places.

  10. Billy Simpson

    i can relate on every level with your post AJW………..i feel so fortunate to somehow have found my way to this sport 13 years ago. it's a community no doubt fueled by our love of beautiful landscapes. those beautiful and majestic places we travel thru keeps us real and our sport by it's very nature should keep us humbled. i hope the sport can be saved from what i call "the triathlonification" of the sport where time and performance is the driving factor and we lose the soul of why we came in the first place. We gotta be good stewards or we don't deserve to play.

  11. James @reddirtrunner

    I was reminded of the joy and satisfaction of simply running this past week. Being in the Tetons with the likes of Krissy Moehl and Luke Nelson helped out with that. No pressure, no timing, just running up, down and around those beautiful peaks with a great group of like minded folks.

  12. Dave

    Great read AJW! Nature, Community, and Freedom…stuff we can all agree on for sure (not in the politicized "freedom" as of the past decade, but just running around public lands when we like kind of thing).

    The only difference in ultrarunning I see as of late is participation numbers. Big money?? Well, there probably is more prize money and athletes and events are getting support in various ways from companies. There will be +'s and -'s to it, but I think the sport has generally benefitted overall in the simple fact there are more people out there loving what we all love to do; run trails and mountains.. more good grooves all around, and almost all the time ON the trails. And the wear and tear on the trails doesn't come from comes from overall users; walkers, hikers, bikers, horses, dogs, and runners (who are a small minority of this group). Trail runners will not break the bank.

    "..bitter political rivalries, and overly stringent, litigious rules.." Umm.. a tad bit of hyperbole here to draw comments? Re Rules: WS 100 has more rules than any, and nothing bad has come from that race since 1977.

  13. Anonimous

    Just eat food, if you get too picky you will suffer.

    I know an once ultrarunner that broke his leg while walking. He had a bone disease.

    I also know of snow sport athletes, skiers and snowboarders that at mid 20's with arthritis.

    If you have a Vegan, Vegetarian or a Raw-ist cook or chef then you are excluded.

    But most of use don't so eat stuff.

    Scott says we eat dead animals; to make us feel bad. I don't feel bad at all, Cull The Herd. He eats dead plants. :)

    I don't care, he is still a good runner.

  14. Jacques

    Good point Chris. In the Midwest, erosion can be a huge problem and switchbacks work. More seasoned trails that are mostly rock seem to handle runoff well, but most of our trails aren't like that.

    1. Ben Nephew

      I always thought we were known for our mud; is it common for people to get trench foot out west? Off trail running, at least in the Northeast, is also not that common. The trails typically take the best or easiest route, at the very least due to the fact that they are cleared. The only time I ever see runners off trail in the Northeast is if they are lost, defecating, or urinating.

      Much of the exposed rock in the east is alpine habitat at elevation. There are no switchbacks in these areas, the trails are direct. This keeps people off the fragile alpine areas becuase the trail is both direct, and the best for running/hiking. Isn't a trail that switchbacks in in alpine environment going to trample more alpine habitat in terms of surface area?

      The trails in the Alps seem more similar to the Northeastern trails. Switchbacks are most often seen on the few trails made for vehicle use, not hiking trails.

      In alpine areas out west, are the switchbacks there to prevent erosion, or to make the hiking easier?

      1. Chris

        The switchbacks out West are critical to maintaining the hillsided. There is so much rain here that the vegetation plays a BIG part in keeping the soil stable. Once you start trampling that vegetation, watch out. There are a ton of examples I could take photos of. I personally want everyone to stay on every trail every time. I simply see no good reason to cut switchbacks or go off trail to avoid mud.

  15. Aaron H

    I'm finding that the environmental facet of trail running leaves me with a dilemma. Do I buy and use the convenient shoes, clothes, and hydration equipment that's manufactured by an industrial system which trashes everything? Or do I try to minimize my activities' indirect impact by adopting the healthy alternatives and accepting their weaknesses.

    1. Chris

      For what it is worth, Brooks Running has one of the best records on environmental policies. Definitely not perfect but I like them because they only do running. They are tiny compared to the bigger names…

      1. Aaron H

        Ironically I work in the foam industry. That may be why I'm so sensitive to the environmental impact of everything else I do. The problem is that manufacturers have few choices regarding where their raw materials come from, especially when the further down you go, the more important that slight reduction in margin becomes. So everything synthetic, no matter how green or fair trade the final assembly, is built on a foundation of ruin.

        1. Chris

          So true. I saw a documentary some time ago where the person went to China where all the shoes are made. UGH! That areas is an absolute pit of destruction. All the big shoe makers make their shoes in that small town. None are innocent but Brooks came off as the company that tried the hardest.

          I once interviewed to work at a tobacco company so can understand your sensitivity.

  16. Chris

    Thanks for the timely and incredible article AJW! My faith in our sport is growing a bit after being shaken by so many comments from a 'previous post'. I believe we all have a duty to both treating our natural environment with the utmost respect as well as educate others on the impacts we humans have.

    I will continue to try to instill a respect for nature and one another!

  17. Dom

    Amen Uncle Billy! Spot on with the responsibility factor. One thing that keeps us from Triathlonification is the way that people run with passion and joy. One thing I love about ultrarunners is that facial expressions in race pictures are consistent from front to back: Pain when it hurts, smiles when it's fun, and satisfaction everywhere in between. Not every sport puts that type of goofy happiness in people. We're just a bunch of kids playing outside; we are far from cool.

  18. Ben Nephew

    Sometimes things work themselves out on the trail. I was in a race in Europe on a trail with a few switchbacks, and the surrounding ground was pretty muddy and wet. The trail was lined with slate in many spots, and had some stair sections. Some of the runners were cutting the switchbacks, but I didn't think it was a good idea due to the mud and the slate. I then watched one guy pass me through the mud, and slip on the top of some stairs. He landed right on his ass a couple stairs down, and I think I could see his spine compress. Looked quite painful.

  19. Niklas

    Now here's the secret: to avoid communities from being destructive and hostile toward others you need two things.

    a) Make a community of individuals, not sheep (check)

    b) Include individuals that knows their limits through first hand experience of pain and failure (check)

    Running far, trail or road, makes your mind gentle and your body tough. How beautiful compared to being an aggressive minded whiner.

    Build a community of such people and you'll soon have a flag and a fight.

    Cheers, Peace, Let's Go

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