Running The Risk

An article about the risks involved in trail running and how to manage them.

By on May 16, 2018 | 17 comments

Trail running, especially in new terrain—but even on your home terrain—will always be edgy, because it seeks out ways and lands and weathers that contain lots of edges. But both growth and joy ask that we go to these margins. They are where we take on and in the new, expansive versions of who we may be; they are where we see the world afresh.

Perhaps the greatest risk lies in a stretch of time when a risky activity and each of us feel expansive, both personally and societally. That phase, which draws in swelling numbers of inexperienced people, overwhelms any system of elders passing on essential knowledge to the new. In its congestion, it also may foster more competition, as the novices seek to ‘make their bones’ and rise above the general rabble of us.

The hiker who would become a mountaineer, or the downhill skier who would seek out increasing angles come to mind. And I recall planning to double a couple of early trail runs on my home mountain with setting out to follow its two ridges on a whole valley circle. Partway through I ran out of water; a little later, I ran out of fuel. I hobbled home in slow, humble fashion, getting in just before darkness compounded my mistakes.

Over the past few years, while researching Critical Hours, my recent book about search and rescue in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, and while continuing my semiannual column analyzing mountain accidents for Appalachia (The Appalachian Mountain Club’s journal), I’ve had a chance to think more about the risks we take when we run along the trails we love. It is, both in topography and psychology, a vertiginous world.

Still, runners make up a very thin fraction of those who encounter trouble in our mountains. Every so often, I get a report of a trail runner’s rescue, but I don’t see many. Even as ultrarunners and adventurers press on and at their limits, there’s surprisingly little call for rescue from our foot-happy community. What accounts for that? And how do those of us who view going long as living large envision risk as we step-step away? These seem important questions for each of us as we look up and out into our worlds.

In my book, I devoted a chapter to such questions, though I used for example the study of the way two minimalist, long-distance hikers on the Appalachian Trail got in gradual trouble on a textbook day for hypothermia. But within that chapter I also cited Yitka Winn’s fine insights from a 2016 Trail Runner piece on the death of Arturo Martinez in during an ultramarathon in Patagonia. Within Winn’s thoughts are good points about both the gifts and potential problems that endurance runners bring to their trails. Here is the gist of Winn’s comments:

Serious accidents and fatalities are not uncommon in the worlds of climbing, mountaineering, and backcountry skiing. Such communities are accustomed to grappling with questions of risk, of where responsibility belongs when things go wrong. Entire books are devoted to detailing preventable disasters in the mountains, and the lessons others can glean from them.

For many of us trail runners, though, these conversations are uncharted waters—especially those who arrive to the sport with a background not in wilderness travel, but in endurance. In some ways the very tenets of trail running’s culture fly in the face of the traditional code of caution. Every mountaineer’s been taught to be wary of ‘summit fever.’ Conversely, many ultrarunners’ code is ‘to endure at all costs; DNF is a dirty word.’

We travel light, we push through pain, we chuckle at our body’s physical rebellions, joke about stumbling or hallucinating or vomiting. For our stubbornness and triumphs, we’re awarded medals and belt buckles. We get labeled inspirations, immortals, machines, kings and queens of the mountains, conquerors of the wild.

And sometimes we are.

But it becomes easy for any of us—runners or race organizers, outdoor veterans or novices, midpackers or elite runners—to forget how thin the line between life and death on the trail can be.

Twinned with Winn’s writing as spur for thought is Luke Nelson’s quiet, insightful iRunFar article about mountain running and risk from 2016. Framed by a stormy-day run, where Nelson judges that he has just enough wherewithal to come back intact, and also triggered by Martinez’s death a few months earlier, Nelson’s piece looks closely at accidents and the contributing factors of ignorance and complacency. What he wants to know and have us think about is where responsibility lies in this life of going out into the wild, whether it’s along a race course or on a self-conjured solo run. Both Winn’s and Nelson’s pieces reward rereading, as do many of the comments they occasioned.

I’ve a few thoughts to add, and to which I hope you will add yours as comments to this article. Both Winn and Nelson point to the role of experience in shaping a healthy perspective on trail running’s risks. Bruising encounters with the land get pointed to as primary teachers, ways in which we grow wiser as miles accrue. My own experience suggests that whatever wisdom I’ve developed stems from my experience and what both my conscious (rational) mind and its larger, unconscious twin make of it. Whenever I have a decision at foot—do I turn back, keep on, break out my map?—I am of two minds.

Those two minds offer decision variously. I make my rational calls by weighing observations and evidence and measuring them against my tolerance for risk, which has also been arrived at via rational thought. Then, there is intuition, that tingling ‘spider sense,’ where I just know what I’ll do, often instantly—I’ll risk this cloud; I won’t risk that one. Or, that rock won’t roll, but this one will. Over time I’ve come to trust my intuition in certain places (such as on my home mountain), while in others (like on a western glacier), I hear its voice sometimes as noise only, and I try to stay in my rational mind. On a best day, both minds are fired up and in agreement; then I am as fully aware as I can be. Not, of course, immune to risk and accident, but as inoculated as possible against them.

Knowing a bit about one’s intuition seems useful and necessary, in part because it is so quick to makes its call, and in part because, over time many of us come to trust it. The speedy, inner workings of intuition came clearer to me when I read Danny Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman brilliantly proposes a fast intuitive thinking (System 1) that arrives at an answer without the plod of rational thought (System 2). While describing intuition’s sometimes eerie insights, Kahneman offers a story about a fire chief, who, while leading his crew in battling a blaze, gets an intuition of trouble. The chief clears his crew from a building just before the building suddenly collapses, avoiding disaster.

How did the chief ‘know’ to leave the building? Rational analysis of the facts at that moment pointed away from his decision, but later analysis showed that the chief had somehow guessed that the fire was configured differently from what everyone thought. That feeling of difference, that intuition, had spooked him, and he got everyone out without being able to say exactly why he was doing so. Kahneman wanted to know where that feeling came from? His tracery got to a familiar answer, one both Winn and Nelson cite, too: the chief’s intuition came from his experience, not from some special, extrasensory gift. He had been in so many burning buildings before that he sensed something wrong before he could know or explain what it was.

After a number of after-the-fact analyses, I now also think my intuition is rooted in experience. And, if I accept that, then I must turn to my mountain experience as a way of knowing when to trust my intuition, when to follow a decision that can’t possibly be fully thought out in a rational sense. Such decision-making can be little (the thousands of step-landings in a run) or large (the reading of weather).

Experience is another word for time spent practicing, and time spent practicing in the presence of a master is another way of describing an apprenticeship. That’s an old-fashioned word that I think offers positive possibilities. To do so, I’ll contrast it with a more modern word, ‘training.’ We are always training or being trained, it seems. But training’s aim is often narrow and its duration short. It’s the sort of learning that prepares one for an assembly line life—get real good at this one skill, then repeat, repeat, repeat.

An apprenticeship, on the other hand, lasts over time. Even when the apprentice strikes out on her or his own, the shaping work of the old master endures, is evident. Learning to be your own master takes a long time, a lifetime.

If we are lucky in trail running, each of us becomes apprentice to a person, often an elder, and a landscape, our home terrain. At his or her feet, on our own feet, we learn; the lessons add up slowly. Often those lessons contain hard contact. We later treasure these bruises and scars—we won’t do it that way again, but we’re glad we did it once.

It is this slow, uphill climb of time that becomes finally our intuitive ‘sixth sense’ on the trail. But skipping those apprentice-steps, wanting to get ‘out there’ in a hurry, sometimes leads runners to trust instead the judgements of others or to run beyond their own understanding. Winn points out that trail runners can arrive at the sport with a full endurance resume even as the trails are all new. Trail runners can literally go a long way with such a resume—into terrain they know little of and into trouble they don’t have the skills to manage.

The development of solid analytical skills and experienced-based intuition must now contend also with the virtual world and its seductive promise—simply click once or twice and it’s here. As I write about mountain accidents and incidents, I’ve noticed a small but growing number that feature people showing up to hike or climb or recreate in a place ‘discovered’ online.

Recently, I wrote about a family that learned on the internet about a swimming hole in a patch of New Hampshire wilderness. They set out for a July swim. The two adult sons ran ahead, and when they reached the pool, one simply jumped in. The water was high and roiled from recent rains, and for reasons unclear (it happened under the water) that son foundered; his brother leapt in but was unable to bring him out of the water because of the steep-sided rocks, and the man drowned. Leaping from a computer screen into a real-life scene can be both tempting and trouble. There is so much to know before you go.

I’ve just looked back at my title for this piece, Running the Risk. It occurs to me that The Risk would be a good name for a trail, the lifelong one. Here’s to it, then—I’ll see you out on one corner or another of The Risk.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Can you recall mistakes you made in your earliest days of trail running, problems that arose because of something you didn’t know you didn’t know?
  • What do you think of the apprenticeship idea that Sandy discusses? Does our community of trail and ultrarunners have a natural apprenticeship system that helps pass on the knowledge of our longer-term members to our newer ones? Do you think we could benefit from the intentional development of a system like this?
  • Have you encountered a health- or life-threatening problem while trail running? Can you share what happened and what you learned from it that you now apply to your running?
Sandy Stott
Sandy Stott lives and runs in Brunswick, Maine, where he chairs the town’s Conservation Commission. He writes for a variety of publications and has a book, 'Critical Hours—Search and Rescue in the White Mountains', which published in April of 2018, is now in its second printing, and was selected by Outside Online as one of its best books for Spring of 2018. He may be reached at [email protected].