Running The Risk

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

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

There are 17 comments

  1. John Vanderpot

    While it’s not so uncommon to see ultrarunners attempt something over the line (say, a 100M after only finishing a 50K or 2), it’s mind-blowing how often I come across “civilians” attempting something so far beyond their range that I have to wonder whether it’s a death wish or something? Lost, no sense of where they are or how far they’re going, no water, young children, totally done halfway up a legit climb, etc., etc., etc. — like what were they thinking? It’s like they have the survival instinct of people who play in freeway traffic!


    1. Sandy Stott

      Thanks, John. My research in search and rescue says that your “civilian” group is a large one, especially where the backcountry is in close proximity to population centers. A friend of mine — an EMT and backcountry rescuer for decades — told me recently that while on a Western vacation, he and his wife simply turned around during a descent into a canyon because he couldn’t take watching the risks his fellow descenders were taking without much (or any) thought. While my focus in this piece is on a different subset of us, paying attention to the wandering novices is important too, in part because enough calamity among them can spawn regulations that many of us hope not to see in the backcountry.


  2. Aaron

    I’d like to see this change:

    many ultrarunners’ code is ‘to endure at all costs; DNF is a dirty word.’

    I recently saw a post of a DNF and I was totally psyched to see it. The poster was proud of their accomplishment and I don’t think most people would be (no doubt largely due to the overall community attitude that there’s something bad about a DNF). Then I saw a reply to the post by an elder of the community which I’m sure was intended to be helpful but sounded more like an admonition than anything else.

    I’m a noob to the ultrarunning world but I think the community needs to re-examine its attitude toward DNFs and endurance-at-all-costs machismo. In my opinion, DNFs should be lauded – someone who DNF’ed reached their limit, everyone else merely reached the finish line.

    DNF’ers are smart and playing it safe and as someone who will cope with minor but permanent injury (frostbite) from trail running, my hat’s off to those smart enough to recognize and respect limits.

    Next time someone tells you about a DNF, say “Hell yeah!” and then get excited about hearing their story and what they learned from walking up to that edge – and having the courage to step back.

    1. Sandy Stott

      Aaron, thanks for your thoughts. I like their direction, as I too see DNFs as often laudable explorations of current limits. When I taught, I was wary of students and colleagues who needed to be right each time, because error was often the best teacher, and it was also a sign that the person was unafraid to try, and so, learn. Maybe we can change DNF to FIT (finished in time) or SIT (stopped in time). Getting rid of the negative “Not” in the middle would be a step forward.


  3. John pelletier

    My community does not frown on Dnf’s we use them as stepping stones. What can I do better next time Or I need to up my nutrition. If you you learn one thing from it it’s not a failure. Trail running is all about the experiences you have. Go places others won’t climb the mountain that make some people scared. Push your limits but don’t be to crazy and know when something just don’t feel right, pull the plug. Above all have fun and soak up that shit.

    John P

    1. Sandy Stott

      Yes, John, thanks for your comment. You’ve added an acronym for me with your last sentence — SUPS…every time out.


  4. Paul

    JV – Scholars have identified four stages competence ( At the first stage, people don’t know what they are doing, but also don’t know that they don’t know what they are doing. There is a also a related effect that someone new at something generally overestimates his or her ability. I can easily see someone hiking around a pond a couple of miles at a home town park at sea level on a cool day thinking that gives them the ability to hike a few miles in heat and at elevation with lots of climbing. They just cannot comprehend the order of magnitude greater difficulty.

    Aaron – I think most of us race for ourselves and couldn’t care less what the community thinks. For me, these races are hard enough, and continuing often grueling enough, that if I considered a DNF a satisfactory result, I’d probably not finish any races. I have one DNF on my record (plus another drop-down) and I’d like to avoid doing that ever again.

    1. Sandy Stott

      Thanks, Paul, for the useful reference to stage of competence. An added thought: there is social pressure to get through the novice stage, to not admit that we’re unsure or need help, and that, oddly, seems to increase when we get to recreation, where the stakes are (supposedly) lower than when we work. The best athletes I know tend to embrace rather than turn away from the fact that we are all strugglers working against gravity.

      As noted above I’m all for finding a new acronym for DNF.


  5. John Drew

    Thanks for this essay, and the links to others. Winn’s in particular is a good re-read. A thought, perhaps obvious, strikes me about additive challenge. This is likely a signal of my cautiousness, but when I want to run farther or faster than before, I carefully pick weather that will make reaching that goal more likely. And if my goal is to break through some other boundary — coldest or windiest conditions, etc, I intentionally dial back the distance or speed necessary to achieve that goal. If our definition of “epic” or “extreme” experience means combining these superlatives, that we want to do the longest, fastest, coldest, windiest, steepest run, we need to expect that we may get more than we bargained for.

    1. Sandy Stott

      Thanks, John. There is in your note the sense of someone with a lot of foot-experience. The whole idea of “additive challenge,” figuring out increments that make sense is what a good apprenticeship builds to and through. We get better, go longer, in stages. And, of course, even with that clear-headed approach, we still get surprised by sudden epics when weather of fitness changes unpredictably.


  6. Andy M

    Perhaps one of the reasons MUT runners are not as attuned to risk as, say, mountaineers, is that the actual risk of acute danger (e.g., serious falls, equipment malfunction, inclement weather at high altitude, unstable glaciers, etc) is not as great (injuries like Dave Mackey’s and others’ notwithstanding). It’s also true that, for many runners, the biggest and most challenging “adventures” they undertake actually take place at races where there are others on the trail and aid stations (i.e., “civilization”) every 5-8 miles. Long, solo outings and FKT attempts in remote locations are much more risky, but I think most runners attempting those are keenly aware of the risk and thus are much better prepared.

    To reply to Meghan’s question about early mistakes and what I learned, I always think back to what was supposed to be a short (1-hr) solo jaunt up an unfamiliar little mountain during my first ultrarunning season (though I had been in the outdoors for decades and was already in my 40s and should have known better). Spring conditions turned from a dusting to deep snow as I ascended, with a labyrinth of unfamiliar, unmarked paths, no map, no compass, no sun for navigation, one bottle and no food, inadequate clothing, no light, no phone, and waning daylight. And of course, not a soul or even a footprint for miles around. I slipped on snow and gashed my leg open on jutting bedrock, having to choose between using my shirt as a tourniquet and staying warm. Fortunately, I had been taught well (thanks Dad!) and I was able to follow an ice-choked stream downhill and eventually got my bearings and returned to the trailhead 2+ hours later, just as darkness was settling in. Lessons about risk calculation and preparedness well-learned!

    1. Sandy Stott

      Thanks for your thoughts and story, Andy. Your story rings true for me, especially as it is set in the “shoulder season” of spring, where lowland warmth and open trails don’t suggest the winter that can be iced into the ridges only a mile or so away. In my home mountains, NH’s Whites, many of the most dramatic searches and rescues happen in May, when foot-wanderers of all stripes shrug off their heavier clothing and take to the trails with an expansiveness that can feel like flight. North-slope snow lingering not far above can change the flight pattern very quickly.

      And even on my home mountain, and even given a pretty good geo-sense in my head, occasionally I get turned around in that season and everything suddenly looks strange — that, on a mountain I’ve climbed hundreds of times.


  7. Sebastian

    I think the Navy seals have a saying that states ‘when you are done, your are only 20% done; when you are dead you are 100% done.’ Many folks are attracted to ultras to explore the difference between 20% and 100% and fly a little closer to the sun.. Personally I have a number of DNFs, primarily in trail 100milers, with a bunch of finishes as well. Still the DNFs / SITs hurt, haunted by ‘what-if’s’…

    1. Sandy Stott

      Thanks, Sebastian. In a few sentences you get to the drive that often lies behind going to extremes. There is some hurt and haunt out there when things don’t go as hoped. But I’m guessing also, hoping too, I guess, that the joy of the everyday approach to those long runs tips the balance toward the positive.


  8. Sebastian

    Well, more the humorous moments afterwards.. Like after one race I was so messed up that I received priority boarding on the plane home. While getting on the plane, I was holding up ‘Frank’ who was celebrating his 84th birthday, as I was so slow. Hard to believe that 8 hours earlier I was still on the course ‘running’…

  9. Anonymous

    Nice article. To respond to Meghan’s question about mistakes: After > 20 years of experience running trail ultras and training mostly solo, and getting through some hairy situations over the years, a few years ago I took a fall and sustained a major fracture on a long solo trail run in my local mountains in an area without cellphone reception. It was an important wake-up call that a sense of invincibility in the mountains is dangerous. Even with years of experience, great physical conditioning and carrying emergency gear (10 essentials), really bad, unexpected things can happen in a split second. Nowadays I never do remote runs without a satellite emergency pager, extra gear, and company.

    1. Sandy Stott

      Thanks for this story. I think you’re right that repeated successes (coming back unharmed) do add up over time to a “sense of invincibility.”

      “I’ve always come back,” we think, “and so I always will.”

      There’s a haunting story of this sort that I use to remind myself of all this. A few years ago, I read of Northface founder D. Tompkins’ death in Patagonia – at 72, after a life of high-level adventuring, he went for a leisurely paddle with friends in very cold water, wearing pressed pants and a shirt and spray top; when a wind blew up and he capsized, he had no dry suit on for protection, and hypothermia got him. A tough ending for a great life of going out.


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