Surprise, Surprise

I just finished leading this summer’s first session of the Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camp, and there were many ways in which this experience reminded me of just how unpredictable and how full of surprises running is. You might think after seven of these camps, and with all the running and racing I have done in the past decade, that I would stop being able to say this, but this is the amazing thing about running: it can always surprise us when we have an open mind and put ourselves in the position to experience new things.

Not only did I have my own surprise of feeling better running than I have in nearly a year, but I saw some people undergo significant changes throughout the week.

In the words of one camp participant, “I let me be self aware and talk about me first.” I was able to run more than I have since last August, and I felt strong most days. I felt surprise as the runs didn’t break me down, but instead strengthened me and built me up. I’m still a long ways from feeling completely like myself as a runner, but two days ago I was able to do a 17-mile run with 10,000 feet of vertical gain, and generally feel pretty decent doing so. The fact that this came a day after a 16-mile run made it even more surprising. The two longest runs I’ve done in almost 10 months! I came into camp wondering whether I would be able to handle the physical stress of running more than 20 hours in five days, but by the last day I was surprised to find that the more I ran, the better I generally felt.

Enough about my experience, though. One of my favorite things about these camps is watching people evolve after facing the challenges in camp. I have often been asked if I ever plan to lead camps in other locations, and my response remains the same: I love the running in Juneau, and the landscape here plays a huge role in these camps. So much so that I don’t think I have any interest (at least for now) in holding the camps in another location. The terrain here in Juneau is amazingly varied and amazingly challenging. It is the landscape that is the number-one “character” that shapes these camps into the experience that they are.

Numerous comments during camp reminded me of the importance of this setting. Over and over campers said, “I cannot believe we ran through all of that in the space of three or four hours.” Camp runners regularly see hills, meadows, bogs, mountaintops, alpine ridgelines, icy gulches, massive alpine snowfields, impossibly technical trails, and quite smooth trails all in the space of a few hours. Running makes this possible. The surprises experienced by each camper are made possible by being capable of running for several hours at a time.

Not only did the terrain surprise the runners, but the runners surprised themselves. People overcame obstacles and challenges that in many cases they have never even had the chance to take on. One camper jokingly called the camp an introduction to mountaineering with some running mixed in. The same camper each day would come through the challenges and say that while it was extremely difficult, he was surprised at his ability to face up to the challenges and come away with a positive experience each day. Many people pushed through fears that they later called at once both the low and the high of their day. Others amazed themselves with their ability to push harder, or simply to just keep going when met with some of the most challenging running they have ever done.

Surprises came up for just about everyone during this camp, myself included. This past week reminded me just how unpredictable running often is, and how the unpredictability of running is one of the most satisfying things about the sport. When you step out the door and head to the mountains or trail, keep your eyes and your mind open because you can be guaranteed that a surprise is there to be found each time out. It may be a surprise from what you see, or may come from something deep inside of yourself that you never knew was there. Either way it will be a special thing, and one of the main reasons so many of us like to lace up the shoes and go out for a run most everyday.