The Redefinition of Running

For several years now, my running has been largely dictated by the land that I am running upon, and my idea of what running looks like changes drastically depending on where I am living at the time. Over the past couple weeks, though, I have been more distinctly reminded of this then ever before. Having made my summer return to Juneau, Alaska, I have been more aware then ever how different it is to run here than anywhere else I have run before.

I recently completed the first session of my Alaska Mountain Ultra Running Camp, and the one thing I asked of the campers before we went for a single run was to keep a very open mind. What “running” looks like to me here in Juneau isn’t likely to be the same as what running looks like to anyone from anywhere else in the world, nor should it. By the end of the camp I think everyone seemed to have a better sense of this notion. I know that I have come to understand it more than ever before.

To a large degree I think running, and more specifically trail running, should be a celebration of the land in which we choose to run upon, and being that the land varies so greatly from one place to another, it only makes sense that what running looks and feels like should vary greatly depending on where we are.

In its simplest form, I think trail running is nothing more than travelling quickly on foot over land. On flat, smooth land this means we are running quite fast and very evenly paced. On steep, uneven land this might mean we are walking much of the time and covering less than 4 or 5 miles an hour on average. Throw mud, snow, rain, wind, etc into the mix and things become even more varied.

Several years ago, I didn’t accept all of these varieties as running. I tried to find places to run that were generally flat and smooth. If I wasn’t moving at least 6 or 7 miles an hour, I didn’t consider it running. Now, though, I have made a gradual shift in my mindset, and I often go on “runs” in which I’m only actually running 30% (or less) of the time. Is it logical to even call this running? Many would argue that it is not, but I think it all depends on the land you are “running” upon, and it makes the most sense to me to think of running as that which is the most effective way to travel quickly on foot through that land.

Here in Juneau there are numerous routes that would be impossible to do faster than 4 or 5 miles an hour. Many of these routes have long stretches that are slower to run than to walk. When this is the case, I walk, and when it is most effective to run, I run. In the end, I cover a particular route in the manner that is the most efficient way to do so. Some days this means doing 20 miles in a few hours, but more often than not around here, this means covering only 10 or 12 miles in a few hours. In the end, I don’t think of one as more of a run than the other, just two different runs in which I’m moving as effectively as the landscapes allow.

When I first moved here, I didn’t consider many of the local routes as options for running, but as I came to open my mind about what it means to run, I began to discover some of the most scenic, challenging, and enjoyable running I have ever seen, even if much of the time I’m actually walking. To someone who lives in a flat, smooth region of the world it might sound like a very strange thing to walk so much of a “run”, but all we’re really doing when we run fast over flat smooth terrain is the same thing we’re doing when we do a rugged mountain run that takes an hour to cover 3 or 4 miles. In both cases, we’re simply taking what the land offers and pushing ourselves quickly and efficiently over the land. This is something you might want to consider the next time you shy away from running a certain route because it’s too steep, muddy, rugged, or technical that you might not be moving faster than a brisk walk for much of the time. You just might find that this brisk walk is actually a very enjoyable “run.”

[Editor’s Note: If any of you are interested in seeing first hand just what it means to run here in Alaska, Geoff does have a handful of spaces still open for two of the three remaining sessions of the above mentioned Alaska Mountain Ultra Running Camps. He’d love to have the opportunity to show you what it looks like to “run” around here.]

There are 28 comments

  1. Rob Youngren

    I think about "running" in terms of effort level, heart rate, etc… Running to me is an overall effort level (regardless of terrain, conditions, etc..) greater than say hiking or walking. I don't really define running in terms of pace or minutes/mile or mph. What counts most is the amount of effort you expend to cover certain terrain. High effort = running, lower effort = hiking/walking…

  2. Jason

    Good article, and interesting point. Most runners get a little tied up in covering certain mileage every week (me too). When you've got a 22 mile run scheduled for the weekend, that takes 2:30 on the road, or maybe 3:30 on the typical trails, it's hard to watch your weekly totals get trashed doing what basically amounts to a very tough 4 hour hike/run that maybe only gets you 16 miles. I notice Tony K has abandoned weekly totals on his blog, in favor of hours. Maybe trail runners need to look at their training logs more like this: If you would normally plan, say, 8 miles hard on Wednesday, maybe make that 'one hour hard'. Then forget about total miles. Just mix up the surfaces, and enjoy the different stuff.

  3. David Wronski

    Amazingly insightful article…Geoff's quote may be the best running quote I've ever heard…I completely agree:

    "To a large degree I think running, and more specifically trail running, should be a celebration of the land in which we choose to run upon, and being that the land varies so greatly from one place to another, it only makes sense that what running looks and feels like should vary greatly depending on where we are."

  4. David

    Having just moved to Colorado from Flatlandia, you just totally crystallized the rewiring process going on in my head. I've had to let go of old notions of mileage and pace and couldn't agree more – it's all about covering your present terrain as efficiently as possible. Awesome post, thanks!

  5. shine

    Insightful article – Just days ago when I was running/walking up the mountain alone and skipping a road run practice with friends, I was pondering the same question too. Thanks!

  6. Jared Friesen

    Thanks for the post Geoff! As a mid pack road guy and back of the pack trail guy I sometimes get frustrated that my finish times are so far off the leaders. With that said, I think perspective is huge. Running some days for me is a 10 mile tempo run on pavement, but some days running is doing pure climbs where I only cover 3 or 4 miles in the same time it took to do 10 the night before. For me it is encouraging to think that running is about getting out on the trails and covering ground efficiently, even if that means walking, power hiking, or what I have been trying to do lately, just stop and look around and enjoy the view!

  7. Jared Friesen

    Good points Jason. For me I mix both, sometimes I cover a certain mileage on roads regardless of time it takes. But then other days I do purely time on the trail and see how far I can go. I think it is important to not get too caught up in the statistics of it all as that can just take the fun out of it.

  8. Andy Fleet

    I think this is spot on Geoff, I dont even time my runs, the conditions of the ground and the weather would mean that this wouldn't really work anyway.

  9. Chris P.

    I really enjoy hearing like-minded people discuss running in this manner. I came into the trail running world through mountaineering, and I consider much of what I do now with running to be a closely linked extension to the mountaineering I've always done, only lighter and faster. My favorite things about running are the adventures I have running (and yes, many times this includes hiking) up steep valleys, over mountains and mountain passes, across boulder fields, through rivers, under waterfalls, across alpine lakes, down snowfields and scree gulleys, etc… Whenever I go for a run, even in the city, my ambition is to explore exciting and beautiful places. How fast I end up moving is simply a factor of how hard I want to push myself and the limitations of the terrain.

  10. ned barrett

    When I coached, I assigned runs by time. But as a long-time roadie racer who ran trails for almost all my training, I still measure in miles. My running has changed a lot though over 28 years, and some of the runs I do these days I would have considered failures 20 years ago because I walk, or stop to look around.

    I've loved all the types of running I've done and I do. Track workouts used to really rock my world, and I needed that watch and distance to know how fast I was. Now terrain often determines distance and pace.

    I'm going to look at recording by time more than miles because that's more how I run. Any thoughts on what a "fifty-mile week" would look like in time?

  11. Phil Jeremy

    As usual its always comforting to know that the elites think like us lesser mortals do. I always go by time on feet and then check my miles (and elevation gain) when I get home, I find it less of a pressure. Sometimes I am surprised at how far I've gone and how high…..and sometimes not; but that's the fun of it.

  12. CJ

    Nice post Geoff…it really comes down to what a person is training for, whether that's a flat marathon or a rugged mountain race. You really do get what you train for

    1. Rob Youngren

      I do realize this from boat loads of experience which is why I'm not talking about equating a flat mile to a steep mile. I'm only talking about overall level of effort; something you could measure by a heart rate monitor or tell from your breathing. High HR is high HR no matter what terrain you're on or what pace your traveling.

  13. Ben Nephew

    While some terrain is always going to have to involved hiking, one part of seeking out very difficult terrain is trying to run. I remember when Paul Low moved to Western Massachusetts. At the time, we all thought that breaking 2 hours at the 7 Sisters race was fast, and that there were a number of climbs that had to hiked. Paul showed up, ran all sorts of climbs we all were hiking, and chopped 10 minutes off the recent winning times and 5 minutes off the CR. Over the next few years, many of us ended up dropped our PR's for the course by quite a bit. As with all running, going beyond what is needed in races in training is likely to improve your races. So don't avoid difficult terrain even if you are unwilling to do some hiking without first trying to see if you can make it runnable.

  14. steve b bath england

    hi geoff what you are driving at makes complete sense. i have running friends who wont even consider running on even a slight elevation in case it affects their average pace per run. they are seriously missing out on not only
    what running is but also on some seriously fun action. when i tell them that it took me over two hours to run a ten miler they think im slow. they should have seen the smile on my face while i was running!

  15. Kix

    Thanks! I signed up for the TNF 50 San Francisco last year. Showed up and freaked out. Lots of things went wrong that morning but, the capper was that I was not running. I was hiking. I learned many valuable lessons that day. Don't sweat the small stuff. Expect the unexpected. And just enjoy the day – for whatever it brings you. Just finished my first 50 miler and had this attitude all day – great race. Yes, there is walking in trail running – and everyone's experience with it is different. Wild to find out that one of the best trail runners has had the same mind wrestle. You inspire the rest of us!

    Happy Trails,


  16. Edie

    I went to Geoff's June camp, and I agree that Juneau has "some of the most scenic, challenging, and enjoyable running I have ever seen, even if much of the time I’m actually walking." I was humbled by how much walking I did at running camp.

    Also, I had an incredible time at the camp overall! Thanks Geoff for showing us around your home turf.

  17. Coach Weber

    In my experience, too many 'running' folks create / crave / worship more a daily suffer-fest than a mind expanding pleasure trip taken at a more casual pace with time to smell the flowers or take in a trail-side nap. Won't win Western that way I suppose, but the time outside is so much more meaningful and pleasant … at least to this old coach.

  18. Gary

    Very well put, Geoff. I'm amazed at the preconceived notions I have about running should be. I live right next to a beautiful trail, but for years I've avoided it, considering it to be unrunable. When I finally started "running" it (well, mostly walking — it's 1000 ft./mi), I felt liberated, like suddenly a whole new world was open to me. Thanks for opening our minds to what running can be.

  19. Kimmiq

    Geoff is Bang On! Coming from the Road Running/Rcaing World – this has been a difficult concept for me to embarce, however, once I did (full disclosure, I still struggle with it from time to time) not only did my overall enjoyment improve, but so did my willingness to tackle steeper more technical terrain in training and racing. This has also tranlated to better running (at whatever pace the land dictates) ablility and kept my competitive juices flowing.

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