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The Virtues of the Solo 20-Mile Trail Run

AJW writes about the virtues of the long, solo trail run.

By on May 22, 2020 | Comments

AJW's TaproomBack in September and as I was emerging from a several-months-long running funk, I wrote about a long-time personal benchmark, the 40-mile week. In the 30 or so weeks since penning that article, I have managed to cover at least 40 miles on all but a few occasions. And, the accruing fitness has felt satisfying.

And so it was, last weekend, that I set about to accomplish another one of my typical benchmark tasks, the solo 20-mile trail run. Now, to be clear, I had run over 20 miles several times in the months since my September column, but all of those runs had either been in running events or group runs. To me, there is nothing quite as simply satisfying, and at times dismaying, than a solo 20-mile trail run.

It was forecast to be a muggy day in the Mississippi Delta, so I decided to set off early. I packed a full two liters of water and three gels and decided to run an extended out-and-back course at the local state park, Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park in the Memphis, Tennessee area, that has become my second home of late. The early start would also help me steer clear of the masses of hikers that have been enjoying the park too.

Every time I lace ’em up for a solo 20 miler these days, I find myself reflecting back to my years as a beginning runner. Brimming with enthusiasm and training with gusto for a road marathon in the hopes of achieving a Boston Marathon qualifying time, much of my running in those first few years consisted of mind-numbing 20 milers on flat, every-half-mile-marked bike paths in large urban areas. In those years, I was a slave to my chronograph watch and eager to hit my splits and not waste a second.

As I settled into a rhythm for what was to be my first solo 20 miler in quite some time, I reveled in the fact that I had no expectations about how long it would take me to finish or what kind of pace I could maintain. Rather, I found myself absorbed in the moment, listening to the birds and the squirrels, watching the green leaves explode before my eyes, and feeling the gentleness of each footfall on the soft, muddy trail that stretched ahead of me for miles.

For this particular outing, I intentionally chose a route with moderate vertical gain and as much singletrack trail as I could squeeze into the 20 miles. As most of my weekday runs are on gravel paths near my house, whenever I can get out onto singletrack I want as immersive an experience as I can find as there is something so unique and special about singletrack trail running. On this day, the wild and wonderful world of Tennessee trail running did not disappoint.

As I expected, after about three-and-a-half hours and a little over 15 miles, the run started to get hard. I didn’t quite have the same spring in my step and the birds and the squirrels were more annoying than joy inducing. Yet, the pleasure of the 20-mile run persisted. As I neared the end of my route and my watch ticked over to the magic number, I smiled, gave myself a little pat on the back, and gave thanks to the fact that through it all, even a full 28 years after my first solo 20 miler, I was still healthy and willing enough to do this sort of thing. And that, my friends, is as good a reason as any to do it again sometime.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Taproom favorite Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Their recently released Official Hazy India Pale Ale is a classically Bells-like take on this super-hyped variety. Nicely hopped and just hazy enough to be noticeable, Official is a smooth-drinking summer beer that’s perfect on the tail end of that solo 20 miler.

Call for Comments

  • What kinds of benchmarks do you set when it comes to long runs?
  • What does hitting the 20-mile mark mean to you?
  • How about running long while solo? Like AJW, does being alone carry some extra meaning?

All photos: Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.