Ultrarunning And The American Frontier Spirit

AJW's Taproom“That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom–these are the traits of the frontier.” -Frederick Jackson Turner in The Frontier in American History

Out here in central Virginia, where I currently live, there is a wonderful gem of a museum called the Frontier Culture Museum. I visited earlier this week with a group of students and was fascinated and inspired by the living-history displays and the depth and breadth of the presentations. Throughout the pastoral grounds of this delightful little spot, interpretive displays and period actors make the culture of the American Frontier come viscerally to life.

This region, known interestingly enough as the ‘backcountry’ to most 17th century settlers, is and always has been a place of dreams. The story of the early European settlers in this remote Appalachian landscape is one of perseverance, devotion, hard work, and hope. Nowhere in the Frontier Culture Museum is the phrase ‘frontier spirit’ used but the feeling is palpable and the evocation real. And it is this inimitable spirit, so much a part of our collective national identity, which brings to mind the connection between the frontier ideal and life of the long-distance runner.

One of the things that I believe has long bound the ultrarunning community together is a set of shared values. Values often seen in other parts of society but nowhere quite as enthusiastically embraced than in the tribe of runners with whom we choose to spend our time. In my experience, few groups of people I’ve met over the years have quite the level of perseverance and grit as ultrarunners. We tend to be a stubborn lot, often willing ourselves to do things that many would just succumb to. Like those early settlers to the Shenandoah Valley, we push forward with a dogged determination that is at once exhausting and exhilarating. And more often than not we come out the other side with a greater sense of freedom and confidence than we had before.

Out on the frontier all those centuries ago, the community was essential for survival. In the midst of an unknown fate and an unclear future, our backcountry forebears had no choice but to cling to hope. To live life with a sense of optimism and the belief that promise was there over the next ridge or in the next valley. How many of us have felt that very same way in the midst of a long, grueling run? How many of us, in the throes of a painful slog across a windswept ridge, have clung to some devotion that on the other side things would be better? I know I have. And it’s made me a better runner and a better person in the process.

In 21st century American society, the frontier spirit persists. However, without clear goals and often through divisive means, that spirit can be less unifying than in years past. But for those of us who run long distances, those of us who carry that frontier spirit out with us each time we run, the lessons of those early European settlers can be made plain and that spirit can be a great unifier. Whether you’re an elite runner seeking triumph or a back-of-the-packer seeking completion, ultrarunning has something for you. Something that other life pursuits simply do not have. Something that kindles in us that quintessential human drive for something over that next ridge, however difficult it may be to get there. And that, in the end, makes it all worthwhile.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Last Frontier Brewing CompanyThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Last Frontier Brewing Company in Wasilla, Alaska. This little outpost brewery makes delicious small batches of beer and I was fortunate enough to share a growler with an Alaskan friend last week. Last Frontier’s Grubstake Stout is a delicious, malty, British-style stout which will put hair on the chest of just about anyone. Not high in alcohol or bitterness, it’s a stout that could be eaten with a spoon. If you find yourself in Wasilla, be sure to stop in to the Last Frontier.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you think the spirit of trail and ultrarunning resembles American Frontier ‘spirit,’ or the energy and effort it would have taken to live at the edge of civilization centuries ago?
  • Does ultrarunning allow you to express a form of individualism and coarseness that you don’t necessarily get to express in the rest of your life?