Friday, December 20, 2013

This month’s Trail Runner Magazine Blog Symposium question is, “is too much emphasis being placed on competitive results in the sport (of trail running)?”  

The nascent sport of trail running is still getting off the ground in terms of garnering corporate sponsorship and attention.  While crowds have grown exponentially in the last several years, large sponsorships are still few and far between.  There is an inherent problem in the sport of trail running – it’s difficult to watch.  Small crowds of supporters gather in the woods to catch but a glimpse of the runners passing by or sprinting to the finish.  Technical single track doesn’t allow race vehicles to tow alongside the runners, and watching GoPro videos of a runner bombing down hills tends to induce more nausea than inspiration.  

Common trail banter often includes discussion of what the leading competitive runners are up to, and which races are coming up.  Some of the sport’s leading competitors enjoy wide-spread acclaim and draw (relatively) large crowds when they come to town to speak and join a group run.  It’s difficult though to relate to the most competitive performers.   Ninety-nine percent of us can’t realistically hope to complete a 50k at break neck speed, never mind racing for 100 miles through the woods at sub 8 minute mile pace. 

If trail running is difficult to film, and top-level competition is hard to relate to, then what other areas of trail running might be emphasized and how?  I would suggest that we look closely at what inspires people.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘inspire’ as making “(someone) want to do something,” or giving “(someone) an idea about what to do or create,” causing “(something) to happen or be created,” and finally causing “someone to have (a feeling or emotion).”  

Perhaps we could take a lesson from new trail runners, who seem to best embody what Shunryu Suzuki called ‘beginner’s mind’.  New trail runners have a sense of wide-eyed wonder about them.  They’re taken with the beauty of the trails, are eager to meet other trail runners, and are hungry to learn from those who’ve been at it for some time.  This is where our goal-oriented culture creeps in.  New runners hear about the big ultra marathons and the requisite training that should precede them.  Runners capable of running throughout the day and night, and races covering one hundred miles are captivating to hear about.  Many of us are, at this point in our introduction to the sport, looking for something to strive for.  Ultra running intrigues with what seems to be an almost superhuman level of challenge.   The beauty of the woods, freedom of exploration, and pleasant conversation while running down singletrack can take a back seat here, as ambition sets in, only to be replaced with dogged determination later.  

I tend to see that same quality of ‘beginner’s mind’ also embodied by those who, at least occasionally, eschew racing in events in favor of creating their own trail running adventures.  Take, for example, Peter Bakwin.  Peter began long-distance trail running by running the 40 mile Continental Divide with some friends.  During that run, he and a friend decided to train for the 500 mile Colorado Trail.  Since then, he has gained some notoriety for these feats.  He writes, “though I have done many races at all distances in many different countries, big adventure runs always attracted me the most.  I wanted to explore my limits.  I wanted to attempt things I had no idea that I could finish.  I wanted to dream up my own adventures and figure out how to make them happen.  I spent some years pursuing those adventures, having amazing experiences, traveling widely, and seeing a lot in the process.” 

Ultimate Direction recently recognized the value Peter brings to the sport by creating the Peter Bakwin Adventure Vest.  Peter was one of three runners who had a vest named after him - the other two being well-known competitive ultra runners, Anton Krupicka and Scott Jurek.  UD also featured a lengthy blog post by him, complete with pictures, on their website.  This allows UD fans to read about Peter, learn about his approach to self-supported ultra running, and be inspired by his story.  Actually, two of the three posted comments following his writing communicate how readers were inspired by Peter’s example.  When a sponsor like UD chooses to publicly appreciate the efforts of a primarily non-competitive ultra runner, they help spread awareness of the legitimacy of these endeavors – efforts which are inherently worthwhile, and inspiring in their own right. 

In my mind there is the ‘sport’ of trail running, and there is the ‘practice’ of trail running.  While the ‘sport’ certainly receives the lion share of attention, it’s the ‘practice’ that I’m more drawn to.  I’m not alone.  I found it quite refreshing when, just last weekend, I ran with two friends and none of us had any races planned for 2014.  My friend Jay shared, “I run for the training and get what I need from that.  The guys who impress me most are the guys that come out all the time and just run trails.”  That statement resonates with me, and I would love to see more coverage in the print and online media of the trail running adventures happening under the radar.  It would also be wonderful to see more sponsors recognizing the potential in supporting and promoting the efforts of more adventurous ultra trail running.  There are many stories worth hearing, seemingly innumerable lessons to share, and adventurous trail runners aplenty to be inspired by. 

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