July Trail Runner Blog Symposium

About two-thirds of the way through the month I wrote Yitka at Trail Runner magazine. The topic announcement for the July edition of the Trail Runner Blog Symposium was seemingly stuck back in June. She replied, offered her apologies and mentioned that they were over committed for July and that they’d be skipping this month.

I don’t feel let down by this at all. July is one of those months in the trail running community when everything tends to happen all at once. Speed Goat, Hard Rock, too much sky running. Kilian Jornet completed an 11h and change ascent of McKinley. Okay, so that was in June, but everyone spent the first couple of weeks in July trying to nab an interview with him. Point being, it’s a busy time. It is also an incredible time for trail work.

In early July I did a big moon trail run up the PCT well into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area. As expected it was an amazing run and I felt blessed to have the opportunity. The ascent is steep, but most of the snow had melted before the Kendall Katwalk. When I emerged from the trees I was bathed in milky, silver moonlight. We all know that you can have a sun bath, but who knew bathing in moonlight could be so good?

On the far side of the Katwalk fields of fast melting snow slowed my progress so I only made it as far as a rocky outcrop just before Joe Lake. I set up a hasty bivy under the moon on a flatish rock and tried to grab some shuteye.

The moonlight was one problem that kept me awake, but with my hood pulled over my eyes I was shaded enough to not be bothered too much. But in the stillness of that high place along the Crest I could make out the constant passage of traffic along Interstate 90 some 10 miles away and far below. It was driving nutty.

Surrounded by thousands of acres of supposedly untrammeled land compression breaks of container trucks and early morning air traffic headed to and from SeaTac penetrated that far up the Gold Bar basin. And so it goes that I gave myself a topic to consider. Trail running is a backcountry pursuit. Sure, I can head out the door of my townhouse here in suburbia and trot along foot paths lovingly cut into the DNR forests that border the development, but the good stuff, the trails I crave are all in deep Wilderness. So I wonder, what can trail runners do to protect what remains wild in the backcountry we inhabit, and more specifically, what can we do to protect lands specifically designated as Wilderness?

This year is the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act. In that short time Wilderness has come under a barrage of attacks. Today, wilderness areas as increasingly at risk as politicians, convinced they’re missing out on money making opportunities, endeavor to remove or weaken protections guaranteed by this piece of legislation. The Wilderness Society maintains a map of active bills and legal battles that would be detrimental to Wilderness lands. All that red is very sad commentary on contemporary American civic values. It means that love of money, power and control has taken over our collective consciousness.

I believe that understanding why this is happening is the best leverage we have in the protection of these lands. The people who mount these attacks on wilderness do so because they do not value these lands. They have no experience, in fact, of America in its primal state. Or if they do, it is an experience distorted by playthings.

When I worked on the Flat Tops Wilderness in Colorado I would spend the first half of any summer hauling out the trash of hunter camps from the previous autumn. Privileged white men with more money than sense would hire out guides, steads and luxurious accommodations well beyond the wilderness boundary for a chance to hunt the impressive herds of Elk that roam those high, primal lands. As was evidenced by the piles of rotting junk I invariably collected up and slung across my back, these people did not visit that place for a love of land. Rather, they were there play-acting like children the role of hunter.

Moonlight bivy above Joe Lake

Now understand, I have no problem with hunting. When I had more time and money I hunted regularly. The point I’m trying to get at is that these people visited this place, not to experience the place, but to exploit a resource it happened to contain. They were invariably removed or padded from the consequences of their actions and the impact their visit had on that place. The point I’m getting at is that they did not experience wilderness, only a proximity to it.

How could they value untrammeled, wild land? How could they fall in love with the stark, unforgiving beauty of tundra? How might they understand the value of a place completely devoid of all human sounds save the passage of your own breath?

People only fight for things for which they feel passion. You cannot feel passion for something you do not understand. It’s my belief that many trail runners understand how valuable wilderness is because they know these places. Trail running is an excellent way to include people in a raw wilderness experience. There is very little between you and your surroundings on a good trail run. You’re really in it. What can trail runners do to protect wilderness? This one wants to take you along on his next bivy. So come on, lace ’em up, let’s get wild in the wilderness.

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Trail Aesthetic

What’s the hurry?

I’m going to start this post by affirming how much I enjoy racing. I’ve been competing since middle school, and there has not been a race that, at least in part, I did not enjoy for the simple competitive rush that each one provides. I like going. I like going fast.

But I came to trail running from a different direction. And, as I have gotten older and subsequently slower, the excitement of racing has become such a minor concern compared to that part which I really love. The part that keeps me coming back.

A response to Trail Runner magazine’s December symposium topic: Is too much emphasis being placed on competitive results in the sport?

When I was a kid we ran along dirt tracks and canals in my home town. If my parents took us hiking we were likely to hear the words “Stay where I can see you” as much as anything because my brothers and I were often trotting ahead down the trail.

As a young man I worked as a ranger on the White River National Forest. I showed up for my first summer with a mountaineering ruck that could haul two complete bodies if you stuffed them well. I learned, the hard way, that weight was in and of itself a distraction from the beauty of the trail. And so I began trimming pounds and leaving crap at home. Soon enough, I was trotting across the Flat Tops with little more than repurposed, light-weight backcountry ski pack and a pair of cheap running shoes.

Descending in the early morning, Cascades run

Had I not run through the night under the foot of Triangle mountain pausing to bivouac on a tundra plain, for instance, I would never have awoken to a herd of one-hundred and fifty elk stepping around my camp. A race would have spoiled that moment or simply made it impossible in the first place.

Of those days, the ones I remember most clearly are the ones where I moved across the land “light, easy and smooth.” And I’ve got a long list of memories — running with a pack of coyotes, seeing the sun rise from atop many fourteeners, trotting along under a meteor shower completely feeling my way through twisted roots and random stones, or just that simple, contemplative quiet you can only find somewhere after the wilderness sign — these are way more important to me than a stack of numbers pinned to a peg board on a wall.

Wilderness Boundary

There is a trail aesthetic that you cannot appreciate when you are focused on a finish line or your personal best. I cannot at any rate. These arbitrary, internal goals are also distractions from my mindful trail meditations.

Every time I glance down at my GPS to check my average pace I am also closing down my ability to appreciate my surroundings. When I pay more attention to the footfalls of the guy catching me up, I am also paying less attention to the summer blossoms or fall colors that line both sides of my trail.

Emphasis is an individual thing, a single person can chose to enter a trail race, yet still focus on the trail. That person is not, however, likely to place. In fact, it’s a whole lot more difficult to be surrounded by those distractions, race distractions, and still be able to acknowledge the reasons we come to the backcountry, to lonely places in the wind and rain, to the trail in the first place.

I will not say that “too much emphasis” is placed on the competitive aspects of this sport because ultimately that’s each individual runner’s decision. I’m never going to take home prize money and I would not know what to do with a trophy if I earned one, so those will never be motivating factors for me. But I also know that I’m watching what really matters, what will get me out on the trail, and keep me there.