Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Why so much hype about Ultrarunning

Why is there suddenly so much hype about running on trails?  What has fueled a growth rate of over 20% per year of ultra trail running?  I have been giving the subject some thought ever since Alex asked if I would write the “Dirty Running” column.  Why am I addicted to the trails?

At first it seemed the answer should be pretty obvious.  I came up with the usual clichés, the peace and quiet of the woods, being one with nature, the solitude, the beauty. OK, that's enough.    While these are certainly all contributing factors to the trail running phenomenon, after all, there certainly is no “peace and quiet” running along the Green-way next to Lakeshore,  but none of these reasons (beauty of the trail, being with nature, etc.) are responsible for the exponential growth of trail running and ultrarunning in the last 10 years.  After all anyone can drive out to a local park, walk a few hundred yards into the woods and experience these things.

While the tranquility and beauty of trail running certainly adds to the pleasure of running trails, that is not what has so many, including me, totally hooked on the sport.  For me, the real draw to the trails is not what you see and experience every time you hit the dirt, but rather, those rare moments, sometimes once-in-a-lifetime moments that happen while trail running.  Some of these moments startle you, some take your breath away, some cause you just stop and stare in wonder, some scare the Hell out of you.  All, you will never forget.  Sure, such moments could happen 300 yards from the parking lot, but not likely.  It is too easy to run for the protection of your car.  Let me tell you about a few of these rare experiences that I have had on the trails.  These are the kinds of things that get you hooked on the trails.

I think I will divide these experiences into three categories, like “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.”
We will start with the good. 

Several years ago it snowed overnight in Birmingham and I love snow.  Trouble was, it was just too warm for any of it to stick in town.  When I got up Saturday morning the snow had stopped but I figured there was a good chance there was still snow on top of Double Oak Mtn. so I was off for a run.  There was nothing down low but about half way up I started seeing snow.  By the time I reached the top of the Red Trail the ground was solid white.  I took the red trail over to the north end and followed the Blue Trail back I ran the entire length of the Blue Trail on a 2 inch bed of snow.  It was absolutely beautiful.

2010 Christmas Snow along the Blue Trail at Oak Mountain Sate Park

On the subject of snow, in 2011 I ran the Tahoe Rim Trail 100.  The western mountains of the US had received over 100 inches of snow in April of 2011.  Huge show fields still remained on the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  The race happened to coincide with a full moon.  The Tahoe Rim Trail crisscrosses the ridge crest and the views were unbelievable.  Look off to the west and Lake Tahoe was illuminated by the moon, off to the east, the Nevada Desert was almost glowing.  Crossing the endless snowfields on the ridge crest I could have turned off my headlamp and have seen just fine, that is except for the course marking.

Running at night is a truly surreal experience that is unique to trial running and I love to run at night.   My first race experience with night running was in the Pinhoti 100 in 2008, my first 100.  After running through pitch black woods for miles with no one around, I start hearing noise in the distance, then it is gone.  Then it is back and louder.  I thought it is music.  I wasn't sure if I was imagining it, or if it was real.  Then I spotted a light off in the distance, then more lights and more noise, people yelling and cheering.  I realize I had reached the Adams Gap Aid Station, mile 52.  Out of nowhere there were people, lots of people, tents, music, a huge fire, and hot food.  The temperature was near freezing and I settled down by the fire with a cup of hot soup, a dangerous thing to do.  The longer you sit the harder is becomes to get up again.  I finally did get up and head down the very dark, cold road, but at that point, I know I would finish.

One other thing I remember from Pinhoti was the “Strobing Spiders.”  I was running along the Silent Trail on the way to Adams Gap and I kept seeing these tiny strobing lights on the ground.  I finally stopped and took a very close look.  They are tiny little spiders and when my headlight hits them, their eyes reflect the light back in brilliant flashes.  I have seen them in almost every overnight run I have done.  I think it is something to do with the LED lights in headlamps and flashlights but it is an amazing sight to run along a path of tiny strobing eyes.

In the 2009 Leadville 100, I was on the crest Hope Pass at 12,600 feet just as the sun was setting.  The mountains to the south of the pass were a crimson red that would make an Alabama fan cry.  If only I had a camera.  Late in the race I was climbing up “Powerline” headed to the top of Sugarloaf Pass at about mile 83.  I hit a short traverse and looked back down to see a line of headlamps snaking up the climb below me.  It reminded me of the scene in the Disney movie “Fantasia” during the piece “Ave Maria” where the monks were carrying torches.  Their movement was almost imperceptible.  I just stopped and stared at the amazing sight.  About two miles later after cresting the pass I reached an overlook where Turquoise Lake was faintly visible in the early morning light.  On the far shore I again saw a long procession of headlamps moving in slow motion along the far shore of the lake 2000 feet below.  It was an awesome sight.  It also created a degree of envy.  I still had 15 or 16 miles to go.  They were 10 or 11 miles from the end.  Again, I wished I had my camera.

Back to normal trail running.  Several years ago I was running in the early morning at Oak Mountain with a friend along the Red Trail on Johnson Mountain.  We were on a traverse when something flew across the trail just in front and above us.  My first thought was a large hawk.  It was pretty big.  As I focused on the movement I realized it was a deer.  It had jumped from the hill on our right above our heads and was flying through the air and landed well below us.  In a few seconds disappeared into the woods.  I had no idea a deer could jump that far.

Next, A little Bad:  About three years ago I was out for an early morning run at Oak Mountain.  I started hearing thunder as I was running up the White Trail from Maggie's Glen.  I planned to run hill repeats and had finished the first by the time the lightning started getting close.  As I reached the ridgeline on the second repeat, there was a blinding flash and instantaneous BANG!  I decided to get off the ridge and run down low for a while.  I followed the Yellow Trail around Tranquility Lake and down by the dam and along the creek below.  I was hoping over large black roots when one of those roots took off to my right as I stepped over it.  I stopped and looked back, rather startled, and saw a very large Water Moccasin staring back at me, probably as surprised as I was.  I was glad I didn't step on that root.

And a little Ugly:  About three years ago I decided to run a few hill reps at Oak Mtn because there was a severe thunderstorm headed straight for the park.  I parked at the North Trailhead and headed up the Red Trail. I reached the top and stated back down as the storm closed in.  I made it about 1/4 mile back down when the bottom fell out.  It was raining so hard the trail turned to an ankle deep river.  The lightning was hitting the ridges above me every few seconds and the wind was roaring through the trees.  Conditions became progressively worse and I ran progressively faster.  I figured I was about to be fried or flattened by one of the limbs raining down out of the trees.  The wind was really picking up and I reached the connector trail over to Maggie's Glen and stopped under the small shelter over the sign at the trail intersection.  At least I was out of the water running down the trail.  My immediate concern became the two large pines directly behind the covered sign.  I was sure they were about to blow over on top of me so I stood so I could watch them.  Then the wind velocity just about doubled and pieces of trees started falling all around.  Next over a period of about 20 seconds the wind shifted around about 120deg.  I realized a tornado was passing very close by and decided it was better to be a moving target than a sitting duck.  I took off down the trail again, a very unwise decision!  At the shelter I had a tin roof over my head, I could watch for falling trees and I was not running down a river.  Now I was out in the open with nothing over my head.  I was again ankle deep in water with lightning still hitting all around and limbs were still falling around me.  By the time I decided I should go back to the shelter, the storm was moving off so I continued to the car to wait.  When the storm passed I ran decided to run up the trail again and only then saw how much damage had been done.  A number of large trees were down along the trail and one that had fallen across the trail.  The forest floor was now green, covered with fallen limbs.  I will never forget the experience and I have will not intentionally go run in a storm again.

There are a lot more of the “Great Experiences” I could talk about, like running in the early morning fog atop Double Oak Mountain where you can only see 30 or 40 yards ahead.  Trees just materialized out of the fog as you ran along the trail.  Several times I have reached the crest of a mountain ridge just as the sun is appearing over the horizon.  I always stop for a moment to enjoy the sight.  The huge Owl I spooked that was so large I thought it was a turkey, until it landed on a limb a short distance away.  The shadow of a bird directly overhead and looking up to see a hawk land on a tree limb no more than 15 feet above my head.  Watching the light slowly dim as you run along the trail until everything in your world is pitch black except the small area illuminated by your headlamp.  Then, just a few hours later watching the glow on the eastern horizon become brighter and brighter as the new day dawns.  I love it!!! This list could go on and on and fortunately almost all are the “Good.”  Yes, these are the things that makes trail running so special to me. 

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