Running Sardinia’s Wild and Rugged Selvaggio Blu

At 5:58 p.m. on a sultry June afternoon, I arrive at Cala Sisine beach, hot, heart racing, legs covered in red dust, hair full of twigs and caterpillars. But, given what has transpired over the last 12 hours, I feel surprisingly strong.

I am on the mediterranean island of Sardinia, and have just completed a thru-run along the Supramonte, a wild tangle of limestone along the island’s central-east coast. Uninhabited and inaccessible, the Supramonte is a complicated labyrinth of cave networks, deep canyons, soaring cliffs, twisted juniper trees, holm oaks and precipitous drops to a shimmering turquoise sea.

The route that follows this remote coastline northwards for 25 miles, from Pedra Longa to Cala Sisine, is called the Selvaggio Blu—Wild Blue—and is considered one of the finest and most difficult treks in the mediterranean.

The Selvaggio Blu involves short sections of rock climbing and rappels up to 40 meters, linking old shepherd paths and mule tracks abandoned since the previous century. The route is, at times narrow and exposed, often indistinct and has no official way markings. There are also no sources of drinking water.

Conceived and first completed by local guides Mario Verin and Peppino Cicalò in 1987, the original trek was divided into four stages covering between seven and 12 kilometers each day. Each leg typically took between six and nine hours.

After I did a brief section hike there last January, the seed of an idea took root in my mind: running the Selvaggio Blu in a single day.

Sardinia's Selvaggio Blu
The author stands along an exposed cliff face along the route. Photo courtesy Tania Noakes

And so I find myself setting off from Pedra Longa at six a.m. on a mild, mid-June morning, with the warm orange glow of sunrise lighting the trail. The trail climbs steadily along a ledge and gains a plateau with a small shepherd’s hut before breaking southwest toward the cliff top. Sprawling juniper bushes force the trail into twists and turns while hidden gullies plunge me into dead ground and steal my horizon.

There are faded paint splashes … a few cairns … a cairn … and then nothing. There’s a faint footpath … but where are those faded blue marks?

I slow to a walk, reluctant to retrace my steps. I know I’m losing time and that the day is growing warmer with every minute. But I also know that if I’m wrong and I keep going, I could get hopelessly lost in this intricate and unforgiving maze. I stop and get the map out.

I’m already hot and a little thirsty, but slowly I start to understand where I’ve gone wrong. I have covered quite a distance on phantom paths. For the first time, my conviction that a one-day Selvaggio Blu is easily within reach begins to waver.

I look around, and see a shallow couloir to the southeast. The cliff edge lies beyond that. That’s where I need to be. I take a sip of water, banish doubt from my mind and start to cut cross-country towards the sea. The undergrowth is relatively open and I make good progress. In a short while I gain a shepherd’s hut hidden in the woods. A little farther, I pick up a line of cairns. This is good.

Finally I see a familiar gate. I know where I am. I’ve lost an hour, but I haven’t lost faith. I take a deep breath and surge down the rocky slope with new energy.

I weave through woods, cross scree slopes and round rocky buttresses, playful terrain suspended airily above the hypnotic sea. The trail—familiar now—moves effortlessly beneath my feet. Soon I’m onto the first steep section, which is fixed with “rungs” of juniper wood. Voices echo up from below and I burst past a group of startled trekkers. I smile and greet them as I pass, swinging down into the trees below.

In the shade I drink some water, quietly noting how much remains, then launch upward into the bright, burning sun and the first section of easy climbing. I crest the ridge, descend immediately and find the trail, thin and sinuous but weaving relentlessly in the right direction.

I can feel my reactions slowing in the heat. My thoughts seem strangely detached inside my head. I fail to duck in time and a juniper branch as solid as stone catches me square on the forehead. I am eight kilometers from my first water cache, and I only have half a liter left in my pack.

The author on one of many rappels along the route. Photo courtesy Tania Noakes

Finally, seven hours in, two stages down, I gain my first cache. I pull back the stones thirstily, relieved to find the water still in place. I refill my bottle, add some salt tablets and drink a liter before pouring the remainder through my matted hair. I crush the bottle, shove it in my bag and set off again along the crest of Serra e Lattone, toward the sea.

From here the terrain becomes more interesting still, and more beautiful, weaving through trees, crossing rock shelves and scree slopes, traversing calcified caves draped with stalactites and scrambling around exposed buttresses. Before long, I reach the first of a series of rappels down to Arco Su Feilau, a natural arch.

The final stage is more runnable, with long straight sections through shaded woodland, soft underfoot and without too much ascent or descent. I take 10 minutes at Oville Piddi—my second cache—to eat and drink, enjoying the view. Up until now, my goal had been to complete the trail in a single push. But it is becoming clear that I will finish around the 12 hour point. The number starts to take on a powerful significance.

With renewed energy, I set off down another broken, rocky slope, and soon arrive at the penultimate rappel. Two climbers are about to thread their ropes through the chain and I call to them as I arrive, “Would you mind if I pass? I’ll be fast. I’m trying to get to Cala Sisine within 12 hours.”

With warmth and humor they let me go first. The minutes pass quickly, and I gain the woods just south of Cala Sisine. Down another, final rappel, I coil the rope, throw it into my pack. I feel the Selvaggio Blu retreat behind me. The trail is clearly defined, pulling me forward though a gently sloping tunnel of arched branches, toward the hidden beach below.

I burst from the trees into the dazzling sunshine, hot, heart racing and legs covered in red dust. Eleven hours and 58 minutes. I can’t stop smiling.


Tania Noakes is an adventurer, writer and IFMGA Mountain Guide. She is a member of the British Mountain Guides Association (BMG). She will be organizing and leading treks along the Selvaggio Blu in Sardinia in the fall and spring months. Contact her for more information through her website or by email on


When (and How) to Power Hike

The day before the U.S. Mountain Running Championships in 2014, I was a naïve baby deer about to run full speed onto a six-lane highway. I thought trail running was about … well … running, and had plans to run up most of the course’s biggest climbs.

Fortunately, on my pre-race shakeout run, I met Richard Bolt, mountain-running legend and the current team leader of the U.S. Mountain Running Team. We came to a steep climb around a 30-percent grade, and he stopped me.

“This is how they do it in Europe,” he said.

He proceeded to lean forward, put his hands on his quads and walk away from me like I was standing still. If I had tried to run that climb come race day, my legs would have fatigued, my pace would have slowed and my hopes and dreams would have gone splat. Instead, I walked my way onto the U.S. Mountain Running Team.

Power hiking on a trail run is entirely different from your average hiking motion—both in terms of speed and form. Proper power-hiking form is not intuitive. It looks a bit like someone with hemorrhoids is searching for keys they dropped on the trail. But understanding the correct walking form can make your training and racing faster and more efficient.

Gradients for Efficient Hiking

A 2016 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology authored by Nicola Giovanelli, Mandy Ortiz, Keely Henninger and Rodger Kram (Ortiz and Henninger are world-class trail runners) sought to find the grade when walking becomes more efficient than running. Taking a page from the movie Spinal Tap, they cranked a specially designed treadmill up to 11 (in this case, allowing it to reach 40 degrees, while most treadmills only get to 15 degrees). The study found that “on inclines steeper than 15.8°, athletes can reduce their energy expenditure by walking rather than running.”

While that study looked at relatively fresh athletes, it’s likely that the optimal grade for walking decreases as the length of the race increases and muscles fatigue. In long ultras, like 50- and 100-milers, most racers are hiking on anything over eight to 10 percent later in the race—grades they’d usually bound up. So if you are doing a short race with steeps or a long race with normal hills, knowing how to walk can save energy. Here are three form tips to unlock your hiking prowess.


Lean Forward

Leaning forward makes motion more efficient by moving your center of gravity up the hill so you aren’t pulled back down with each step. In addition, it helps athletes engage their glutes, rather than their quads. While there is no exact amount to lean, I advise athletes to try to mimic the grade. So if you’re walking on a steep, 30-degree pitch, think about leaning forward 30 degrees. On a less steep six-percent grade at the end of an ultramarathon, you’ll only be leaning forward slightly.

Use Your Arms

If the grade is steep, put your hands on your quads to allow you to move your center of gravity forward, while also having your arms act similar to hiking poles by adding a small amount of force to your push-off. For gradual hills, you can have your arms at your sides, but be sure to maintain a good arm swing. This is where the use of hiking poles comes in, especially if you are racing in Europe, where they are customary. But note, many races in the U.S.—like the Western States 100—don’t allow them.

Don’t Stiffen Your Legs

When walking up a hill, many people like to pull their legs through while keeping their knees relatively straight. This movement pattern makes it harder to engage the glutes and, as a result, accelerates fatigue. Instead, be sure to let your knee bend as it reaches forward.


Hiking Training

Unlike running, you don’t need to spend a ton of time hiking to be prepared. The most important aspect of trail running is still to be the best runner you can be, and learning to run steeper grades is a part of gaining fitness over time. With that in mind, I only have my athletes practice hiking in a specific way in the month or two before a big race that will require it, and only as a supplement to training. In addition, hiking can elevate the heart rate substantially, so be sure not to overdo the effort. Just because you are walking doesn’t mean it’s easy.


The easiest place to get used to this style of hiking is the stairwell. Bonus: you can do this practice without taking away from your running training. Practice proper form whenever you encounter stairs, taking two stairs at a time. Alternatively, if you work in a high-rise office building: do workouts totaling 30 stories of up with easy jog downs during your lunch break once a week.


The never-ending treadhill is a great place to practice hiking-to-running transitions. Anything works, but before big mountain races I often have my athletes do 10 minutes jogging at six-percent grade, followed by six to 10 x 2 minutes hiking at 15-percent grade and two minutes jogging at six-percent grade, followed by a cool down.


If you have steep grades on the trails you normally run on, great! Practice the form when it is natural in the context of your run. However, prioritize running and don’t view power hiking as a magical oasis that will make things easier.

Good power hiking is not a break from going fast. Instead, good hiking form makes walking the best way to go fast. If you embrace the power of power hiking, you’ll be ready for mountain-running breakthroughs.


David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.

Behind the Scenes at the 2017 Hardrock 100

Colorado’s Hardrock Hundred always seems to produce some of ultrarunning’s most unlikely and harrowing stories—like last year’s unusual first-place tie between Kilian Jornet and Jason Schlarb, or when, in 2014, Adam Campbell got struck by lightning on top of Handies Peak and still finished in third place.

In the rugged San Juan Mountains, the 2017 race—which saw Kilian Jornet, Mike Foote, Joe Grant, Caroline Chaverot, Darcy Piceu and Nathalie Mauclair on the podium—was no exception. The race kicked off with a hailstorm—”definitely the most adverse weather I’ve experienced in my three Hardrocks,” says second-place finisher Mike Foote—and would ultimately see epic injury-comeback stories in both the men’s and women’s races.


Jornet’s Dislocated Shoulder

 When updates came through that the 29-year-old Spaniard Kilian Jornet had fallen and dislocated his shoulder at mile 13, many wondered if the two-time defending champion would call it quits (his 2016 co-champion Jason Schlarb, of Durango, Colorado had already dropped, after coming down with a debilitating stomach bug).

“Most people would have dropped, and no one would have thought anything of it,” says Joe Grant, the Boulder, Colorado runner who finished third behind Jornet and Foote.

However, against expectations, Jornet continued on, with his arm in a sling, tucked into his racing vest.

“His shoulder was quite painful when he moved it, so he had to be more cautious on the downhills, but he … was OK when he was hiking uphill,” says Grant. “He is so strong that he’s able to operate at a much lower intensity, which is what allowed him to manage this type of injury and still win the race.”

 Though Jornet’s finishing time of 24 hours 32 minutes 20 seconds was the slowest of his three finishes at Hardrock, the injury hardly seemed to faze him. “I offered to help him grab things from his pack when he was struggling to get them,” says Foote, of Missoula Montana, who also shared some miles with Jornet in the second half of the race. Jornet declined the offers, but did allow Foote’s pacer to help him zip up his jacket.

“It’s funny,” says Foote. “It’s this big race, but, in the moment, you are just trying to help each other out. We talked a lot on the climbs, and it felt oddly casual … like friends just hanging in the mountains.”


 Related: The Happy, Hungry, Weary, Weathered Faces of the Hardrock 100


Caroline Chaverot Gets Lost

Caroline Chaverot has made a name for herself on the international trail-running circuit—in 2016 she won the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and was crowned IAU Trail World Champion and Skyrunning World Champion. Hardrock was the Franco-Swiss runner’s U.S. debut.

“This race is held in a wild and beautiful place, with a great atmosphere and a real history,” she says. “I thought it would be the perfect race to discover the American trail-running culture.”

From the gun, Chaverot ran aggressively, well ahead of course-record pace. “I kind of knew that [Caroline] would go out fast,” says Piceu, of Boulder, Colorado. “I didn’t think I would see her much based on how she went out in the beginning.”

Chaverot may well have set a new women’s course record, had she not gotten lost just before mile 70, below Virginius Pass. Volunteers at Kroger’s Canteen, an aid station famously located on top of the pass, watched in horror as her headlamp bobbed in circles for more than an hour and a half.

“The terrain is tricky down there—hanging ravines, headwalls and acres of talus and tundra,” says Roch Horton, who is captain of Kroger’s Canteen. “[She and her pacer] were going in circles, in and out of our view point. It must have been really frustrating to be so close, yet so far, from the course.”

Indeed, the episode sapped Chaverot of the positive attitude she’d carried for the first half of the race. “I lost a lot of energy sprinting through the bushes, scrambling up and down [over large talus],” she says.

In the frenzy to find her way back on course, she forgot to eat or drink. By the time she found the course again, she was “angry and disappointed and totally depressed.” The entire rest of the race was, she says, “a long low point.” Yet, despite broken poles and a cracked rib, Chaverot held off Piceu for the win.


Kroger’s Canteen Serves Mescal

 On their way to a 1-2 finish, Kilian Jornet and Mike Foote shared a sip of mezcal at Kroger’s Canteen. Serving mezcal has been a tradition at Kroger’s for as long as aid captain Roch Horton can remember.

“The first year I volunteered up there, it was still called Kroger’s Cantina [somewhere over the years, the named changed to Kroger’s Canteen],” says Horton. “So we dressed up in cheap ponchos and sombreros and offered a tiny shot to anyone who would take it.

The tradition stuck, and each year Horton (who doesn’t drink) continues to offer up sips of liquor—”never enough to even cover Lincoln’s beard if you dropped a penny in the cup.”

All runners—even the race leaders—receive the same offer. “Even when in a hurry, [the leaders] find time to enjoy the experience,” says Horton. “As that cup comes back down—the pucker, the wincing smile—you can see right into their souls … and then off they go.”

Foote, who has finished Hardrock twice before, had never taken Horton up on his offer. This year, however, “it felt like the right time considering the circumstances,” he says. “I guess you could say culture trumped competitive desire in that moment.” 


Adam Campbell Finishes One Year After a Near-Fatal Scrambling Accident

 In 2014, Adam Campbell made headlines when he finished in third place after both he and his pacer had gotten struck by lightening on the top of Handies Peak. The Canadian runner returned the following year and earned third place again. However, this year, many weren’t sure he’d even make it to the start line.

Less than one year ago, Campbell suffered a 200-plus-foot fall down a talus-covered slope in the Canadian Rockies, which left him with broken T8-T11 vertebrae, a broken iliac crest (hip bone), a broken ankle, several foot fractures, torn ligaments and tendons and severe lacerations. Miraculously, Campbell survived. After several rounds of surgery, and several weeks in a wheelchair, he had to re-learn how to walk.

By December, he was starting to run again, and by May was running up to 80 miles a week.

“I visualized finishing [Hardrock] constantly,” he says. “But I also visualized the struggles I would likely face. I think too many people visualize perfect scenarios … and are then unprepared for the difficult patches. Success comes easy when you’re feeling good, but truly great performances come to those who have to figure out how to overcome adversity.”

On race morning, out of habit, he lined up at the front of the start line. He hung with the race leaders for a few miles, but by mile nine he couldn’t keep up. Crushed, he jogged along as the front pack cruised away, and began to cry.

“Anna Frost … ran past me, stopped, gave me a big hug and told me, ‘It’s OK, you have nothing to prove to anyone out here,'” he says. “Those words gave me permission to change my mindset.”

At every aid station, Campbell wrestled with the question of whether or not to drop. By Telluride, he had injured his bad ankle, and for the last 30 miles he walked. “It appeared like the finish kept moving farther and farther away from me,” he says. “I was stuck in some horrible ultrarunning nightmare, where you chase a never-approaching finish line.”

Gear Review: Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR

Earlier this spring, Suunto launched its first wrist-based, heart-rate-tracking device, the Spartan Sport Wrist HR.

The device, which retails for $499, packs a dizzying array of sport-specific features into a (relatively) sleek package. In addition to cycling, swimming, obstacle-course racing, ski touring, yoga, kayaking and climbing, the Spartan Sport tracks three different categories of running: trail running, treadmill running and road running.

During a run you can toggle between screens that show: 1) pace, duration, distance, ascent and heart rate; 2) lap/interval stats; 3) heart rate and 4) a map of your route. People who pay close attention to heart rate while running should note that the heart-rate screen is a line graph instead of a numeral display, thus harder to check at a single glance while keeping one eye on the trail. The three running-specific options track virtually all of the same stats, with the exception of ascent/descent, which is unique to the trail-running screen.

Optical heart-rate sensors on the back of the watch. Photo courtesy Suunto.

In addition to importing workout stats from the watch to Suunto’s proprietary Movescount app, you can also use the app to schedule workouts and plan routes ahead of time, and view all your upcoming workouts in the training screen, like a paperless weekly planner—one feature that stands out as unique from other similar devices.  The Movescount website has a heatmap function, which allows you to see areas of particularly high foot traffic (i.e. popular trail systems), a plus when looking for routes in unfamiliar areas.

The watch also logs your overall training time across all sports, estimates your needed recovery time based on details like heart rate and pace and tracks your steps throughout the day.

Long story short: this is one of the most fully featured and fully integrative devices we’ve tested. If you want to control all of your adventure prep, workout data and general health information in one place, the Spartan Sport Wrist HR is a sure bet. If you don’t need the wrist-based heart-rate detection, high-definition display, high-level route-planning and route-finding functionality and weekly workout planner, look for a cheaper option.


Wrist-based, heart-rate accuracy

Suunto claims to have the most accurate wrist-based, heart-rate technology, though without a medical-grade heart-rate monitor for comparison, we were not able to make a determination. Relative to its competitors, the device does respond quickly to acceleration and deceleration, though there are a few seconds of lag time.



As with any device with this level of technological sophistication, the Spartan Sport Wrist HR is far from low profile. However, once you’ve fussed over whether to wear it under or over your jacket sleeve, it feels comfortable and surprisingly light, and stays put without much slipping—an element that is particularly important for the wrist-based, heart-rate detection. However, because of the shape of the silicon band, runners with smaller wrists may find that it does not synch down as snug as models with a more traditional hinge.


Touch screen

Touch-screen functionality is one feature that sets the Spartan Sport Wrist HR apart from other brands. The touch screen works great with dry hands, but (as with any touch-screen device) it does not respond reliably when wet, from sweat or rain. Luckily, you can still navigate using old-fashioned buttons, on the right side. The watch is supposedly waterproof up to 100 meters, though we did not test that feature.


The Wilderness Within: Washington’s Issy Alps 100

It is pitch-black dark in the woods, just past 3 a.m., when I see the eyes. They catch in my headlamp beam, yellow and beady and low to the ground, about 15 feet in front of me. My legs freeze while my heart turns into a jackhammer.

I can now see the full body of the mountain lion as it shifts, slowly and silently, from a lazy crouch to standing on all fours. Though I have no previous experience with mountain lions to draw from, I sense that this one is more curious than aggressive. A gentle breeze stirs the leaves of the trees around us.

For the better part of the past two days, I’ve been plodding through these mountains in a solitary reverie. It is my second night out in the woods, and I’m less than two miles from my finish line—the High Point Trailhead and terminus of the Issy Alps 100, an unofficial course wending through the mountains east of Seattle.

I back slowly down the trail while adrenaline continues its frantic gallop through my system. As I ponder the possibility of not finishing this very arbitrary thing I’ve set out to do, I shake my head and think, Damn you, George.

It isn’t the first time someone’s cursed his name in these mountains.

I’d originally met George Orozco at a fatass-style 50K in this very place, Tiger Mountain, five years earlier, in 2011.

We’d become fast friends,bonding over our mutual love for the trails. It wasn’t long after that that he began poring over maps with the idea of creating a 100-mile linkup of local mountains and foothills. His vision was to create a “sea-level Hardrock,” a route with some 30,000 to 40,000 feet of vertical climb that anyone could go attempt anytime, independent of lottery luck, financial resources, altitude adaptation or travel constraints. For many runners with full-time jobs and families (like Orozco, who once told me having two full-time jobs was “good sleep-deprivation training for ultras”), such an opportunity immediately piqued local interest.

As he worked out the details of connecting various peaks, he often invited others along on his bushwhacking explorations.

“I probably feel the most kidlike when I’m running with George,” says Jenn Hughes, 38, of Issaquah, Washington, and a longtime friend and training buddy of Orozco. “He’s always scheming and dreaming, and there’s just so much excitement over discovering the trails.”

Because he and I both mistook the other’s sheer enthusiasm for mountain running to suggest more experience than either of us possessed at the time, most jaunts I accompanied him on turned into what climbers call “an epic.” We’d forget to pack food; we’d descend into the wrong drainages; we’d ensnare ourselves for hours in blackberry briars. But, mostly, we laughed. We chalked up our foibles to “a Barkley day,” and marveled at all the simple, exquisite pleasures that running in the woods afforded us.

If you’d asked him a decade ago, Orozco, now 40, never could have imagined he’d someday be a runner. He grew up in eastern Washington, where he’d participated in Boy Scouts and played basketball and baseball. But after high school, he lost interest in sports and the outdoors altogether.

“One thing led to another, I got out of shape, made bad decisions and got into a downhill spiral,” he says. By the time he reached his thirties, he weighed 340 pounds and had been smoking a pack a day since he was 18. When he and his wife at the time had their first of three children, Orozco got motivated to make changes: “My kids were the best things to ever happen to me, because they got me back on the straight path.”

Several years later, he read Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run, which inspired him to sign up for a 12-hour trail race near Seattle. Still pushing 250 pounds on race day, he showed up in a gray baseball shirt and basketball shorts. He nearly bailed as soon as he arrived. Everyone was wearing what he remembers as “really funny outfits, with knee-high socks and different colors and really short shorts. I felt so out of place.”

But the race directors,Christina Ralph and Tom Ripley, went out of their way to introduce him to the other runners. He spent much of the day getting passed on the loop course, but recalls the way so many people patted him on the back as they went by, telling him, “Keep it up. You’re doing great!”

Those words motivated him to keep putting one foot in front of the other for 12 hours nonstop, no matter his pace. When the race clock ticked down its final minute, he’d covered 44.44 miles. His feet felt as though they were fractured in every bone. But he also felt overwhelmed with the sense of accomplishment and the friendliness of this new community he’d stumbled into.

Orozco and Jenn Hughes share a laugh during fatass-style run on Tiger Mountain in 2013. Photo by Jerry Gamez

Another book soon piqued Orozco’s curiosity: Bone Games, by Rob Schultheis. Written in 1984, the book introduces a cadre of colorful characters, ranging from climbers to mountain runners to shamans, who all, in their own ways, use “risk, exhaustion and so forth to break through into more intense, potent states of being.”

The stories in Bone Games immediately intrigued Orozco. Schultheis waxed poetic on the ability of solo endeavors in the wild to “break down the everyday consensual reality most of us never escape.” He wrote of the way “magic becomes a kind of habit after we do the difficult, the near impossible, over and over and over again,” and of how emotions like pain and fear “could be alchemized into blissful, sublime confidence.”

In service to that quest for transcendence—the “bone games,” as Schultheis dubbed them—Orozco began training for and running progressively longer ultras. In 2012, he applied to run the Plain 100. A low-key, self-supported race near the unincorporated town of Plain, Washington, it has no course markings and no aid stations or water stops. Pacers are not permitted. For the six hardy souls who showed up to run the first year, in 1997, Plain provided nothing but paper maps and directions. No one made it to the finish.

In more recent years, the 100-miler (a 100K option was added in 2014) usually sees about a dozen finishers per year, give or take. Those who find success are often the same sorts of people drawn to similarly demanding events such as Hardrock, the Barkley Marathons and Italy’s Tor des Geants—quiet, social-media-eschewing legends of the greater ultrarunning community.

When Orozco applied to run Plain, the race directors at the time—the same couple who organized the 12-hour race he’d done—apologetically told him no.

“They said, ‘We feel like you’re a liability,’” says Orozco. “And I understood. I told them, ‘Thank you for being honest with me.’ Plain is a very remote course and everyone’s on their own. I probably would have gotten lost, and it would have been a bad thing.”

But the rejection lit a fire within him to develop his map-reading and route-finding skills, and to get more comfortable venturing out alone. When he got accepted into Plain a year later, his 100-mile bid ended with a DNF. The next year, he signed up for the 100K instead, returned more motivated and better trained than ever, and won it outright.

Running Plain that year, he’d experienced a deep sense of ease and mind-body connection, teetering on the edge of the kind of spiritual transcendence Schultheis had described in Bone Games.

George Orozco is all smiles at the 2016 needles 50K in Easton, Washington, an event that debuted as an informal, fatass-style run. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama

“Issy Alps” is short for the “Issaquah Alps,” a nickname given in the 1970s to the mountains east of Seattle by the cantankerous conservationist and prolific writer Harvey Manning. The role Manning played in the preservation of public lands in Washington cannot be overstated. Breathtaking places ranging from the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area to North Cascades National Park to the Issaquah Alps themselves (where Manning lived in a cabin) might not otherwise exist as they do today without his fierce advocacy.

No doubt, his christening of the term “Issaquah Alps” was tongue-in-cheek; compared to their jagged, glacier-covered eponyms in Europe, the Issaquah Alps are modest, no more than 2,000 to 3,000 feet in elevation. Their trails are dark mazes through towering old-growth forest and moss-coated rocks, frequently damp with the dew, drizzle and fog so characteristic of the Pacific Northwest.

Though Orozco’s Issy Alps route spends about two thirds of its mileage within these foothills, its first 30 miles bag a series of more prominent peaks to the east. The rocky summits of Mailbox Peak, Mount Teneriffe and Mount Si pop out above the trees and, on a clear day, offer spectacular views of the glaciated Mount Rainier more than 50 miles to the south. If you squint, it’s also possible to glimpse the Seattle skyline, tiny and silhouetted against the backdrop of Puget Sound and the snow-capped Olympic Mountains looming beyond.

Beautiful rock cliffs and a waterfall on the northwest flank of Mount Si. Photo by Jim Reitz

Despite feeling remote at times, the Issy route does not sit in the secluded backcountry or vast wilderness areas that blanket other parts of the state. While many sections traverse long-forgotten footpaths grown over with stinging nettles, other stretches pass through residential neighborhoods and utilize crowded hiking trails.

It is practically a rite of passage for Seattleites to hike up the first mountain on the Issy route, Mailbox Peak, so named because someone hauled a literal mailbox to its summit in the early 1960s. The well stickered, graffitied mailbox is stuffed with an ever-changing supply of tchotchkes, and the summit is nearly always bustling with hikers. (Over the years, the mailbox has been replaced numerous times—once, for a while, by a newspaper distribution box consistently and mysteriously stocked with up-to-date copies of Seattle’s alternative newspaper, The Stranger.)

In recent years, a gently graded trail to the summit has been built, partly in response to the sheer volume of search-and-rescue calls from those lost or injured on the mountain. However, the Issy Alps route uses the old, unmaintained trail to the top—a mercilessly steep slog up the mountain’s flank that climbs 4,000 feet in two and a half miles.

One of the trickiest sections to navigate of the entire Issy route is a faint path, largely swallowed in blackberry brambles, between Rattlesnake and Tiger mountains. It lies beneath a network of power lines and towers, and crosses a river directly beneath a noisy highway overpass. During my own attempt, I lost the trail for hours there. Like someone flailing in quicksand, I couldn’t move either forward or backward; in trying, I slipped again and again on slick, exposed roots and plummeted into briars that gashed my legs into a bloody mess. It was a strange juxtaposition—my own lonely reckoning in a landscape while the clamor of civilization buzzed overhead.

Manning had a name for these semi-urban wilds. He called them “the wilderness within.” And, as he once advised in a 1996 profile in Backpacker, they’re every bit as valuable as more remote places; in them, he said, “A person can walk along for hours with a pleasing internal dialogue, undisturbed by the outside world.”

Jess Mullen finished the Issy 100 in 2014. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama

By Orozco’s own rules for Issy, you must declare your intentions prior to starting. The route now has four options: the point-to-point 100-mile, 100K and 50K courses, plus the “100K Hard” option, a yo-yo of the 50K course. Unless you complete the precise distance you stated, it doesn’t count. (No one has taken the brunt of this rule’s harshness more than Orozco himself, who’s attempted his 100-mile course twice and quit both times 100K in, but never credited himself with an official 100K finish.)

Despite his own obsession with doing the route solo and self-supported, Orozco says the community aspect of Issy is also what makes it special. After all, it was the support and kindness of other runners at his first trail race that really sold him on the sport in the first place. Since then, he’s been on a tireless mission to pay it forward.

The course’s online watering hole is Orozco’s “Issy Alps Ultra(s)” Facebook group, where runners frequently post their intentions and GPS tracking links. Photos are shared and advice is sought. Those who choose to run Issy supported are often showered with beer, pizza, milkshakes and other assorted “trail magic” sundries, delivered unexpectedly along the way by friends and fellow group members.

“To this day, it’s one of the most fun running experiences I’ve ever had,” says Jenn Hughes, who finished the 100-miler in 2014. “You get this crazy, out-of-body adrenaline feeling, and the whole freaking community is there to cheer you on. It makes you want to be that kind of person who’s out here for people. And George brought that all together.”

The original iteration of the Issy route made its debut four years ago as a casual 100K group run. The next year, Orozco upped the ante, designating the new and more grueling 50K, 100K and 100-mile courses.

One morning in early May of 2013, 18 people set out to tackle the new Issy. Deep snow put a stop to everyone’s efforts that day. Two months later, Van Phan, 45, of Maple Valley, Washington, returned and became the first finisher of the 100-mile route. Her time (supported) was 37 hours 58 minutes. She was the only one to complete it that year, and to date is the only person who’s finished the thing four times, including once in reverse.

Van Phan is the only four-time finisher of the Issy 100. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama

Phan is a Northwest legend in her own right, nicknamed “Pigtails” for her signature long, black braids and quirky affection for pigs. Tough as nails and a self-described sufferer of “ultra-compulsive disorder,” she’s completed more than 400 races of marathon or ultra distance, 50 of which have been 100 miles or longer. At finish lines, her signature post-race outfit is a bathrobe and slippers.

“Van is all business when she’s focused,” says Orozco, who began running with her years ago. “She took me under her wing without even knowing. I felt like a rag doll being dragged from switchback to switchback. If you want to go out for a leisurely hike, you can do that. Just not with Van.”

Hughes says what really stirred her interest in doing Issy was reading Phan’s recap: “She wrote about almost crying, and I thought, ‘Anything that can make Van cry, I want to do.’”

Phan works full-time as a physician assistant in orthopedic surgery. In 2012, she wanted to try a 200-miler, but didn’t want to travel across the country to do so. So she decided to organize one in Washington called the Pigtails Challenge. (Shorter distances were also offered; 100-mile finishers got buttons that said, “I only did the half.”) The first year, she crossed the finish line in third place overall, and was the only female 200-mile finisher.

Phan takes a moment to enjoy the views atop Mount Teneriffe. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama

Orozco was among the eight other 200-mile finishers that year, along with Ras “UltraPedestrian” Vaughan. Vaughan, whose formidable dreadlocks distinguish him in any pack of runners, is a vocal proponent of tackling ambitious “projects” that combine elements of ultrarunning, fastpacking and occasionally mountaineering.

In March 2014, Vaughan, now 45, set out to try to put up the first men’s and first unsupported time on the 100-mile Issy route. He was enticed by the additional challenge of navigating through heavy snow on the course. With a fully loaded pack of gear including Microspikes, an ice axe and  a GPS, he set out alone.

“Don’t get me wrong; I love races,” he says. “It’s tons of fun following bright ribbons through the woods and being handed snacks and beverages by your friends every few miles. But for someone like me, who comes from a backpacking background, has spent years living off grid and working and playing in the woods, the race paradigm is a very narrow way to approach the trail. If I’m not self sufficient, I feel like I’m cheating. It just feels too luxurious.”

It took him 67 hours to complete his unsupported winter Issy. The days and nights of postholing through snow, getting rained on, struggling to navigate and shivering in the cold took their toll. But at the end of it all, says Vaughan, “It was a huge expansion of my perception of my abilities and what I considered possible.”

More recently, he teamed up with another local mountaineer and ultrarunner, Gavin Woody, to tackle the “Rainier Infinity Loop.” The 120-mile route comprises a double summit traverse and circumambulation of Mount Rainier in a single push. Legendary climber and Washington native Chad Kellogg first conceived of the loop, but never had a chance to do it himself due to a fatal climbing accident in 2014. Vaughan and Woody were the first (and currently only) people to complete Kellogg’s masterpiece.

Outdoor aficionados in the Pacific Northwest have a long tradition of devising rugged challenges for one another through their local wilds. Generally, such grueling lines through the mountains offer no set dates, no formal aid stations, no course markings and no finisher swag. And yet, for all their arbitrariness and self-induced suffering, they’ve become an irresistible magnet for many runners.

One of those runners is Jeff Wright, 55, of Burien, Washington. Though a runner since childhood, Wright’s foray into the ultrarunning scene was via skiing and alpine climbing, and the realization that he could move even faster and farther through the mountains by lightening up his pack. After a familiar progression through increasingly longer race distances, Wright found himself curious about the realm beyond supported races. He signed up for Plain.

“That made me realize I could be self sufficient,” he says. “Before Plain, I kind of relied on aid stations and directions. Doing research on how to do it was no different than planning a weeklong backpacking trip—just all sped up, in fast-forward motion. It created a mind shift for me.”

Though he still runs some formal races, increasingly Wright feels himself drawn to other challenges. On a rainy spring day in 2016, he snagged the unsupported FKT on the Issy Alps 100K course (since broken by John Barrickman, another disciple of many of Washington’s gnarliest, below-the-radar challenges).

“Finishers’ buckles are nice when I get them,” says Wright. “Now they collect dust on a shelf in the corner of my office. I feel the experience I had during the run means more to me than any token award. Running events like Issy Alps grounds my soul and helps me be the person I long to be.”

Ras Vaughan is an Issy 100 finisher and architect of other below-the-radar challenges in the Northwest. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama

In recent years, Ras Vaughan and his wife, Kathy, have also established an annual, informal series of adventure routes. New challenges are designed by local runners and introduced annually. This past year, the UltraPedestrian Mind/Body Challenge had three components: cover an 86-mile route through the rugged North Cascades, tagging the Canadian border between back-to-back summits of the 6,100-foot Desolation Peak; read or listen to one of Jack Kerouac’s works inspired in part by a summer he spent alone on Desolation Peak in the 1950s; write a trip report tying your own experience to Kerouac’s literature.

Another of the 2016 UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenges was a 56-mile route traversing Washington’s Olympic Coast. It was designed by Heather “Anish” Anderson, the self-supported FKT holder for both the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail. At first, even Anderson herself wasn’t certain it could be done in a single push because of the complexity of the tide patterns; at high tide, swaths of the route disappear. Barrickman was the only one to pull it off the first year without getting hung up overnight by the whims of the Pacific Ocean.

“There’s a real sense of competition and community as multiple people try to figure out a giant puzzle,” says Tim Mathis, 36, of Seattle, an Issy Alps 100K finisher.

After the tides forced Mathis and a friend to call it quits halfway through their Olympic Coast Wilderness Challenge attempt, he reflected on his blog, “You know what they say: If you haven’t DNFed, you haven’t been trying enough of the crazy-ass shit that Ras plans.”

And when it comes to trying crazy-ass shit, there may be no better poster child than Richard Kresser, whose first big ultrarunning achievement was completing RAGBRAI—an annual, 416-mile bike ride across the state of Iowa—on foot. A former US Army engineer, the 31-year-old Kresser is liberally bearded and rarely without a grin on his face.

Richard Kresser and his van. Photo by Joel Ballezza

“We get addicted to ultramarathons, because they make us feel things we could never feel in our daily, normal lives,” he says. “I’ve constantly broken through barriers I once thought were impossible, and that has given me the confidence to chase other dreams in my life, such as quitting my job and living out of my van.”

For him, setting the supported FKT on the Issy Alps 100-mile route last March was “spring training” for some of his other 2016 ambitions, including three 200-mile races. Of those, he won two outright; the third, the Tahoe 200, he and a friend acted as course sweepers from start to finish while, just for the hell of it, drinking 50 beers apiece. His other big project for the year, which he dubbed “Dick’s RASH,” entailed summiting and circumambulating four of the Northwest’s major volcanoes—Rainier, Adams, St. Helens and Hood—in less than a week. (Two-hundred-forty-seven miles with 74,000 feet of elevation gain, in case you were wondering.)

“Races like Hardrock and Tor des Geants really would provide that challenge too, but are so tough to get into,” he says. “In the meantime, while I am waiting for lotteries, I need to go elsewhere and seek out harder stuff to keep me entertained.”

Beyond Issy, Orozco also devised something several years ago that he calls the Harvey Manning Peak Challenge—a solo, no-pacers-allowed, choose-your-own-route peak-bagging quest to summit 18 mountains in a single push. (It probably merits mention here that Manning himself, a staunch believer in the sanctity of moving slowly through the backcountry, once referred to trail running as an “act of war.” Nonetheless, there’s nary a trail runner in the state of Washington who hasn’t benefitted from Manning’s tireless advocacy work.)

So far, the Peak Challenge has no finishers.

[Editor’s note: over July Fourth weekend, Washington runners Ras Vaughan and Seth Wolpin became the first people to complete the Harvey Manning Peak Challenge, in 78 hours 36 minutes. Read about their accomplishment.]

Rattlesnake Lake at Sunset. Photo by Jim Reitz

Last June, I made my own unsupported attempt on the Issy route. Forty hours in and smelling the barn, I’d gotten lazy about making noise in the dark woods to alert animals to my presence. And so abruptly, to the surprise of both of us, the mountain lion and I came face to face.

Ultimately, it was not this sighting that stymied my Issy effort, but a simultaneous navigational error and a brief, unsettling encounter several minutes later with a stranger in the woods. In retrospect, the man was probably harmless—perhaps just someone like me, enjoying a solo amble in the pre-dawn shadows. But in the fog of my exhaustion, fear got the best of me and I simply lost my will to finish. My friends’ house in Issaquah was an easy bailout, so I went there instead.

Still, I had a rich sense of satisfaction with the whole experience. Outside my bedroom window, birds began chirping, anticipating the sun. As I drifted at last into a deep, blissful sleep, a passage from Bone Games echoed through my mind.

“There is a peculiar joy to planning and putting together an expedition, even the smallest, most quixotic one,” wrote Schultheis. “It is a child’s idea of what adult life is supposed to be like, really … It is how we should live all the time—full of naiveté, innocence, a sense of profound, playful importance—and almost never do.”

And, with a faint smile, I thought, Thank you, George.

Yitka Winn is a contributing editor for Trail Runner. In hopes of redemption, she attempted to cover the final mile of the Issy route two months later, only to run into a bear. Someday she’ll make it to High Point Trailhead.









Jared Campbell, Luke Nelson Set FKT on Utah’s Uinta Traverse

On July 7, 2017, Jared Campbell and Luke Nelson ran approximately 60 miles over 19 summits in Utah’s rugged Uinta Mountains, logging 22,600 feet of ascent. Their time of 32 hours 50 minutes 28 seconds was a Fastest Known Time (FKT).

“You wouldn’t really call the Utah 13ers a trail-running objective per-se, because it is third-class boulder-hopping for 30 hours,” says Campbell. “It helps to have a background in both climbing and trail running.”

Jared Campbell making time crossing a snowy ridgeline. Photo by Luke Nelson

The Spark

Both Campbell and Nelson are veterans of the backcountry and the alpine. Campbell, 37, of Salt Lake City, Utah, has finished the Hardrock 100 10 times, and won the race outright in 2010. He has also finished the notoriously difficult Barkley Marathons three times (the only person to do so) and, in 2012, completed the Nolan’s 14 challenge in Colorado’s Sawatch Range.

Nelson, 36, of Pocatello, Idaho, comes from a climbing background. Before turning to running, he was a  mountaineering guide, a semi-pro snowboarder and, in 2012, he was the U.S. Ski Mountaineering national champion.

Nelson has placed well in a number of high-profile ultras, most notably a first-place finish at the 2014 Bighorn Trail Run 100. FKTs in particular, he says, “add a little extra spice to an adventure. I like being able to do something that has a little bit of a competitive element to it, in a place where you could never have a race.”


Campbell looks out on the seemingly endless expanse of scree and talus. Photo by Luke Nelson


Campbell and Nelson met through Idaho’s Pocatello 50. Campbell was one of the initial race directors and Nelson, who raced the 50-miler as his first ultra, is the current race director. Since becoming acquainted, the pair has laid claim to the FKT for Idaho’s 12,000-foot peaks, which sparked a desire to run the Utah 13ers.

Located about 45 miles (as the crow flies) from Salt Lake City, the High Uinta Wilderness area is Utah’s largest designated wilderness, and contains all of the state’s 13,000-foot peaks, including 13,528-foot King’s Peak. The Uinta Traverse is a relatively new route, established in 2015 by Jason Dorais and Tom Goth, who completed it in 36 hours 18 minutes 58 seconds. Most of the route is off-trail on scree, talus and exposed ridges.

For both Campbell and Nelson, it was attractive precisely because of how few people know about it. “In Colorado, the 14ers get so much attention,” says Campbell. “But […] in Utah, surprisingly, only a small group of people even know where all the 13ers are […] they are a really underappreciated mountain range in the States.”

In 2016, Campbell had made a solo attempt, which ended prematurely when a boulder fell and sliced his finger. “[It was] the middle of the night and my finger [was] open all the way down so that I was looking at tendons,” says Campbell. “I had to bail. It was 24 miles out on foot just gushing blood.”

Determined to go back and give the route another go, he reached out to Nelson, who readily agreed.


The Adventure

Mostly out of necessity, the pair decided to make their attempt unsupported. “There really isn’t an easy way to do [the route] supported, because pretty much anywhere if you decided to bail, it would be 15-plus miles to a trailhead,” says Nelson.

Anticipating snow up high, they packed their bags on the safe side: down jacket, down pants, ultra-lightweight bivy sack, gloves, rain jacket, pants, traction devices, ice axes, food and water.


Packing for the big day. Photo by Jared Campbell


“Just three weeks prior to when we did [the Utah 13ers] you probably could have skied most of [the route],” says Campbell. “We were doing recon online, searching ‘Kings Peak, Uinta Mountains’ and all we saw was pictures of people skiing.”

The pair set out at 5:40 a.m., at the West Fork of Blacks Fork trailhead, 52 miles from Evanson, Wyoming, the nearest town.

As it turned out, the snow was a benefit, not a hindrance: they ran up snow-free south-facing slopes and down the snowy north-facing slopes. “Some of the snowy descents were able to save us a lot of time, probably on the magnitude of hours, because the terrain is normally so slow to travel on,” says Nelson.

A couple of mountain goats, a herd of 60 elk and a few people near the trailhead were the only signs of life that Campbell and Nelson encountered.

“It’s really loose. Everything you step on teeters, which made travel exhausting,” says Nelson, a first-timer in the Uinta mountains. “Jared told me it was going to be scree or talus essentially the entire time, but I underestimated how difficult this particular range is.”

As darkness enveloped the peaks, a full moon helped to guide them. For Nelson, the darkness held a certain familiarity. As a father of three and a full-time physician’s assistant, Nelson’s training runs often happen in the wee hours of morning or late at night. Yet running into the night still posed challenges.

Just before midnight, on the “really steep and very loose” scramble up East and West Gunside, fatigue and hunger began to kick in. Then came the thunder.

With a forecast of 40- to 50-percent chance of thunderstorms, both Campbell and Nelson had gone into the trip skeptical that they would make it very far. “I envisioned us going out there, getting a few peaks in and then just sitting out underneath a rock in a rainstorm for 15 hours and then bailing,” says Campbell.

Against all odds, the thunder rolled around them and then past them, without incident. So they kept moving.

“If you do something this long inevitably you are going to have highs and lows,” says Nelson. “Jared and I have been doing this for long enough to know that when you are in a low spot you just eat some food, tuck in behind your partner, put your head down, one foot in front of the other and keep going.”

After 32 hours 50 minutes the pair emerged at the Swift Creek Trailhead—the end of the route—just as the raindrops began to fall.


Photo by Jared Campbell



From 13ers to 14ers

Next on both Campbell and Nelson’s plates is Nolan’s 14, the challenge to summit 14 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado’s Sawatch Range in under 60 hours. Campbell, who has already completed the challenge in 2012, will be heading out this weekend for his second time on the route, with Gary Robbins, who currently holds the FKT for Canada’s West Coast Double (West Coast Trail and Juan De Fuca Marine Trails) and also famously missed a finish at the Barkley Marathons with a wrong turn two miles from the end.

“[Gary] put so much training into Barkley and it didn’t work out the way we all wanted it to for him,” says Campbell. “So I would love to see him get a high level of satisfaction out of Nolan’s.”

Celebrating at the finish. Photo by Jared Campbell

In early September, Nelson is also hoping to attempt Nolan’s 14. “At this point in my running career I enjoy these types of adventures more than racing,” says Nelson. “I see a lot more people and different attitudes starting to enter into the sport, but I think the old-school ultrarunning feel is still [present in] FKTs and big adventure runs. We don’t take ourselves so seriously.”

Campbell and Nelson also have plans for linkups of Wyoming’s 13ers and Montana’s 12,000-footers.

“My suggestion for people who have never thought of the Uintas is to look [them] up and head out there,” says Campbell.  “I think as a group we [trail runners] get goal oriented. We read about something and everybody gets obsessed over the same projects. That is all well and good, but I encourage people just to grab a map, maybe a mountain range they haven’t heard of and start scheming things to do there.”

12 Spring 2017 Trail-Running Shoes, Reviewed

A shoe can make or break the trail-running experience and, rightly so, we trail runners demand a lot out of our running shoes. We want protection, but also ground-feel; cushion, but also agility; support, but also flexibility; light weight, but also durable materials; mud-worthy tread, but also a smooth ride. Everyone has a different definition of the perfect trail shoe. But one thing is universal: our expectations are lofty … some might say unrealistic.

Yet, somehow, trail brands have managed to turn our complex demands into real, trail-ready shoes. From cushioned-yet-nimble maximalists to lightweight-but-protective mountain racers, here are 12 of the most exciting shoes on the market this spring.


Editors’ Choice
Scott Supertrac RC

Price: $150

Weight: 8.8 oz

Drop: 5 mm

The Supertrac RC is the lovechild of a racing flat and an aggressive mountain-running shoe. It is the lightest shoe we tested, but, compared to other shoes in the same weight range, the Supertrac offers a shocking level of protection and security over slippery, technical terrain.

Traction was the biggest selling point for our testers, who all remarked at the confidence they felt charging steep, muddy downhills and loose, rocky singletrack. The aggressive, chevron-shaped lugs are oriented in a unique circular pattern, which affords traction for sidehilling, banked turns and tight, winding singletrack.

True to its low profile and racing pedigree, the Supertrac is stiff—though, again, well-cushioned compared to other shoes in its weight class. Rocker in the forefoot provides a smooth ride, avoiding the “slappiness” typical of such a rigid shoe. The foot-hugging, tightly woven upper does require some wrangling to slip into—and may limit breathability and drainage—but, once laced, it provides a reassuringly secure fit. The tongue is un-gusseted, but the ribbed padding keeps laces in place.

Fit: Performance fit, with a narrow toe box.

Bottom Line:  Ideal for fast, technical mountain runs. The stiff midsole and minimal cushioning might be uncomfortable for longer distances.


Hoka One One Challenger ATR 3

Price: $130

Weight: 9.5 oz

Drop: 5 mm

The Challenger ATR 3 is the same reliable all-arounder it’s always been—just faster, stiffer and more adept on technical terrain. The ATR 3 retains its most identifiable features, including modest (relatively speaking, to, say, the Mafate) stack height, a sparse lug pattern with exposed midsole foam and characteristic rocker that makes for a smooth ride on both trails and pavement.

But thanks to a stiffer midsole and an updated, narrower fit, it is more supportive and more agile than the ATR 2. This is especially noticeable when sidehilling. Despite hefty cushion, the ATR 3s do not compromise on ground feel, and grip admirably on rock, scree and hard-packed snow.

The upper mesh is more tightly woven than earlier iterations, reinforced with delicate, crisscrossed overlays that enhance durability and support without adding weight. The toe bumper has also been reinforced.

Fit: Narrower than previous iterations of the same shoe.

Bottom Line: This is a fast, stable and agile shoe good for long distances over technical terrain. Not ideal for mud.


Brooks Caldera


Price: $140

Weight: 9.9 oz

Drop: 4 mm

As one tester described, Brooks’ Caldera is the Subaru Outback of trail-running shoes: stable, protective and reliable in all conditions. The shoe is generously cushioned, with moderate forefoot flexibility and torsional stiffness, for a nimble, responsive and lightweight ride. Testers found themselves reaching for this shoe on a daily basis, for its supreme comfort, sticky outsole and ability to tackle technical terrain.

The textured lugs are more grippy than their low profile might suggest, particularly noticeable on rocks and in wet conditions (however, after 100 miles, testers were disappointed to find the lugs ripping off the outsole). With a relatively low heel-toe drop, the Calderas manage a decent amount of medial support via increased midsole density under the arch, which over-pronators will appreciate.

The upper is light, with durable toe and heel bumpers and prominent overlays across the midfoot. Some testers had trouble with the laces loosening.

Fit: True to size, with a roomy toe box.

Bottom line:  An ultra-distance mountain runner that’s so comfortable you’ll want to keep it on for post-run drinks.

With regard to the lugs ripping off, Brooks’ product team made this statement: “Over the course of the shoe’s development, we discovered the outsoles in a specific batch of prototypes were not properly bonded. We know runners expect the highest quality from Brooks, and we resolved the issue for the final round of shoes so that runners can have the confidence they need to tackle the trails.” – Jena Winger, footwear product line manager. 

Editors’ Choice
Salomon Sense Pro Max


Price: $150

Weight: 10.2 oz

Drop: 6 mm

Cushion-lovers rejoice: there is finally a Salomon Sense shoe for you! This new addition to the Sense line features a stiff, amply cushioned midsole, with a wider toe box than traditional Salomon models. With the added cushion comes some added weight, but don’t let the shoe’s beefed-up appearance fool you. The Sense Pro Max is surprisingly light, agile and responsive, toeing a healthy balance between protectiveness and “spring.” The mid-sized, diamond-shaped lugs are equally at home on technical mountain terrain, dirt and paved bike paths.

Testers unanimously remarked at how comfortable the shoe felt out of the box. The upper is airy, with a thin, gusseted tongue that wraps around the sides of the foot.

Fit: True to size, with a roomier toe box than a typical Salomon Sense shoe.

Bottom line:  Jack-of-all-trades, this shoe is ready for a long day in the mountains or a jaunt through the park.


Adidas Aggravic Speed


Price: $120

Weight: 9.2 oz

Drop: 8 mm

This barely there shoe features a thin, un-padded upper and minimally cushioned midsole, with low-profile lugs that transition well from pavement to trails. Adidas makes up for the small lugs with an uber-grippy Continental-rubber outsole that lends an unexpected degree of confidence on rock, wet slabs and other technical surfaces (though is not ideal in thick mud). The midsole is quite firm—some testers felt it was too firm—with adequate flexibility in the forefoot.

Testers’ favorite feature is the stretchy, neoprene-like inner-sock liner, which wraps snugly around the foot for a fast-feeling, performance fit. This inner liner is strategically perforated—even so, it is not as breathable as typical mesh.

Fit: Narrow, performance fit.

Bottom Line: This shoe is ideal for short and fast missions, for those who don’t like a lot of cushion.


Altra King MT


Price: $140

Weight: 10.2 oz

Drop: 0 mm

The Altra King MT is sleek and fast, but surprisingly aggressive. With a stack height of just 19mm, the low-profile King MTs don’t look like much … until you turn them over and look at the outsole, which is equipped with a tight pattern of six-millimeter lugs. The midsole is minimally cushioned, and reinforced with a midfoot rock plate. The combo of an aggressive sole and a rock plate doesn’t compromise flexibility or ground feel, though some testers said the King MT felt less cushioned than their other Altra shoes.

In place of supportive midfoot overlays, Altra has added a unique Velcro strap, and testers appreciated the added security it offered through the midfoot.

Fit: True to size, with a roomy toe box.

Bottom line: This shoe is good for technical, sub-ultra runs.


La Sportiva Akyra


Price: $140

Weight: 11.4 oz

Drop: 9 mm

The Akyra is a rugged mountain beast, ideal for technical mountain running where precision and grip are of the essence. But despite its bulky appearance, this shoe is surprisingly agile. The moderately stiff midsole and aggressively lugged, sticky outsole transition seamlessly from singletrack to a mid-run scramble session, lending confidence on smear-y slabs and small, technical features. These shoes are also exceptionally stable, with substantial medial and lateral posts.

Traction and run-hike-climb adaptability aside, testers were particularly enamored of the shoe’s secure fit, especially through the heel. The tongue is gusseted and comfortably padded, while the upper is breathable, with hefty protective overlays that lend a certain degree of protection against water. Said one tester, “I stood in a stream for a full minute before my socks felt wet.”

Fit: True to size, with a high, supportive ankle.

Bottom line: This is a rugged mountain shoe that runs well and lends confidence on technical, rocky terrain.


Scarpa Spin

Price: $130

Weight: 8.9 oz

Drop: 4 mm

Runners who want total ground feel will love the Scarpa Spin.
This shoe is on the minimal side, with a thin, flexible midsole and low cushion. The shoe does have a rock plate, though several testers remarked that they were able to feel the contours of everything on the trail, including pointy rocks. Ground-feel aside, this shoe performed well on technical terrain and was surprisingly stable for its minimal construction, though noticeably lacking in arch support.

In contrast to the minimal midsole, the outsole is on the burlier side, with lightly textured, medium-depth lugs. The upper is moderately padded, with a thin, gusseted tongue.

Fit: On the long and narrow side, with a wide heel counter.

Bottom Line: This is a capable mountain runner for those who prefer ground feel over protection, and a great dirt/grass/gravel runner for everyone else.



Under Armor Horizon KTV

Price: $130

Weight: 9.8 oz

Drop: 7 mm

The Horizon KTV is ready to take whatever the trail dishes out. A stiff, relatively dense midsole wards against roots and rocks, while mid-sized lugs grip loose surfaces. Despite its rigidity, the Horizon KTV is surprisingly lightweight. An aggressive heel counter and plush Achilles cushioning make for a dialed fit through the rear, with a snug sock-like liner in the forefoot.

The upper features broad TPU overlays, in particular over the toecap. This enhances the shoe’s durability, water resistance and ability to keep out debris—but might also limit breathability in warmer temps, or quick draining after stream crossings.

Fit: True to size, snug in the heel and forefoot, with an average-size toe box.

Bottom Line: This is a tough, protective, durable shoe that is surprisingly light for its size.


Topo  Terraventure


Price: $110

Weight: 10.4 oz

Drop: 3 mm

The Topo Terraventure is a minimalist shoe that all runners—even non-minimalists—can enjoy. With a max stack height of 25mm and a 3mm heel-toe differential, this shoe hits a sweet spot between ultra-distance cushion, zero-drop minimalism and barefoot-style ground feel. The midsole is plush, and the outsole is thoughtfully laid out, with aggressive, 6mm lugs concentrated in the forefoot and heel. Presumably in a weight-saving effort, Topo has left a section of raised, uncovered foam in the midfoot. The result is protective, cushy and grippy with the flexible feel of a barefoot running shoe.

Testers found this shoe to perform exceptionally on technical terrain, particularly on rocks and softer, loamy surfaces (though not so in sticky mud). The upper is thin and breathable, with cushioning in the heel and an extra-wide toe box. The well-fitted heel and midfoot TPU overlays offer support and keep the foot from sliding around.

Fit: True to size, with an extra-wide toe box. Secure through the heel and midfoot.

Bottom Line: This is a good all-around trail shoe for runners looking to transition toward minimalism, or minimalists looking for a bit more cushion and stability for the long haul.


New Balance Fresh Foam Hierro V2


Price: $125

Weight: 10.6 oz

Drop: 4 mm

The New Balance Fresh Foam Hierro V2 is an ideal road-trail crossover for runners who like a lot of cushion. The shoe pairs a stiff, Vibram outsole with a thick, soft midsole made of New Balance’s proprietary Fresh Foam. Despite its heft, the Hierro runs surprisingly lightweight and bouncy, though ground feel is compromised. While it holds its own on technical terrain, testers found that the closely spaced, low-profile lugs struggled on slick surfaces and performed best on dry trail and road.  People who are accustomed to a high stack-height may be more comfortable taking this shoe on technical, rocky terrain.

The seamless upper is extremely comfortable, with a roomy—but not overly so—toe box and an elasticized tongue for a dialed fit.

Fit: Snug and secure, true to size.

Bottom Line: This is a good crossover road/trail shoe, for door-to-door missions on pavement and dry singletrack.


Inov-8 Roclite 305

Price: $130

Weight: 10.6 oz

Drop: 8 mm

The Roclite 305 is like an uber-grippy exoskeleton for your feet. The shoe is stiff, snug and prominently treaded, with a hardy midfoot rockplate and decent midsole cushion. The 6mm lugs perform admirably in even the slickest and stickiest mud, but thanks to their large surface area, they also track smoothly over harder surfaces.

Perhaps one of the shoe’s most unique features: the tongue is not gusseted, but sewn directly into the upper, so that there is no layer of overlapping fabric, which enhances the shoe’s form-fitting feel. The midfoot features a densely woven mesh reinforced with vertically oriented overlays, while the toe consists of a lighter, more flexible mesh.

Fit: Narrow to medium.

Bottom Line: This is a technical mountain-running shoe, good in sloppy conditions.

WATCH: Jamil Coury’s Hardrock Journey

The Hardrock 100 is famous for it’s brutal yet beautiful terrain, freak weather and crazy mishaps. This year was no exception, with a hail storm that left many runners shivering and covered in welts.

Jamil Coury, owner of Aravaipa Running, ran his way to an impressive ninth-place finish. On the way, he documented his run. The result is an honest look at the complete Hardrock experience.

“I get to see and experience so many amazing things [during these trail ultras] and its really fun to be able to share with people who may never run a race like the Hardrock,” says Coury. “I hope to inspire, entertain and move people to do positive things all while having fun along the way.”

Avoid Comparison to Get The Most Out of Your Training

No matter who you are and what you do, you can feel inadequate if you put your mind to it.

Teddy Roosevelt is often quoted as saying “Comparison is the thief of joy.” This is appropriate, since he was also famous for being a trail runner back before trail running existed (he would often romp through what is now Rock Creek Park outside Washington, D.C.). What Teddy understood is that if you look hard enough, you can always find someone better than the current version of you, and get discouraged as a result.

Running falls victim to the comparison trap more than almost any other endeavor because of the cold, hard calculus of the watch. I coach middle-of-the-pack athletes who are in the 95th percentile for fitness among the general population, but feel inadequate because they aren’t at the front of the pack. Even some of the elite athletes I coach—athletes who are among the best in the world—lament that they aren’t the very best.

Unless you’re a self-obsessed narcissist, comparison is a game you will virtually always lose if you zoom out far enough. When you compare yourself to other people, cracks start to form in self-esteem. These little leaks can eventually spring into massive existential crises. Comparison doesn’t just make running less fun—it can ruin running careers. So here are four tips to drop comparison and find self-acceptance on the trails.


1. Accept your limitations in the present and your decline in the future

The rarely talked-about reality of running is that the very best trail runners usually start with fortunate genetics. All champions work hard, but the reason that certain athletes’ hard work translates to world-beating race results is, simply, that they chose the right parents.

The goal of running training should always be to get what you can from trail running, constrained by the genetic hand you were dealt, along with your life circumstances and goals. As tweeted by Bradley Stulberg, author of Peak Performance, “Those with the longest, healthiest careers do care about results, but are not defined by them.” If you start defining yourself through comparison to others, you may be disappointed—often by factors outside of your control.

The comparison trap also applies to self-comparison. Trail-running fitness does not follow a linear progression. Instead, it follows something more like the flight path of a drunken duck that swerves and then crashes into a lake. You’ll progress, you’ll get a bit worse, you’ll progress some more and then you’ll decline gradually with age, before eventually dying. At some point in that trajectory, you’ll peak without really realizing it, only to have an epiphany one day that your best is behind you. In the face of a chaotic trail-running journey, embrace the present, no matter where it is. Entropy will win eventually, like it always does, so resolve to enjoy the game while it lasts.


2. Train by effort, not pace

During that drunken duck flight, your pace will change. Eight minutes per mile might be a sprint one year, and then a jog a few years later and then a sprint again a decade or two down the line, due to changes in training, stress, age and countless other factors. It’s extremely difficult to remove self-judgment from pace splits, both over the long-term and even over the course of a single training cycle.

Last week, an athlete I coach was crushing her workout. She was on interval eight of 10 and loving life. Feeling good, she lapped out her watch to check her pace. Her heart sunk when the number wasn’t what she wanted. On interval nine, a great run turned into a terrible slog.

The point I tried to make to her is that for trail runners, pace within a workout barely matters. Our races involve hills, rocks and streams, with hundreds of variables impacting pace. Besides, “fast” workouts don’t necessarily translate to fulfilling races. My worst races often come after my fastest workouts, because in my fastest workouts, I am running too hard.

Training by effort (easy, moderate and hard) removes the option to judge your pace during runs, making sure you stay in the moment and focus on the correct stimulus. You might not be able to run eight minutes per mile every day—or every decade—but you can always put in a good effort.

It’s okay to check out your pace afterward (or during) if you are able to not take it too seriously. But for some Type-A personalities, even checking after-the-fact may be too much feedback. I encourage many of the runners I coach (including many pros) to not use a GPS watch at all. GPS feedback is like fire—it can be fuel, or it can burn you alive.


3. Take pride in keeping your easy runs slow

Eventually, almost all runners with longevity in the sport learn that easy runs are sacred. Getting caught up in what others are doing (or in what you do on days you feel perfect) often leads to running faster than you should on relaxed training days. Too much intensity causes injuries, burnout and fatigue. It also causes your workouts to suffer. Running fast at the wrong time can make you slow all the time.


4. Only race when motivated by the process, not the results

If you make a living from running, disregard this point. Results might help a pro (or an aspiring pro) put food on the table.

For most of us, though, race results are not what let us afford pizza and beer. For us, racing can be motivated by lots of things—self-exploration, adventure, the joy of inconsequential vulnerability. But if motivated primarily by results, racing can be a slippery slope to inadequacy.

So step back and ask yourself a simple question: “Why am I running this race?” There are two main kinds of answers: those that are results-based and those that are process-based. If your “why” requires you to finish in a certain time or place, your motivation to race is results-based. Almost any other kind of motivation, from wanting a goal to train towards in the first place, wanting the most out of the months of training you’ve put in or experiencing fun trails, is process-based.

If there’s anything coaching has taught me, it’s that results-based justifications for trail running can be dangerous and often result in existential crises. If your goals have a finish line, what happens when you get there? For some, the results-based approach is sustainable. For others, it results in post-race blues with both bad and good races.

Reframe races as a step along a journey as opposed to a destination, and the pressure lifts. Little by little, removing comparison as a means to define success in training and racing can help some runners find unconditional self-acceptance.

In the process, the goal is never to use training and racing to answer the question “Am I enough?” Instead, the goal is to trail run joyfully knowing “I am enough, no matter what.”


David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.