The treadmill can sometimes seem like a tool of punishment straight out of Dante’s Inferno. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” would make a good inscription above a row of gym treadmills. But used strategically, the treadmill can be a huge benefit to your training. And it can be pretty fun, too.
For trail runners, the treadmill has a specific benefit: never-ending hills. Treadmill climbing allows you to practice a steady power output while ascending, unlike actual trail running, where output varies a bit based on terrain. Consistent, rock-less climbs could make you a more efficient climber by letting you maximize power output without having to adjust for the terrain.
Also, treadmill climbing means that your geography doesn’t have to determine your training plan. Treadmills can turn Houston into the Himalaya, allowing you to climb a K2 worth of elevation in your basement.
Finally, after climbing a treadhill, you don’t have to go downhill. While downhill running is essential for training downhill-specific leg strength it also comes with extra impact forces that may increase injury risk. On top of that, mixing up your stride dynamics using hills may decrease injury risk. Repeat the same motion and steady power output over and over, and any weak spots in your stride may be more exposed to breakdown than if you mix it up with changes in speed and gradient. Treadhills could let you do the work without having to pay the piper.
Remember that it’s important to maintain your speed and work on flat-ground running economy, so you shouldn’t just do climbing. It’s also easy to overtrain since your heart rate will be higher on uphills; if you don’t practice easy running too, the stress will mount.
But for athletes marooned on the treadmill during the winter, or wanting some extra vert during the summer, the treadmill can be an indispensible tool. Here are some guidelines.
Easy Treadhill Runs
Most of your running should be easy. Treadhills can break up your easy runs and mix up stride dynamics in a way that lets you train intelligently without going crazy. Some examples:
The Escalator: 40 minutes to 2 hours alternating between 0-, 2-, 4- and six-percent grade every four minutes, reducing speed a couple notches with each increase in grade. This is a staple easy run that mixes up movement patterns without much thought.
Miles of Smiles: 4 to 16 miles easy with every other mile at five-percent grade. This run is engaging without too much button-mashing.
Moderate Treadhill Runs
It’s okay to add a bit more spice to your training curry a few times per week. These workouts let your body get moving without too much mental anguish.
Sergeant Surge: During a 40 minute to 2 hour run, at 15 minutes and every 5 minutes after, do 1 minute at 8-percent grade moderate, with the rest easy. This is a variation of the classic surge workout and is a great option for a moderate run you do often, including your long run each week. It mixes up stride dynamics without spending much time above aerobic threshold. You can make it an easy, everyday-style run by shortening the surge to 30 seconds.
The Burn Ladder: 40 minutes to 2 hours with 5 minutes at 2-percent grade, 4 minutes at 4-percent grade, 3 minutes at 6-percent grade, 2 minutes at 8-percent grade, and 1 minute at 10-percent, including 5 minutes at 0-percent between each ladder set. Have the 0-, 2-, 4-, and 6-percent sections be easy and the 8- and 10-percent sections moderate. You’ll likely find yourself straddling aerobic threshold during the middle sets and approach lactate threshold on the 10-percent intervals. If you do races with lots of hiking, you can add two minutes at the top of each ladder, power hiking at 12 to 15-percent grade.
Hard Treadhill Runs
Major stresses should be reserved for special occasions, emphasizing full recovery afterward. These workouts are hard, but rewarding, improving comfort with difficult climbs. Only do them if you have a well-constructed base, a lot of mental conviction and a good idea of your training goal.
The Infinity Buzzsaw: 10 minutes easy at 0-percent grade, then 4 to 10 x 2 minutes at 15-percent grade, 2 minutes at 12-percent grade and 2 minutes at 8-percent grade, finishing with a cool down of 10 minutes easy at 0-percent grade. The 15-percent grade is a power hike or slow run, the 12-percent grade is a moderately hard run and the 8-percent grade is an easy run, focusing on recovering as much as you can while going uphill. This workout acts similar to a cruise interval session targeting lactate threshold. Our athletes often use a variation prior to major ultras, like UTMB or Western States (very advanced athletes will even use it as a second workout on key days)
It Burns So Good: 15 minutes easy at 1-percent grade, 4 to 10 x 3 minutes moderate/hard at 8-percent grade with equal recovery at 0-percent grade, 15 minutes easy at 1-percent grade. These intervals have more recovery, targeting an effort slightly harder than lactate threshold. They are good for maintaining strong form while putting out lots of power.
The only limits to your treadhill adventures are those from your imagination. Practice good form and be sure to start warm and watch for calf, achilles or plantar irritation from the climbing. Staying healthy and happy matters most of all, so adjust your plan using these general principles (rather than focusing on the specifics) to super-charge your treadmill time.
David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service,Some Work, All Play.
Adding up miles, meters, hills and splits has long been an obsession of track and road athletes. It may seem a tad obsessive, but keeping track of your mileage and workouts can help you edge closer to your training and racing goals. You’ll be able to chart your improvement, hone in on what works and what doesn’t and hold yourself accountable for the goals you set; you’ll be able to keep track of how your body is feeling over time and identify the need for an extra rest day; and come race day, you’ll get a boost of confidence from looking back at the work you’ve put in.
Whether you’re trying to jump to a new distance, shave seconds (or minutes!) off your PR or just find the root of that nagging hip pain, logging your miles and workouts can help you get the most out of your training.
Track your progress over time.
Just pushed through your longest long run ever? Finally tagged the summit of that peak you’ve been eyeing? Finished an interval workout you thought would never end? Write it down. Make notes about what worked, what didn’t and how you felt. Not only will you be able to keep track of your mileage; you’ll be able look back later and compare your energy, mood and overall performance the next time you attempt something similar.
Matt Daniels, two-time member of the U.S. Mountain Running team and runner up at the 2016 USATF 30K Trail Championships, has logged every mile he’s run since the age of 11.
“I can always go back and look at previous years or workouts and compare how I was feeling at particular points in training,” Daniels says. The 29-year-old Texas native was an All-American track athlete for Adams State with a 4:02 mile and sub-15 5K to his name. Continuing to keep a log was integral during his transition from track to trail, allowing him to establish new baselines and track the effectiveness of new training strategies.
“I can track what trails I run on, the weather, elevation gain,” he says. “Re-reading [my log] every now and then forces me to remember that it’s not just a sport, but also a journey.”
Find the reason for your aches and pains
With the excitement of a new racing season just around the corner, we can be tempted to jump in and immediately log as many miles as possible. But abrupt increases or changes in volume or intensity can lead to unexpected injuries. Every body responds differently to training adjustments. Having your workouts logged means less time trying to remember what day you noticed that niggle in your knee, and more time recovering.
Over time, you’ll start to see patterns. Maybe you’re always sore three days after a downhill run; maybe speed intervals tend to flare up a particular nagging injury. If you can look back over your training, you’ll be able to pinpoint just what types of training cause your body angst.
Ultrarunner and coach Jason Koop carefully monitors his athletes’ training logs as part of a continuous feedback loop. He says it keeps athletes accountable to their training and their own bodies. They’ll be more tuned in mid workout, knowing they’ll have to report back later.
“It helps the coach see how the athlete is adapting, as well as the context behind each of the workouts or phases,” says Koop. “Having that feedback loop is really the difference between having a coach and having a training plan.”
Avoid over- or under-training
Whether you train with a coach, a group or on your own, keeping careful track of your runs is one of the best ways to maintain consistency. Adding up your weekly totals keeps you honest and helps you gauge if your mileage jumps are happening too quickly (or not quickly enough). Speedgoat 50K champ Anna Mae Flynn kept a log on the online trail-mapping tool Strava to monitor both her training cycles and her slow build in mileage as she shifted from half marathons to 50Ks and longer ultras. She credits it for helping her avoid overtraining.
“Training [to be] a mountain athlete is tough,” says Flynn. “Training properly takes a lot of time and self-control.”
This is especially key for runners new to trails or to ultra distances, she says. As you start to keep a log, make notes of how your body feels on particular days.
“It takes a long time to build a base, so maintaining a routine is key,” Flynn says. “I write notes for myself, for example, ‘Wednesday: heavy legs, but energy felt good; Thursday: recovery day, not worried about speed.’ Spend some time feeling your body out.”
Gain an extra confidence boost come race day
The initial rush of registering for a race is great, but sometime between tapering and getting to the start line, doubt can creep in. If you’ve kept a log, you’ll be able to look back on all the work you put in over the preceding months. Seeing the endless long runs and countless miles will help calm pre-race nerves and remind you that the hard part is already done.
“My handwritten notes remind me of how things were when I was feeling great and racing well, or can give me hints as to why I feel run down or race poorly,” says Daniels. It’s a reminder of the hours spent on road and trail preparing for what he loves. “But it’s more than just logging miles and keeping tabs on training,” he says. “It’s my life story.”
This summer, Mike McKnight, 28, of Smithfield, Utah, attempted to run the triple crown of 200s. The challenge would entail running three 200-mile races—the Bigfoot, Tahoe and Moab 200s—in the space of a little more than two months.
On December 20, 2017, champion ultrarunner Magdalena Boulet and mountaineer Roxanne Vogel reached the 22,615-foot summit of Ojos del Salado, the world’s highest active volcano, located on the northern end of the Chile-Argentina border.
Vogel had summited above 20,000 feet several times, but Boulet—the 2015 Western States 100 champion and UltraRunner of the Year—had never been at an elevation above 18,000 feet.
“I remember feeling this relief of getting to the top, but only for a split second,” she says. “Then it hit me: ‘Wow, this is only half way, I still have to come off this mountain.’” Boulet, 44, spoke while drinking tea in the kitchen of her cottage-style home in Oakland, California, where she lives with her husband Richie and 12-year-old son Owen.
Boulet and Vogel’s expedition was part science experiment and part adventure, commissioned by Berkeley-based GU Energy Labs, where Boulet works as vice president of Innovation, Research and Development and Vogel works as a sports nutritionist.
Their goal: reach the top of the volcano in half the time of a typical expedition. Climbers normally take 10 or more days, camping below the peak prior to summiting, to acclimate. Boulet and Vogel wanted to summit in five.
Could sea-level athletes safely be ready to summit with far fewer days at a base camp? By documenting and testing all aspects of their preparation and expedition, Boulet and Vogel hope to develop a training and nutrition protocol to help other athletes embarking on extreme high-altitude challenges.
The duo’s plan combined six weeks of rigorous training with high-altitude simulation at their homes and workplace in the Bay Area, through the use of Hypoxico Altitude Training Systems tents and chambers, which simulate oxygen-depleted high elevation. They slept in a Hypoxico tent every night and spent time working in a hypoxic chamber set up in the Gu office during the day. The team also used the opportunity to test nutritional products under development at GU.
Boulet and Vogel often had twice-daily workouts, which included a great deal of uphill work—step-ups, stair repeats and hiking on a high-incline treadmill—with a weighted vest. They also performed plyometrics, upper-body conditioning and slow running or hiking with a heavy pack. Some of their exercising took place in the hypoxic chamber.
Ultimtately, Boulet and Vogel, along with guide and expert climber Blaine Horner, met their goal of summiting in the time frame they set. But Boulet says it marked the most difficult and humbling experience of her athletic career.
Trail Runner sat down with her to discuss the expedition and how her plans for competing in 2018 are taking shape.
On Day 5 of the trip, you were at a base camp around 17,000 feet and had to go up about 5,600 feet, over approximately six miles, to reach the summit.What was the most challenging part of that ascent?
I made a rookie mistake of not breaking in my mountaineering boots. Mountaineering is definitely a new adventure for me, so I’m not as familiar with—and not as in love with—the amount of equipment that’s necessary.
I’d been hiking and doing great in my Hoka waterproof hiking boots, and I was trying to convince the others at camp that I should use them. At the last minute they told me that if I want to keep my toes, I should use the mountaineering boots, which I still kind of disagree with.
I used my Hoka boots all the way until 19,000 feet, and I carried my mountaineering boots in my pack. At a refugio, I made the switch. We had a really good pace up to that point, but [after I switched boots] I started moving slower than my two teammates, who were experienced mountaineers. I was wasting a lot of energy, slipping more. I started focusing all my energy on just walking properly. The higher we went, the slower the pace became. In addition to my pace slowing down, everything around me started to slow down. I could hear conversations around me at a slow pace.
Did you draw on past experiences at ultras to help you cope?
Absolutely. There were so many parallels to things not going perfect on race day, and being able to react in the right way.
I started to doubt whether I could do this, and there were times when my teammates were probably questioning whether I should continue. We would stop and check on each other, and they’d ask me questions. My answer every time was, “I want to keep going.” But if I were alone on that mountain, I would have turned around.
I had to dig into my bag of tools to turn doubt around, and [focused on] moving one foot in front of the other, and trying to relax a bit. Our original plan was to take 12 to 14 hours round trip [to get to the summit and back to base camp, about 12 miles]. But by the time we reached 20,000 feet, we were already a couple of hours behind. We reached the summit in 12 hours, so we were about four hours behind schedule.
Aside from breaking in your boots, is there anything else you would have done differently?
Yes, another mistake I would have corrected is access to food. As an ultrarunner, I practice with a hydration vest, so I have access to food and hydration at any given time. I also practice eating and drinking frequently. On the mountain, carrying so much equipment and gear, my fuel was in a backpack. The protocol was that we’d hike for an hour, then we’d stop to eat and drink. Then we’d continue. Moving for an hour, then stopping to fuel, didn’t work well for me. I should have had a hydration vest or something to provide easy access to fuel, so I could’ve taken it while I was moving; or, I should have practiced eating and drinking on the hour in training. My backpack didn’t even have side pockets; it was all enclosed, and the idea of stopping to take off all of that gear was really overwhelming. I could tell I needed more fuel, but the higher we got, the more my appetite was suppressed.
The final stretch to the summit features massive boulders and technical climbing.How was the transition from hiking to climbing?
Mentally, I was unprepared for that part. I knew from reading about the route that there would be ropes involved, but in my head I was thinking about the [fixed] Half Dome ropes – “I’ll just hang onto some ropes!” But this was full-on climbing, and we had to get roped in. Luckily, I was with an experienced team. According to them, I did really well. But with the level of tension and fear I felt, I wouldn’t say I did that well. In in my head I was thinking, “Wow, we still need to come back down this rocky part.”
What was the summit moment like?
I felt my cognitive response was slower, and I was under-fueled. I ate, but things were not going down easily. It was windy and about negative 10 to 12 Celsius (14 to 10 degrees Farenheit). But we got lucky. The day before, it snowed on a French team that summited; they had no views.
I keep saying to everyone, “I went to Mars and back.” It is the most remote part of the world. I didn’t really believe until I saw it. There’s just nothing for miles and miles [except for] 20,000-foot-plus peaks.
How did you handle getting down?
I definitely moved slowly and not in a straight line. That’s when it was evident to me that I didn’t have control of my lower body or legs. If it were not for gravity, I’m not sure I would have been moving. I’d gain some momentum, and anytime there was a turn, my legs would collapse and I’d fall to the ground. Roxanne was in front of me, and I’d brake on her to go in the right direction. That happened until about 19,000 feet, where we went into the refugio and I switched my shoes. Once I did that, I was cruising. But I could tell there was nothing left in my legs.
What advice do you have for other athletes facing high-altitude challenges?
Know the toll that exercise is going to have on your body, and make sure you provide yourself [enough fuel]. Make your food choices as efficient as possible, and have easy access to them, because of how strenuous simple tasks become at high altitude. Also, be aware of how much you’re eating or not eating.
What advice can you offer for handling travel fatigue before a big ascent like this?
You have to go in with the right attitude. I was prepared that this was going to be intense travel. You’ve got to have the right playlist and the right snacks; make sure you have snacks in case there’s no access to good food along the way. Make sure everyone on your team is on the same page, because if you have one person complaining, it brings the energy down.
In hindsight, do you think your training was effective?
Our training protocol definitely worked. Initial body-composition and bone-density tests showed muscular imbalance for both of us. [After] our six-week training block, which was pretty strenuous, the results showed that we had exchanged five pounds of fat with five pounds of muscle and increased our bone density without changing body weight.
You’re a fast runner. What did you like—or not like—about this strenuous, slow high-altitude hiking?
I loved it. I absolutely loved the challenge and the problem solving. It’s not that different from setting out to do a 100-mile race. It took me 18 hours, almost as long as doing Western States. I definitely see this as an ultra-endurance event, despite moving so slowly.
What are your racing plans for 2018?
I would like to go back to UTMB. I’ve decided not to do Western States, and I am struggling with giving it up. I wanted to pick one or the other, because I don’t think doing both is conducive to a great performance. I’ve looked at Marathon des Sables, Mt. Fuji, and at a new race by UTMB in a very remote part of China on the border with the Himalayan mountains; but, they’re all coming up really quickly, and I still have not committed to any of them. I might do the Mont Blanc Marathon as a preparation for UTMB.
What did you learn about yourself through this summit experience?
I was brought down to my knees. I didn’t think I’d ever have such a humbling experience in any athletic endeavor. I’m just tapping into this sport of mountaineering. I absorbed a lot in a short period of time, but a lot I need to practice. You can’t replace experience.
This interview was edited for length. To see more of Boulet’s photos from her expedition, and to read her descriptions of each day of the journey, see her Instagram posts @RunBoulet.
We are seeking a qualified Assistant Editor with strong journalism and writing skills and a broad knowledge of (and passion for) trail running. Applicants should also possess a thorough understanding of the outdoor community and marketplace. The position requires location in the town of Carbondale, located on Colorado’s Western Slope.
Job responsibilities include assisting the editor in editorial and marketing planning; writing and editing both print and online articles; soliciting photography; organizing and writing shoe, gear and apparel reviews; executing weekly e-newsletters; attending summer and winter Outdoor Retailer tradeshows; and developing and executing social-media strategies.
We’ve all set goals for the year, be they new distances, PRs or big peaks. Now comes the hard part: putting in the miles, logging workouts and setting yourself up for success, both this season and for years of running to come.
Our 2018 wall calendar features 12 training and running tips from 12 athletes.
2016 World Mountain Running Champion
“To help boost stride efficiency, uphill power and your ability to handle pounding downhill, do some adaptation training for the feet. I use the Trail or Vapor Glove (zero drop, minimal cushion) for light running within each training cycle to build up muscles in my feet and improve toe-off power.”
“Throughout my career, others have pushed me and inspired me to make myself a better runner. As I get older, I like to push the limits of what I’m capable of and show others that they are capable of more than they thought possible, too.
But, as you continue to push yourself, remember you only push past your limits by understanding your body and learning the importance of rest and recovery.”
“Trail running can offer you whatever experience you are looking for: a chance for quiet solitude or the energy and camaraderie of a group run. Most communities have running clubs and group runs that can be at on of fun.”
“Keep running simple. Too often, we over-complicate running with excessive metrics, data and expectations that distract from the basic act of just moving on foot.
By shifting our perspective, we can approach running in a more relaxed state of mind. That mental ease translates to better physical performances, but also greatly enhances the overall running experience.”
“Don’t put too much stock in training. Sure, there is a time and place to put in the work and take your running just a little bit seriously. But if you ever start resenting your running shoes, and the time outside no longer contributes to your happiness, throw out your training plan and rebuild your relationship with the sport.
Run when you want and what you want (or not at all), until you feel excited about training again.”
There’s no magic pill, food, training tip or shortcut to get you where you want to be. Learn to love the everyday grind, be patient with results and don’t be afraid to take on challenges that make you uncomfortable. Whether it’s everyday life or training, that’s where growth always happens.
1st place, 2016 Way Too Cool 50K (and Trail Runner contributing editor)
“Take easy running seriously. It’s hard not to get caught up in running faster and faster, just because you can. But consistent easy running is the key to unlocking your potential, because it lets you stay healthy and run longer.
Eventually, by running easy a lot and faster a little, you may even find your ‘easy’ pace becomes faster than you thought possible.”
Winter is the time of year when lots of trail runners plan the upcoming race season. If you aren’t careful, you are at risk of making decisions that are not best for your long-term love of running.
The process of choosing and signing up for races is a lot like going to a crowded grocery store when you’re starving. The aisles are packed with hundreds of equally hungry shoppers. You might really want chocolate, but won’t get it unless you show up at 5 a.m. that morning to stand in line. Instead, you convince yourself that you’re a big fan of olives because that’s what everyone else likes (plus you’ve seen some engrossing olive documentaries). Or, you notice that clam chowder is on sale and come home with three cans of it, even though you’re allergic to shellfish.
In other words, filling out your spring and summer race calendar is complicated and can be a bit stressful. You have your own wishes; but you also have implicit pressure from your peers. To make things worse, you have seemingly unlimited choices. What is a hungry shopper to do?
Here are three guidelines for deciding the best races for you. Remember, different things work for everyone, so these guidelines may not be applicable to your worldview, and that’s okay too.
1. Know your “Why”
Before most ultras, I pose a simple question to each of the athletes I work with: “Why do you want to do this?”
I don’t care much about the specific answer; I just want each athlete to probe his or her true motivations. By internalizing your “why,” you’ll have a joyous, adventurous race experience. Fail to think about it in advance, and you may find yourself having a mid-life crisis at an aid station.
After we’ve answered “why,” I ask two follow-up questions.
First:“Is your ‘why’ based on comparison?” If it is, think about the implications of self-evaluation for your long-term happiness. For some, the comparison trap (even self-comparison, like trying to beat a PR) could lead to conditional self-acceptance. To avoid despair, read the fine print of any self-acceptance contract before signing on the dotted line.
Second: “Would your ‘why’ survive even if you DNF?” If an athlete answers “no,” he or she might be too focused on the finish line and not enough on the process.
Finish lines come and go. Often, when you reach one, nothing changes. A person who has raced 100 miles is worth no more than a person who has raced 50 miles or five miles; a person who has won a 100-mile race is worth no more than someone who has DNFed from a 100-mile race. Process matters; results are temporary.
A ‘why’ that endures as a positive force in your life irrespective of the finish line will set you up for a fulfilling, long-term relationship to running.
2. Do not idealize the event or the training
When you’re staring at a computer screen, it’s easy to distill a race into numbers and lose sight of the emotions, stress and pain you’ll experience along the way. Running up steep hills, running at 5 a.m., bonking … trail running is not an easy sport. Challenge is a big reason why many of us trail run in the first place; but losing sight of that difficulty when making race commitments can lead down dangerous paths.
To avoid biting off something you don’t want to chew (like olives), think about what an event actually entails. When an athlete is contemplating a big decision about a race, one of my time-tested traditions is to give the athlete a hard workout that approximates the demands of race day.
For an intense race, do 5 x 3 minute hills hard, contemplating your decision while full of hurt on the fourth interval.
For an ultra, do a 20-mile run and end with an all-out 10-minute hill climb. Decide at minute four.
There’s an old adage that says something like “You need to love your partner at their worst to deserve them at their best.” Trail races can be fickle partners, so make sure you know them intimately before committing.
3. Consider life stress
Running is just one part of your identity, and in order to be fulfilling long-term, racing cannot negatively compromise other parts of what make you a unique person.
If you enter a race in New York, but live in California, what does that mean for other aspects of your life? Will you spend the whole trip feeling like a bad parent or bad partner? If so, find a race more suited to your personality.
What about training for said race—does the process sound fulfilling, or does it make you anxious? It’s okay to leave your comfort zone, but not so much so that training causes mountains of stress and oceans of misery.
Think about whether the race you are signing up for—and the training—seems more like a vacation or a business trip. Vacations are fun, relaxing and enjoyable; business trips are stressful and focused on results. Commit to events that are adventures, not obligations.
David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service,Some Work, All Play.
Just 10 runners competed in the 2017 Yuzhu Peak FKT race, which was held this summer for the second year in a row. The event takes runners 12 kilometers out and back to the summit of Yuzhu Peak (20,420 feet) on China’s Tibetan plateau, making it the highest trail race in the world.
This video, by The Crew, follows the field of elite runners who came out to attempt the race in 2017, including former Hardrock 100 champs Anna Frost and Jason Schlarb, and former World Skyrunning Champion Stevie Kremer.
“Do you think you will use 12 millimeters or 16, Sam?” My friend Henry was leaning across the aisle of the bus, looking at me with curiosity. We were riding up to Nottingham, England, with our fellow Highgate Harriers, a premier running club in North London, to compete in the English Cross Country Relay championships. I had no idea what he was talking about.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Twelve-millimeter or 16-millimeter spikes … for the
Henry dug into his bag and removed a spike, a single threaded piece of metal sharpened to a point and designed to be screwed into specific racing shoes for traction. I’ve screwed hundreds of spikes into dozens of racing flats, but this particular spike seemed gratuitously long.
“I didn’t realize they made cross-country spikes that long.”
I had only packed my usual ¼-inch spikes. Henry offered me some of his longer variety. The mammoth shard reminded me of the enormous shark tooth that Richard Dreyfuss digs out of the side of a shark-wrecked boat in the movie Jaws. It began to dawn on me that I was unprepared to race on English terrain.
“No, thanks. I might trip if I wear those.”
A few hours later, during the race, Dreyfuss’s phrase, “This was not a boating accident!” echoed in my head as I slipped, slid and stumbled through the English countryside, wishing I had followed Henry’s lead and used the larger shark-tooth spikes.
I had traveled to the United Kingdom to do archival dissertation research for my doctorate in history. I arrived in the summer, just in time to enjoy running in south England’s best weather.
“Not bad,” I thought, as I went on morning jaunts through Hampstead Heath and Regent’s Park in north London. Waking early with the sun, I would run up Golders Hill to Spaniards Inn, a pub built in the 16th century, and jog into the Heath. I would often trot by the Romantic poet William Blake’s house, and skip down the gravel paths around Kenwood, a Georgian mansion complete with dueling grounds. A sharp brisk air would give way to the rising sun—morning dew steamed in the golden sky as the temperature rose. Not bad at all.
Then, in late September, it started raining and never really stopped. The ground sucked up moisture until it could hold no more, at which point, the earth became a waterlogged sponge. Even in the hub of central London, walking down the sidewalk, I noticed mud seeping up through the gaps between paving stones. It was as if London was no longer anchored to the ground, but now floated unmoored upon a sluice of liquid earth. I had visions of skyscrapers sinking down into the morass of the old Roman city, the gaudy glass buildings of Canary Wharf resettling back into the muck of the Isle of Dogs. The Thames would prevail over this ancient town and reclaim London from the hubris of engineers and city planners. All would become mud.
ne weekend day when the archives were closed, I ran north on a greenway toward Barnet, the terminus of the London Underground’s Metropolitan train line. On my way out I jogged through the occasional moor; black freezing mud splashed up on my legs. I slipped trying to cross a cattle gate and landed in a cesspool of slush and manure runoff.
The run back home was a grimy affair, as the gunk hardened on my legs and back. When I returned to my apartment—a low-ceilinged attic I was renting with two fellow migrants—I spent 45 minutes in our tiny pre-fab Ikea shower trying to rinse off the grit.
“Well, this is a new low,” I thought as I shoved a particularly intransigent piece of cow flop down the semi-clogged shower drain.
English mud is an interesting animal. It is dark and cold. It has a fecund smell, reflecting the fertility of the Thames River valley’s loamy soil. English mud is also a reflection of the English people. It takes a certain type of constitutional sturdiness to tread on that ground. The mud is resilient. It is unstanchable. Sometimes in moments of xenophobia, e.g. Brexit, it faintly smells of shit. Yet the English—a people who live amidst the bluster of the North Atlantic, who gave Hitler the finger during the Blitz—they can certainly handle their mud. For myself, however, by the beginning of winter I was starting to fray at the edges.
I still wanted to race on English mud. Trail races were scarce in London, but there were plenty of club cross-country races around the metropole. The British do their cross country in proper fashion: they wait for the late fall to bring rain that turns race courses into absolute muck. This is a far cry from the manicured golf courses of American cross-country running. The English race in irregularly shaped parks with eccentric names like Wormwood, or Ally Pally, or Milton Keynes.
The courses, barely paths, feature some nasty stuff: 100-meter stretches of slop, pitches of slush that sink you to your calves, side inclines that make forward progress nigh impossible. The English excel, indeed revel, in conditions that would lead most American race organizers to cancel a race. It is nasty, it is grimy, it is freezing and it is uncomfortable. It is glorious.
I spent my teenage years training in the Carolina Piedmont, a territory of gentle hills and summer humidity that stretches from Georgia to Virginia, hugging the eastern slopes of the Appalachians. The soil here is slick and red, the product of vast iron deposits that have oxidized, creating a bright rust-colored dirt. It looks and smells like blood. On wet days, you can tell who has hit the trails: the sanguine mud leaves telltale signs on the insides of the calves, rubbed off from the bottoms of shoes.
This is not a natural occurrence. The red soil of the Carolina Piedmont is the result of agricultural overproduction between 1800 and 1950. Like most parts of eastern America, the native forests were clear-cut and the fields put into production. Generations of farmers tilled the rich topsoil to grow cotton, tobacco and soy. Over the years, as rainstorms flowed over the work of innumerable plows, this native soil eroded away. It is now scattered across the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. So we are left with this red mud.
Carolina mud is slick and close to clay in consistency. It can thus make for sketchy footing in heavy rain. The mud is also visibly bright. When I was logging heavy mileage in the summers of my college years, the debt-fueled housing boom was at the peak of its bubble. New home sites and subdivisions popped up every month along my running routes. These homes always began as huge red slashes in the ground. Bulldozers churned up the land to reveal an expanse of bloody sediment. Red mud covered tires and slathered shoes. It rested upon the welcome mats of suburban homes. It was scraped off outsoles onto the edges of buildings and fences. In the winter, red mud was everywhere—dragged into shopping malls and car dealerships and BBQ restaurants. When I think of the Carolinas, I think of this ubiquitous ocher soil that made trails into orange streaks, winding through the woods.
fter my stint in England, I landed in Northern California, a place of fault-lines and freeways, of microclimates and canyons. Californian mud is heterogeneous, like Californians I suppose. This diversity is evident underfoot. Wet Sierra soil is gritty. If you stumble and fall, Sierra mud will cut into your hands and knees. Around the San Francisco Bay, the mud is diverse; it seems to vary almost trail by trail. Some paths are slippery affairs in the rain, requiring significantly lugged tread to keep moving. Others drain water easily and greet foot-striking shoes with a satisfying “crunch.”
Some California trails feature the dreaded “Sticky Mud,” that sedimentary destroyer of runs. Sticky mud grabs the bottom of your shoes and refuses to let go. It then grabs anything else you step on: sticks, rocks, leaves, small animals. All are caught up in the tyrannical regime of the Sticky Mud. Pity the trail runner who encounters Sticky Mud, which turns their shoes into two-pound agglomerations. It can only be removed from shoes by a mile of pounding on the pavement, or with a fortuitous puddle, or with 10 minutes of diligent picking with a stick.
Yet even when the soil is annoying, it roots us to a particular place, to a particular moment. Perhaps this is why we find stability running on the trails, no matter how uneven or rugged the terrain. We are, quite literally, grounded.
Trail runners are attracted to the transcendence of the beautiful view and the open vista of a broad horizon. We often forget about our point of contact in this sport—how it shapes and determines the way we move through the world.
Mud and dirt are the material stuff within which we are enmeshed as we tread, step, slog and grind through the world. There is more to running than pretty sights and bodies in motion. There are also innumerable textures, an infinite variety of tactile experiences. Remember, the foundation of trail running is, quite literally, dirt.
Sam Robinson is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, Berkeley. He is an ambassador for Salomon Running, and has top-10 finishes in several USATF trail national championships.
“Birds make great sky circles with their freedom. How do they do that? They fall. And in falling, they are gifted wings.” —Rumi
Dave recited these words as we stood in the hopeful, golden light of a cool summer morning. Anthony Pavkovich, Dave Laufenberg, both 29, and I, 24, had convened on Anthony’s lawn in Bozeman, Montana. Everything we would need for the coming week was in coolers and plastic bins: stoves, water tanks, cameras, tents and bedding, maps, running vests, several pairs of running shoes each, food, gels and chews and more books than time would possibly allow.
We were preparing for what would amount to our greatest and most challenging adventure: a seven-day, 236-mile traverse of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). We stood within a circle of friends who had gathered to see us off on our journey from Bozeman to Red Lodge, Montana.
“Guys, shall we go for a jog?” Anthony said, a sardonic grin on his face. It felt laughable, in light of how enormous this trip would be. The three of us were embarking on this journey to celebrate the wonderful public lands in our backyard; by showcasing the scale and beauty of the GYE, we hoped to help ensure its continued existence.
Anthony possesses a level-headed sureness about adventure pursuits and an objective understanding of others’ abilities, in addition to his own. This likely stems from his mountaineering background, where he developed the ethic of moving fast and light, eventually trading the heavy packs of climbing gear for a pair of running shoes. With or without a heavy pack, Anthony is a fantastic mule.
After bamboozling me to join his wild scheme, Anthony recruited Dave, whom I met last fall at a courthouse rally supporting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North Dakota, a community that was resisting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline across their tribal lands. A native of the backwoods of Wisconsin, Dave spent two years as a naturalist guide in Yellowstone National Park, and is now working on a Master’s degree in the Ecology Department at Montana State University, studying white-bark pine in the GYE. With his lanky frame, glasses and a permanent grin fixed on his bearded face, Dave possesses the knowledge of a landscape ecologist and is shaped by a deep emotional intelligence. He can also make you laugh, no matter how bad the situation. He’s a good guy to have in the backcountry.
The next morning, as the sun was rising, we summited Hyalite Peak, the pyramid-shaped keystone of the northern Gallatins. To the north rested our starting point, the city of Bozeman, already a shimmering image in the early heat trapped in the valley.
“It feels so good to be out!” I yelled into the wind.
The Gallatins are our home range, a family of snow-capped peaks, jagged and familiar. Still blessed with fresh legs, we gazed optimistically to the south at the 30 more miles of high-alpine ridgeline that we would run before meeting our crew at the first camp.
“You guys see those goats?” Anthony said, pointing to the scattered white specks below a cliff band.
I continued running the undulating ridgeline past alpine wildflowers toward Anthony, who was snapping photos. I squinted at the specks.
“I think those are rocks, bud.”
We laughed. This isn’t the first time we’ve identified wildlife, only to later discover a pile of boulders.
After descending the backside of Hyalite Peak, Dave waded out into the waist-deep waters of Crater Lake. He sported a navy-blue shirt, dark sunglasses and a big straw hat, large enough to be considered a sombrero.
“This is gonna be a good week for swimming,” he said, as Anthony and I sat patiently on the shore in a swarm of black flies.
This trip came to its final form on the steps of the Montana State Capitol Building in Helena, on January 30, 2017. Accompanied by 1,000 other Montanans, Anthony, Dave and I crammed into the chambers of the Capitol to rally against the sale or transfer of public lands. The decorative marble floor and balconies overflowed with people representing a variety of user groups: hunters, anglers, hikers and motorized users. To this day, the words of Governor Steve Bullock, his face red and the veins in his neck bulging with the exertion of delivering his passionate speech, still ring in my ears, “These lands are our heritage!”
In order to celebrate our backyard federal public lands and highlight the factors that make them so significant, Anthony had designed a route through the GYE that would put us near a crew-accessible campsite each night, allowing us to travel light and fast.
The GYE is the largest relatively intact swath of wild country remaining in the contiguous United States. It is a 20-million-acre mosaic of land, which is largely publicly owned. The GYE provides crucial habitat to some of North America’s most iconic megafauna: grizzly bears, wolves, moose, bison, elk, mountain lions and wolverines. The region is also host to a myriad of geologic processes, with the Yellowstone Caldera taking center-stage as a powerhouse to the largest concentration of geysers in the world. In the high country, there are numerous fast-retreating, alpine glaciers alongside crystal-clear lakes, vestiges of a time when most of the GYE was covered in glacial ice. It is an untamed place.
The wilderness asserted itself immediately. After six hours, we rolled into camp on the first evening, as a heavy thunderstorm cracked open. While most of the crew huddled in the cold like penguins beneath a large pop-up tent, Seth, our project photographer, was crouched in a smaller adjacent tarp nearby, shooting the scene.
“Feels like I’m in the servant’s quarters,” he joked.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
The next major segment was in the northern section of Yellowstone National Park (YNP). On day three, 10 miles in from any trailhead, we stood on the shore of Sportsman Lake, tucked into one of the most remote regions in the park. During the 1988 fires that ravaged most of YNP, the area surrounding Sportsman Lake was consumed by the flames. In the midday heat, over 90 miles into the trip, I looked up at our final big climb of the day: three miles with 2,500 feet of climbing through hot, exposed, charred-skeleton forest to a rocky ridge. Amid a relentless swarm of black flies, we filled up our water and marshaled upward.
Cresting the climb, we dropped into a lush drainage to find our support crew, who had hiked 10 miles to deliver snacks and positive energy. Dave, as usual, immediately parked himself in the stream, happily drinking a PBR; however, the giddiness from exhaustion, heat and good company had me feeling intoxicated enough.
“My, how life can change in just a few miles,” I said, sitting in the shade in a state of Oreo- and coconut-water-induced euphoria.
Just a few miles later, though, my high spirits deflated. My feet had become very tender, and soon I slowed to a walk. Fortunately, Anthony and Dave didn’t seem to mind.
In the soft, evening light, we plodded into the parking lot of Mammoth Hot Springs, where we were met by friends from nearby Gardiner, just outside the park. We hopped in their vehicle for a ride to town, where bison burgers awaited.
Sitting in our friend’s living room, I studied my feet. The bottoms were bony white, and the rock-hard surface was splitting open like a peach. I could barely walk across the room, and tomorrow would be our biggest day of the week—44 miles across the hottest section of the park. As I contemplated my ability to continue, Anthony swore under his breath, trying to close his duffel bag, visibly exhausted. Dave discussed tomorrow’s logistics with the crew, hovered over maps on a table.
Our 3 a.m. wakeup call came too soon. Fortunately, my feet looked better, and I taped them up. Even just a few hours of rest can do wonders for morale, and we were optimistic on the drive back to the trailhead.
Trotting through the tunnel vision of our headlamps along a plateau scented with sagebrush and juniper, Anthony attempted to bolster our spirits: “After today, our mileage will taper. Things will get better.”
“44 miles? I could limp that!” Dave replied, in a faux-southern drawl.
A few miles later, in the faint predawn light, we saw two figures running towards us. It was Seth and Tianse, a filmmaker who is documenting the trip for Done With It Productions.
“Woohee!” Hoots and hollers echoed in the darkness. The friendly faces breathed new life into our spirits. In a pack, we ran across the suspension bridge above the raging Yellowstone River.
In the film, Tianse will cover a growing environmental threat to the communities along the Yellowstone River, as well as the threat to public lands surrounding Yellowstone National Park. For the past several years, a Canada-based mining company, Lucky Minerals, has been working to open a gold mine in Emigrant Gulch, a tributary of the Yellowstone River. And in July 2017, despite widespread opposition from local communities and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC), the Montana Department of Environmental Quality approved Lucky Mineral’s exploratory drilling project, a significant step in the development of the mine.
That same week, U.S. Senator Jon Tester’s Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, which would permanently withdraw the mineral rights from 30,000 acres of public land in the area, received a hearing with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “I have never seen [legislation] move this fast,” says Darcie Warden, the Montana Conservation Coordinator for the GYC. A committee hearing is the first step for a bill to become a law.
We continued through the heat of the day, crossing the dry prairie like a herd of elk, careful to give the occasional lone bull bison ample distance as we passed.
“A few more miles and our longest day will be over,” Dave said, as, after 16 hours on the move, we forded the Lamar River, which weaved through the valley like a snake. Rejuvenated by the cooling dip, we started running again for the first time in over 12 hours, a small triumph.
It hurts!” I blurted, clenching my teeth. Anthony worked to relieve the pressure of my swollen shins, squeezing them like a tube of toothpaste. Within the dark tunnel of discomfort, the presence of the Beartooth Mountains, our final section of the trip, offered healing power. Surrounded by high peaks of polished white granite, we rested on the edge of an alpine lake, still iced over and framed by snow drifts in the middle of July. A jagged range thoroughly dissected by glaciers, the Beartooths feature an abundance of alpine lakes.
“One more huge hill,” said Anthony, as he massaged my aching shins. The final leg of our journey would bring us over the Red Lodge Plateau, a treeless, alien world offering no protection from the storm cells that frequently park themselves over the Beartooths.
But, today, as we traversed high-tundra landscape, the clouds clotted into an angry but benign grey mass. The high winds behind pushed us along and down into the mountain settlement of Red Lodge, population 2,200.Hobbling down the main drag, we were joined by our crew, now two-dozen strong, for our final steps.
I define home to be the places you can reach on foot from your front door. After seven days, 236 miles, and 42,000 vertical feet on very little sleep, my home had gotten bigger.
Zach Altman is a writer and adventurer living in Bozeman, Montana. To learn more about the issues affecting the GYE and the upcoming film, visit commongroundmt.com.