Max stands before a tight crowd of about forty people during the after-hours of a running store. He looks like a real-world Albus Dumbledore, trading a trucker hat and an old, cotton race tee for the robe and Sorting Hat. His long grey locks frame his confidence and with a twinkle in his eye. Max takes a long breath and greets all who gathered: "Hey family!" he announces, loud enough so the nervous newbies in the back can hear him but soft enough so that we all lean in a little, instantly feeling warmed by every word. I stand near a display of trail shoes not too far from the speaker, my old friend, and smile. I am home.
In the trail running community, more is often an exciting expectation. I feel astounded by the grit and determination by this amazing group of runners throughout the country. By simply reading blogs, attending a running group, or hanging out at finish lines, one can feel how possibility outstretches imagination. For example, I read the other day about a woman who went from hardly completing a 5k on the road to living abroad in Australia to chase her ultra and personal goals. I have a friend who trained epically to complete The Rut in Montana, even though he lives at sea level. Lastly, a close friend from college received the gold coin entry into the Leadville 100 and she said yes, even though her longest trail race to date had been a 50k two years prior--and she killed it, too! Trail runners are incredibly inspiring and I feel so lucky to hang out with such role models as they push themselves beyond their limits.
That being said, I want to write about the opposite in order to promote the idea of sprinkling in a little less over the next few years of your running life. So often with the expectation of more, runners travel all across the state and country to knock off different races and distances from their bucket lists. Without a doubt, race vacations provide a good excuse to leave the norm and experience a new area of the country. I mean, what better way to view (insert-breathtaking-location-here) than by running at an eight-mile-per-hour clip?
However, on top of heading to a different hill every few months, I suggest selecting one race to continue to go back to year after year. Here's why.
The experience. Over the last nine years, I have left wherever I am in the country eight times to run the same relay in Montana. To date, I have missed two weddings, four family reunions, and seven hometown festivals. While it saddens me to think of what I've missed to go run, I know in my heart and soles that I need to be in Montana in order to feel alive-and I mean alive at every possible level-for the rest of the year. Without a doubt, I am committed to running this one race every year for as long as I'm able to because, well, I wouldn't be the same person if I didn't.
Less stress. All of the logistics to racing a relay take time and energy. Necessities such as campsites, grocery lists, and local breweries can be very exciting when it all goes to plan and very overwhelming when every campsite and AirBnB is booked within a fifty mile radius of the race. Selecting one race means one can dial in and find a healthy rhythm before, during, and after the race to structure the whole experience. In my experience, the racecourse, with all of its personality and pain producing potential, grows on my team like an old friend and we feel a little braver because of it. While there is always room for improvement-for example, my friends and I choose to go to a hot springs the last night instead of camping out in a mountain valley-the structure simply makes sense. Without the surprises that can stem from a new race, a person can start to focus on the heart of running: relationships.
Focus on friendship. Due to the relay structure of the race, I go every year with a team of beloved friends from college. My teammates have changed throughout the years but a consistent backbone of friends supports the team. This being said, without relay logistics to stress about, we are able to focus on each other to a point of obsession. We run to our limits as we take a break from our real lives. Our team effortlessly drifts from debauchery to tears of joy and from endless encouragement to extreme pain. Even if you choose to not run a relay, you can still grab a group of friends to join you on the annual race adventure. And, with great luck, you will meet other groups doing exactly the same.
Build a family. My team is not the only team returning year after year. In fact, we are one of many "grandfathered" teams that make the journey every summer to run our hearts out. As a result, we all gather to have a family reunion with a family that we have all chosen to belong to. And the love that I feel for my own team extends to all teams running the relay. And luckily, we take care of each other like a family. This year in particular demonstrated the care we have for one another.
One of my teammates had a wild experience getting to Montana from the Midwest and showed up five hours before the 5:30 AM race start. This meant that he needed to find a safe place to park his car for the duration of the relay. Luckily, a friend from another team named Shawn took care of us and offered for my teammate to park at his place near the start line. Another teammate had an accident involving a fence post resulting in a five-inch-long "L" shaped wound on his belly. No less than three doctors from another team examined him throughout the relay, checking for infection and irritation. At the end of every day, beverages flow from one team to another in a "what is yours is mine" mentality. Needless to say, the team that I run the relay race with extends much further than the couch on the back of our pick-up truck to a number of returning "family members." This connection is what shapes the culture of the race.
Help form the fabric of the race. Without a doubt, the legacy of returners to any one race begins to shape the environment of the race. By committing to one or two races annually, a community and culture can be carried from one year to the next. Luckily, the culture that I dip into every summer is one of love: love for running high in the mountains with positive people and smiling about it.
That being said, those carrying the culture also help new teams who are joining the relay for the first time. Running for days in the mountains with little sleep and less oxygen is extremely daunting. Hell, I get scared every year before certain relay legs! And yet, when the only expectation of a race is to have fun and do one's best, one can start to help out other teams who need guidance, music, or a little glitter. Instead of being about pain and daunting ascents, runners learn that it is more about the struggle-shuffle out of the car for one more dance party. It is about dipping into a mountain creek, even if it is only up to one's ankles. It is about seeing wildflowers, mountain sage, and bluebirds. It is about high fives and hugs. In other words, it is about so much more than running and we are the lucky ones who get to experience it.
See you later
At the end of every relay, Max and Kim always announce that any team who successfully signed up for the race receives a grandfathered spot, meaning that as long as they get their registration in on time, their team will automatically be able to do the race. Logistically, it is easier to have veteran teams running the race. But the real reason, as the duo clearly explains, is that they want us all to grow old together. For this reason, I will always pack my tent and running shoes and head to the mountains on the last weekend of the second month of summer. My family is calling and I must go. My hope is that you find a family reunion to look forward to this year.
Heidi is a trail runner and teacher living in Portland, Ore.