TRAIL RUNNING: A CREDO
By Ian Ramsey
-Inspired by Brian Doyle’s Credo
Recently, I was telling a friend about how great it was to be on the side of a mountain, six hours into a long run, during a thunderstorm: how cold and wet and shivering and intimidated I felt as the booms echoed off the ridge as I slipped on wet rocks, and huddled here and there under krumholz before scrambling across the exposed ledges, scared for my life but also overjoyed. My friend-who doesn’t share my sense of adventure- asked me what makes me do such unnecessary, dangerous things. I made a joke about poor judgement and being crazy. My friend was satisfied and we ended up talking about the Red Sox, but as I reflected back, I knew that I had done a disservice to myself by reducing my love of such adventures to simple hubris and poor choices. So I started to think about the real reasons why I run.
I believe that we as humans are built to run and move in wild places. With the same bodies and minds that we had twenty-thousand years ago, we didn’t evolve to sit in front of zoom calls under fluorescent lights and to drive on freeways. Our glutes, one of the muscles that distinguishes us from other primates, only switch on when we run or trot, an inheritance of millennia of foot travel and persistence hunting. My experiences-and neuroscience- teach me that our senses, our emotions, and our bodies switch on when we are moving through dynamic environments like trails, forests, and mountains. When we’re in big, wild places and there are consequences like falling or getting stuck in storms, we pay attention. We feel a sense of wonder and connection to something larger and we rub shoulders with animals and weather and our own personal limits. Of course, even if all of that is true, not everyone feels this pull to long, dusty days on trails. Yet I feel this pull, for reasons I do and do not understand.
Some of those reasons I can articulate. I grew up in a semi-wild landscape of forests, lakes and pastures in the foothills of Maine’s Appalachian mountains, and I learned early to love exploring the forest, to run on the old logging trails and to explore old stream beds. In those days of three TV channels and an open landscape, my friends and I were bound as much by the cutover forests as we were by our common spirit of adventure. I have countless memories of scrambling around on rocks, running through the woods, watching bears and moose and deer, and getting dirty, wet and tired. My Norse and Gaelic ancestors in Scotland, Iceland, and Ireland certainly lived their lives in the same kind of cold, damp open landscapes that attract me. My grandfather, who just passed away at the age of 96, was a marathoner and naturalist, and his example showed me that it was possible to stay fit well into old age, to keep exploring wild places and learning about your home ground. After I went through testicular cancer a decade ago, I started running on trails, and my life was reborn, and every time I run, I feel reborn again.
But I love trail running for muddier reasons. Sometimes I desperately need to lean on the quiet solitude of the forest. Sometimes I need to disrupt the addictive patterns of social media and the 24 hour news cycle. Sometimes the stress of 21st century disruption makes me long for something more archaic, more perennial than cryptocurrency headlines and climate emergencies. Sometimes, when I’m stuck in my head, I long for the simple idiot joy of flying down a hillside without a care in the world. Sometimes, when I come around a corner to surprise a deer or a fox, I feel like a wild animal myself. And sometimes, when I finish a run and my mind and body are deeply quiet, I feel strong and healthy, which is not the case for many of my friends my age who do not push themselves into the same kinds of discomfort.
But I also have running friends who do push themselves into discomfort, who share my love of wild places and health, and I want to meet more of those souls. I want to meet people who take unexpected left hand turns in their lives, who live simply and have adventures, who get outside, who are not bound by society’s rules, who are healthy and fit and comfortable in their own skin and in mud, bugs and weather. I want to climb trees with wild joy like I did when I was six years old and feel like Geronimo, Pablo Neruda, and Pre. I want to meet other crazy souls who have agency in their own lives and know how to push through hard things. I want to run forever, or at least well into old age-like my grandfather-and I’m inspired by the septuagenarians and octogenarians who I see staying vibrant by exercising outside.
So I am a trail runner, for many reasons. Sometimes, I’m also a sea kayaker, which is a bit like being a trail runner on the ocean. In the winter, I’m a Nordic skier, where I fly along on the same trails covered in snow. And sometimes I’m a poet, which can be just as wild and mysterious and adventurous, in its own ways. But the trail running is my language. Trail running is the shoe that fits, the tent I sleep in at night.
It’s a big tent, full of 5k’ers and pimpled X-country teams and moms pushing strollers and hikers and barefoot hippies and GPS’ed triathaletes and intense ultrarunners. And it’s a tent that needs to recognize its privilege and responsibilities, where equality and inclusion and climate awareness and reparations all need more attention. But it’s also a tent where beauty lives, and inspiration, and community, and the full range of emotions and expression. And beauty is as necessary as food or water. When we run, we move in beauty and touch a deeper current of the human experience. We laugh, we cry, we yell, we reflect, we run, run, run.