Most weeks, I start to feel the itch by Wednesday – my muscles want to move, and I crave the scent of spruce. By Thursday, I can’t stop staring at the high peaks across the lake, and I imagine myself traversing that serrated skyline. Friday evening, I rush home to make burritos, pack my running vest, and pore over maps. By Saturday morning I’ve broken free – as the sun rises I’m already cruising across the Champlain Valley to catch the first ferry to the Adirondacks.
It’s an idealistic escape, perhaps every trail runner’s fantasy. Sure, there are places in our hearts for the competition and comradery of race day, and the comforting routine of our daily runs. But for those who have ever taken to the trails for a prolonged bout of remote, solitary running, nothing compares to the adventure run.
At the trailhead, I savor the last dregs of coffee from my thermos, those precious sacred sips. I lock the car, zip the key inside my pocket, and sign the trail register. From this point on I am unbanked and ungoverned, limited only by what I can carry and how far my legs will take me.
The first few miles offer no discernable difference from an average morning on the trails, as I dodge a steady stream of weekend warriors. I exchange well-rehearsed pleasantries as I attempt to politely pass by, I laugh at the same set of jokes I’ve heard before, and occasionally catch a few hushed conversations. “I wonder if they ever stop to enjoy the views” or “they seem to be in a hurry” some might say, as I bound ahead up the trail. Sometimes the criticisms are more direct, as serious hikers and old-timers offer unsolicited warnings “It gets real rough up there, be careful”.
To be fair, it must be absurd for lifelong hikers to witness this barrage of runners taking to the trails in recent years, with our short shorts and comparatively tiny running vests bulging at the seams, bouncing from rock to rock, scampering down scree and talus slopes like we have a death wish. To an outside observer, I must look woefully unprepared.
What they don’t know is that crammed into my vest I have managed to fit 2 liters of water, an extra layer, a rain jacket, a map, headlamp, first aid kit, space blanket, water filter, book of matches, multitool, phone with backup battery, toilet paper, a burrito, a 16oz can of beer and enough energy bars to last for days. I’ve mapped out my route, calculated the mileage, and I have backup plans in case I bonk, twist an ankle, or run low on water. My partner knows my plans, and I’ve signed in at trail registers. Arguably, I’m more prepared to deal with emergencies than most day hikers out there – and I intend to stop and enjoy the view.
A few more miles in, I’m past the crowds and confronted with an iconic wooden sign – it represents an imaginary line, but after crossing it something changes. The trails become more rugged, the ridges devoid of humans, and the swimming holes plentiful. This is a world where you can stop for hours and watch ravens tumble in the wind, call back and forth with loons, maybe catch a glimpse of a moose. A world where you’re free to roam above the clouds and take a nap next to a waterfall. In this world, the only way out is the way you came in – scrambling over boulders, leaping across streams, slogging through mud. This is wilderness.
But entering this world comes with a sense of responsibility. Accompanying the beauty – and perhaps amplifying it – are ever-present dangers. Accidents can happen anywhere, to anyone. An infamous mountain lion attack on a popular trail in Boulder, or a fatal encounter between a grizzly and a seasoned Law Enforcement Ranger remind us of this.
These risks are part of what make the adventure run so special – it’s the same pull that compels climbers to scale 2,000-foot granite cliffs, and backcountry skiers to hurl themselves down couloirs. But it is our responsibility to try and truly understand these wild places before we immerse ourselves in them. Before we set foot in wilderness, we need to familiarize ourselves with the terrain, learn the weather patterns, know the flora and fauna and how to respect them.
When I first moved to Montana, I quickly discovered my favorite run through a canyon just outside of town. It was a popular destination for runners and mountain bikers, I’d see plenty of other trail runners every time I was out, but I never saw anyone carrying bear spray. I assumed that it was close enough to town, and no one else seemed concerned about bears, so I wasn’t either. But one day I ran a couple miles further than usual, the canyon narrowed into dense willow thickets, and as I rounded a corner I saw unmistakable grizzly sign – claw marks on a lodgepole pine, and a pile of scat comprised almost entirely of huckleberries. A friend and bear biologist later told me that a grizzly sow and cubs frequented that canyon.
As I familiarized myself with the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem l grew more comfortable with grizzly habitat and always came prepared. My long solo runs often devolved into brisk hikes, bear spray at the ready, singing and clapping through the woods. I knew it was irresponsible to run alone in grizzly country in the first place, but I accepted that risk, and I felt fear every mile. Each time, once I reached the safety of my car, I’d breathe a sigh of relief and swear “never again”.
When I moved to northern New England, I felt an enormous sense of freedom in the absence of apex predators, but quickly learned to reassess my comfort levels after being caught on icy, technical terrain without microspikes as early as September, and running into bull moose on more than one occasion. I’d traded the threat of grizzlies for steep, unforgiving trails, 9 months of ice and mud, and the persistent risk of Lyme disease. Each place has its own risks and challenges
They say that the Adirondacks are America’s first true wilderness, that the philosopher’s camp on Follensby Pond inspired the State of New York to set aside land away from the miners and loggers to remain “forever wild”. They also say that Teddy Roosevelt drew inspiration from this model when he devised the National Parks. Either way, today’s weekend scene with overflowing parking lots and overused, eroded trails are probably a far cry from what early wilderness philosophers had it mind. My forays into the woods with a running vest are certainly not the same as John Muir’s rambles through the High Sierra with nothing but an overcoat and some hard tack.
But the spirit is still the same. Wilderness still exists beyond that imaginary line, for those that choose to pursue it. As runners, we have a unique opportunity to visit these worlds briefly – but intimately – with a little bit of preparation, a sense of responsibility, and an appropriate amount of respect.