Putting the Run Back into Trail Running

by Buzz Burrell
Trail Times " Volume 10, No. 33 " spring 2005 (Additional Articles and Past Issues)
(article appears on page 3) -
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I was running with three friends a few winters ago. We chugged up the snow-free and steep front of a local mountain, trespassed around the back on an old logging track, and then scampered down around the side, plunging up to our knees in fresh snow, onto a set of railroad tracks which we followed back to the car. It was a good run, except I kept falling behind. These guys were not racers, while I was a well-known runner; they were not "serious" runners, yet I still couldn't keep up with them. I wondered about this. How could this be? I finally reached a startling conclusion: I was slow.
Sometimes, the most obvious is the most unseen. Somehow, this basic facet of running had eluded me: I simply couldn't move quickly. I had set the record on the 520 mile Colorado Trail and the 223-mile long John Muir Trail, along with numerous ultra adventures too numerous to mention, all of which were really fun and worthwhile. But in the process, the most primal aspect of our sport had fallen by the wayside: I had forgotten how to really run.
Since this revelation, I have become aware that I'm not alone. American road running is highly active, competitive, and internationally respected. American trail running by comparison is a backwater, a sideshow on the world stage, with very high participation levels but with relatively low status. While organizations like the World Mountain Running Association stage the Grand Prix, a series of intense and fast-paced races held mostly in Europe, the 100 mile race is by far the preeminent event here. In America, trail running is virtually equated with ultrarunning; participants jog and walk all day and then into the night, and sometimes all the next day as well, finally finishing exhausted, sometimes sick, and with only a handful of faithful or family to watch. It's no wonder our favorite event is viewed by the rest of the world largely as a bizarre aberration. By contrast, when the Federation for Sport at Altitude, another European based organization, stages it's World Series of races, newspapers and TV stations cover these exciting and technical events, and prize money is available to the dedicated athletes.
This year's Boston Marathon winner received $100,000. Scott Jurek, running for 16 straight hours over grueling terrain, wins the Western States 100 for a record sixth year in a row, sets a course record in the process and is given a belt buckle. Something is wrong with this picture.
When a person first becomes involved in trail running, their initial goal is to "run Leadville," or "do Western States." Instead of first learning to go fast, they learn how to go long. This is backwards. They may not be able to run effectively, but rather than learning the most primal aspect of our sport, they instead learn how to suffer. In short, our ultrarunning compulsion has had negative consequences for our sport:
We have become isolated from trail running in the rest of the world.
Our best trail runners are relatively slow; they can't compete elsewhere.
When excitement is lacking, support shies away, as do potentially good athletes.
Young runners do not develop their most important skills.
Our most prominent events are rather boring; participants themselves might have gone home to bed while the rest of the field is still out on the course.
Media can't cover this, prize money is almost non-existent, and the sport becomes stuck.
When tolerance of suffering replaces excitement and speed as the runners most important tool, we are losing something.

Maybe one can teach an old dog new tricks. This spring, I started to - shudder - work out on a track! I never dreamed I would do such a horrid thing. But there I was, running around in circles, just once a week, and not as fast as your average high schooler mind you, but this was faster than I was used to.
I feel good. Everyday runs are now quicker and more interesting. If I want to run long, the pace seems easy rather than forced. And last week, when I entered a trail marathon it turned into a race. I traded places with a guy for 10 miles; he'd pull away going up while I reeled him back in on the downhills; we leaned into the corners, hopped over the boulders, strided out on the flats, and powered over the short hill crests, trying to gain any advantage.
He crushed me at the end. But hey, we were racing. I loved it. I was really running it's a good thing.

Buzz Burrell ran his first ultramarathon 37 years ago, and continues to enjoy running long distances. He is the Manager of the La Sportiva GoLite Running Team, which was formed to support and promote really fast trail running and really fun trail races. Along with other members of the La Sportiva GoLite Running Team that race all over North America, he will travel to Europe this summer to challenge himself on their exciting and technical courses.