Is Commercialization a Threat to the Purity of Trail Running?

mcafeeknobwintersnowPhoto: roanokeoutside.wordpress.com

Last month I set foot on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia for the first time since I took up running in 2007. For six years I had been purchasing books about the AT and accumulating hiking, fast-packing, and running gear. I completed my miles that day with Nathan handhelds, INKnBURN clothing, an UltrAspire pack, and Montrail shoes.

I can’t say how much money I have spent over the years on the sport of trail running, but I do know that as I ran along that famous trail, the last thing on my mind was what to buy next. And yet trail business is booming.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s annual report from 2010, the outdoor recreation industry boasts $289 billion in retail sales and services as well as 6.5 million jobs in America.

To argue that this bad-wolf commercialization is a perversion of the purity of our sport is in some ways ironic. Think about how you first heard or this sport. How many of us would be running trails if we hadn’t read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, Dean Kanazes’ Ultramarathon Man or watched JB Benna’s Unbreakable?

According to a study by Gary C. David and Nick Lehecka, the book Born to Run not only increased the visibility of trail and ultra running, but completely revolutionized the shoe industry. Their study quotes The Economist in 2011: “Ever since Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run hit the bestseller lists in 2009, Zappos, an online shoe retailer, has struggled to keep up with demand for minimalist footwear.” Similarly, Vibram saw sales jump from $470,000 in 2006 to $50m in 2010.

If you have:

  • read Born to Run
  • recommended running books to others
  • read or written shoe reviews
  • accepted free gear or nutrition in exchange for a review
  • listened to a sponsored running podcast
  • paid for a race entry
  • accepted a goodie bag from a race
  • accepted a cash prize from a trail event
  • clicked on a targeted Facebook or Google ad related to the outdoors
  • bought running gear on sale
  • supported race directors making a living from well-run, well-respected events
  • worn a promotional buff
  • supported or cheered for a company-sponsored team
  • become an ambassador for a company you believe in
  • recommended a product to a friend
  • bought or read a running magazine
  • become a sponsored athlete
  • entered a running-related giveaway
  • attended a book signing
  • added a promotional badge to your blog

… then you have already participated in the commercialization of this sport. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Does commercialization prevent us from enjoying the Olympics? The Superbowl? Perhaps it does. Or perhaps we wait for the commercials with anticipation, record them, analyze them, and share them on social media.

According to ultra168.com, commercialization may have more benefits than drawbacks. “Take one look at how well the North Face 100 is doing and what it has done for Australian trail and ultra running. It has attracted the likes of Kilian and Ryan Sandes to our shores and put us on the map as a destination to come and visit. Sure the companies behind this have deep-rooted motivations to sell more gear, but should we begrudge them that if we benefit too?”

It’s trendy to speak out against commercialization but the truth is that most of us are not mountain hermits. We live in a society of mass consumerism and eagerly participate in that system. We love swag. We’ll take free stuff even if we don’t need it. Can we really compartmentalize our sport so it never touches our morning Starbucks, Mac laptops, or Amazon accounts?

As avid trail runners, our job is not to keep the money out, but to keep this sport honest. So far we’re doing a good job.

When Leadville 100 crossed the line from a respected race to a greedy money-grab, we strongly objected. Hardrock 100 removed Leadville as a qualifier for its event, accusing the race of failures in “environmental responsibility, support of the hosting community, and having a positive impact on the health of our sport”.

The popular site run100s.com removed any and all mention of Leadville 100, stating that “They’re no longer a part of the sport of ultrarunning, but simply a business venture.”

Instead of hunting down prize money, our top athletes care about and defend our sport. In a Runner’s World article, Karl Meltzer said about the new Leadville: “Life Time is in it for the money. This company is road runner, gym-based folks that do it purely to make a profit.” The gatekeepers of our trails are loyal and effective.

Another point to make is one of perspective. Although our sport has grown by leaps and bounds, it is still comparatively low-key compared to the commercialization around activities like Cross-fit or obstacle racing in the recent years. With the exception of a small handful of races, we don’t see anywhere near the bonanza of sponsors that invest in other booming events.

Still, it is not a low budget that makes our sport pure. It is the care we put into our trails. It is our willingness to move across nature with old friends and new friends, suffering when we don’t have to. Our sport’s purity lies in the value we place on resilience, determination, and giving back. We are trail runners whether we pay hundreds of dollars for gear or just head out with homemade car-tire sandals.

When I motivate people to get on trails, I know full well that my encouragement is directly contributing to a commercialization of the sport. But the payoff is worth it when I see someone finish their first ultra, win their first trail race, or grow monstrous quads.

When the crowds do get overwhelming, I can simply retreat to my backyard mountains and enjoy miles of commercial-free solitude. In a few more years, when my Montrails are completely disintegrated with gaping holes and paper-thin soles, I’ll finally descend from the mountain and buy a new pair of shoes.

 Appalachian-Trail-SignPhoto: appalachianwoman.com

 

This article is part of the April 2014 Trail Runner Blog Symposium. This month’s topic was: Is trail running becoming too commercialized?

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Should Children Run Endurance Events?

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Should Children Run Endurance Events?

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Every time I post a photo of the Redden kids on Facebook, I see the same type of comments: lots of admiration, some shock, some concern, and some downright anger.

Seth and Sabrina Redden are the proud parents of two unusual kids. Tajh (male, 11) and Teagan (female, 9) are both avid trail and ultra runners. Last year, Teagan ran her first 100K and 100-mile distance. She was nominated for the Arizona 2013 Rookie of the Year Award at mcdowellmountainman.com. Needless to say, her competitors were older than her by a large margin…as they usually are.

Team Redden is so mind-blowingly young and accomplished that Outside Magazine covered them in an article, The Art of Raising Young Ultrarunners.

View Teagan Redden’s race results.

Like the Redden kids’ Facebook page.

The debate as to whether children should be running endurance events rages on. However, it is not an entirely new concept. Children have been running marathons for a while now.

Data from the Twin Cities Marathon shows that between 1982 and 2005, 277 children have crossed the finish line ranging from ages 7 to 17 with finish times from 2:53 to 6:10.

Unfortunately, there is little scientific data on the effects of long distance running on children.

This topic intrigued us enough to chat with Seth and Sabrina Redden as well as a pediatrician on the Natural Running Network Podcast a couple of weeks ago. On the show, we discuss veganism for kids, thermoregulation in children, and a child’s eagerness to please his/her parents.

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Direct Podcast Link HERE

Here are some things that didn’t make it into the podcast:

Colby Weltland and Ed “The Jester” Ettinghausen

I had hoped to have child prodigy Colby Weltland on the show. Unfortunately, his family was traveling for a race and they were unavailable.

Colby is a 13 year old kid who has already finished several 100-mile races and aspires to be youngest Badwater finisher. I also spoke to his close family friend and pacer, Ed “The Jester”. An accomplished ultra runner, Ed has thousands of miles of experience and has mentored/paced Colby to most of his finishes.

When I asked for his insight, he wrote the following:

Just for more fodder on the subject, I know one of the concerns people have is that running at a young age will do physical and emotional harm to kids. My four kids have never run an ultra, but have run many marathons, running their first one at the ages of 8, 9, 11, and 14 (and that was because she’s a type 1 diabetic, otherwise she would have run her first one at an earlier age).

They’re all young adults now and are just fine, physically and emotionally. My 21-year-old daughter who was 8 at her first marathon just did the Disney World Half Marathon and works for Raw Threads a clothing company that specializes in running attire. She is a vendor at many of the big marathons and she still loves the running world.

I was told by many people that running a marathon at such an early age would damage her growth plates. I feel really bad now, because apparently it did stunt her growth–she’s only 5’11″!

And for me personally, although I didn’t run marathons as a kid, I did run my first two at the age of 17, and three more at the age of 18. Thirty-four years later I set three American age records: 200k, 24-hour, and 6-day, so I don’t think running long distances as a teen hurt me too much. Anyway, just thought I’d share that with you.

Oh, and one more family of young ultra runners. Brandon and Cameron Plate are from Oklahoma. They’re 12 and 13 and have both completed two 100+ mile races. Colby & I and the two of them ran together at Silverton 1,000 and ATY last year. You can find their stats on Ultrasignup as well.

Jester on . . .

Follow Colby’s blog.

Join the Run Jester Run Friends Facebook page.

Remember: There are many great programs out there like Girls on the Run and the 100 Mile Club that help introduce kids to the joy of running. They don’t have to run extreme distances to stay healthy and find a love for the outdoors.

You can check out our other running podcasts at the Natural Running Network HERE.

What are your thoughts? Should children be allowed to race ultras?
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Check out my book: The Summit Seeker

How Taking a GPS is Like Taking a Lover

mount baldy

In my mind, I am running fast and free in my short-shorts, thunder thighs and glorious glutes. My dreads are flowing behind me in the crisp mountain air and my mind is free of mileage estimations.

I am rocking California’s Mount Baldy summit, a favorite of Southern California’s elite trail runners and the grandest summit of the San Gabriel Mountains. Old Baldy (10,064 ft) stands as the third highest massif in SoCal, behind San Gorgonio Mountain (11,499 ft) and Mount San Jacinto (10,804 ft).

Dr. B.H. Fairchild and Fred Dell built this particular trail in 1889. The men had visions of a great observatory at the summit—a dream that never materialized. The Devil’s Backbone Trail came along later in 1935 and took its well-earned place as the main route to the summit.

In my mind, this is child’s play—a jungle gym of sweeping vistas and stunning rock formations. The smells of oak, bay, fir, cedar, and pine are intoxicatingly inspiring.

In reality, I am slogging, hands-on-knees, and yelling up ahead for my boyfriend to tell me how much further we have to go. He’s the one wearing the GPS and I desperately need him to feed me some data. And how is he walking so damn fast??

baldy summit

Technology is complicated. So is love. I don’t claim to fully understand either, but after thousands of trail running miles all across North America, I’ve collected some general guidelines about each. They are surprisingly similar.

Taking a tech device out on the trial is similar to taking a lover: The idea seems great in theory but there’s a chance you’ll end up miserable.

A good GPS is like a good romance: reliable but not promoting obsession, motivating but not overly demanding, and consistent while still allowing for spontaneity.

A bad tech device is a bad lover: screaming at random times for no particular reason, making you feel terrible about yourself and your abilities, and confusing you with incomprehensible buttons and triggers.

As enamored as we are with the ideal image of that powerful and gadget-less trail runner bounding nearly-nude over mountains with his beard flowing three feet behind him, chances are we have more in common with the huffing mid-packer trying to decide which hills to walk and glancing nervously at his beeping GPS while he scarfs down yet another gel.

A tech device can only take away from our transcendent trail experiences if we allow it to. Our tools should propel us forward, not hold us back.

Running technology should worry about the details so we don’t have to, clearing our minds to drink in the scenery and stay in the moment. It should help us share a particularly beautiful route with friends and help us plot our next adventure together. It should teach us to be more aware of our bodies and motivate us to do our best.

If your tech device does none of these things, it’s time to consider a new relationship. Kick it to the curb and run away without ever looking back.

If you are lucky enough to have a healthy relationship…. err, GPS…. then you already understand that these things are not surgically attached to you. Every once in a while, let out your hair and go alone. Take a day where adventure trumps athleticism and speed bows to solitude.

I don’t care what your projected pace is—there’s always a day to watch the sunrise, turn over a rock, and forget what time it is.

mt baldy

This article was selected as Editor’s Choice for the February 2014 Trail Runner Blog Symposium. You can view it HERE at trailrunnermag.com.

This month’s topic was: Are tech gadgets more help or hindrance on the trail?

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Check out my book: The Summit Seeker

 

How to Love a Runner

“The hardest part of being in a committed relationship with an endurance athlete is having to redefine normalcy.” (Chronicles of an Endurance Athlete’s Wife)

This was one of my favorite podcasts so far–a candid look into what it takes to love an endurance athlete. The voracious appetite, the disgusting shoes laid out to dry, the hours of absence during which family is not supposed to be worried… how is it that we find partners at all?

On 100 Miles is Not That Far, Stephanie Catudal tells the full story of what it’s like for her to be married to a 115-mile/week athlete, and it’s not always pretty. We discuss her points and add our own experiences to the discussion, including my thoughts on goat-love.

Listen in!

howtolovearunnerDirect Podcast Link HERE

Links to Stephanie’s original work:

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Extreme Cold Weather Running Tips You Won’t Find in Runner’s World

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Moisturize Your Penis and Other Extreme C-C-Cold Weather Running Tips You Won’t Find in Runner’s World

igloo
Yes, we went there.

Learn how to keep your arse cheeks from freezing, how to prevent your iPhone battery from going south, and what to do with that muffin top. Hey, we can’t all be Runner’s World models.

Listen in as Heather “I Can’t Put My Arms Down!” Wiatrowski lets us in on the nitty gritty details of her recent winter 50-miler (Beast of Burden) through Lockport, New York’s bitter temps.

Our podcast interview yesterday was recorded live from my igloo and full of awesomeness. Have a listen: Running in Extreme Cold Weather

natural running networkBelow are three of my personal bonus tips we didn’t get around to mentioning:

1. BUFFS!

I love these things for cold weather–I use one as a scarf, one to cover my head, and an extra one tied to my pack as a snot rag. Just don’t mix up the one for your snot with the one for your head….

2. Sunglasses

You wouldn’t think it, but these are invaluable in the cold weather if you don’t want the snow and its reflections to cause you permanent (ok, temporary) blindness.

3. Lip balm

If you forget it, you’ll regret it. Also works great as emergency lube for any type of chaffing.

And a couple things on my “To Try” list courtesy of Runner’s World (see, no hard feelings):

“When it’s raining, I slip my stocking feet into plastic baggies, then put on my running shoes,” says Darryl Dalcerri of Lompoc, California. “The baggies keep my feet dry even when I run through puddles.” Most Port City Pacers rotate pairs of shoes. If you have to dry shoes overnight, crumple up newspaper and cram it tightly into your shoes, with the insoles removed. The newspaper soaks up the moisture. (Source)

I loved this circuit workout from Jenny Hadfield. It says indoors, but I’m thinking it would be killer in deep snow:

  • Warm up walking for 3 minutes and running easy for 10 minutes
  • Repeat: 4-5 times
  •  5 minutes at tempo effort
  •  60 Seconds of slow-motion squats
  •  60 seconds of alternating lunges
  •  60 seconds of wall chair sit (exactly how it sounds)
  • Cool down with 10 minutes of easy-effort running and 3 minutes walking.

(Source)

Jenny Hadfield came to my house once:

jennyABOVE ALL….

Be kind to yourself in this polar vortex, folks. Everything feels harder because it IS harder.

According to a recent article in the Globe and Mail (eh?): “For every calorie of energy your muscles burn, only a quarter is translated in motion, while three-quarters is emitted as heat.”

Read the rest of the article to learn what the Olympians do to stay warm outdoors.

If you don’t have goosebumps yet, check out this cool (haha… “cool”) Newsweek link about the badass Yukon Arctic Ultra.

I wish you the joys of frosty eyelashes and frozen beard hair!

Here is a full video tour of my igloo:

Direct YouTube Link HERE

And to all our friends in sunny California: You bastards….

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My New Podcast Co-Hosting Gig

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A year ago when Caity of The Caity McCardell Show (also the sultry voice behind The Summit Seeker’s audiobook) suggested I get into podcasting, I told her it wasn’t really my thing. I had always been the tortured writer–surely nobody wanted to hear my whiny voice. However, these last few months I have been a heavy podcast consumer–listening to anything of quality and everything I could find about running–and I realized that I actually have a lot to add.

My perspective is representative of runners you don’t normally hear from on podcasts: female + trail + ultra + nomadic running bum + middle/back of pack + younger generation.

I don’t have the race wins or stats under my belt (yet?) but I think this only strengthens my viewpoint. I know and love the spirit of running and I’m passionate about the outdoors. I’m mesmerized by the history as well as the growth of trail and ultrarunning. As a newer generation, I want to adopt and preserve the sport as well as improve on it.

A few weeks ago I noticed that Coach Richard Diaz of the Natural Running Network was looking for a co-host. I sent him an email introducing myself and yada yada yada… I’m the new co-host for the Natural Running Network podcast. We are live every Friday!

I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to jump on board this already-successful broadcast. It basically means I get to gab without all the technical logistics of podcasting or audience-building.

Here are my first three episodes:

Running Obsession with Charlie Engle and Dr. Michelle Cleere

Are you obsessed with running? What constitutes a running obsession? Is it healthy?

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How to Run 100 Miles… or More with Marshall Ulrich

What does it take to go long? How much time and training is required? Learn about hydration, nutrition, and mental endurance.

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How to Run Faster

How can proper running form improve your speed without any additional conditioning? Dissect the mechanics of running with a scientific approach.

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Follow the Natural Running Network on Blog Talk Radio.

Be sure to check out the archived episodes as well–some great stuff there for running nerds like me!

Remember, you can call in to each show with your live questions or comments.

LISTEN MORE! Other Podcasts I’ve Been On:

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Trail Runner Nation: Vanessa Runs – Everywhere

Tri Swim Coach: Interview with Vanessa Runs

Supercharge Your Life: Stanley Bronstein Interviews Vanessa Runs

Barefoot Bushcraft Radio: Featuring Vanessa Runs

The Partnerunning Show: Vanessa Runs

Run Barefoot Girl: Micah True and Volunteerism

The Labyrinth: Vanessa Rodriguez

Happy listening!

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Check out my book: The Summit Seeker

2013: A Year of Travel Across North America

2013 vanessaruns
“Life is full of beauty. Notice it. Notice the bumble bee, the small child, and the smiling faces. Smell the rain, and feel the wind. Live your life to the fullest potential, and fight for your dreams.” – Ashley Smith

What could you do in one year if nothing were holding you back?

This is the question I asked myself at the beginning of 2013. My quest to answer it has taken us 40,000 miles across the continent. We began in California and drove north to Alaska. In the fall, we drove across Canada, then dropped into Pennsylvania for the winter at The Wolfestead. We have explored 2,000+ miles of trails and there is an urgency I feel when I tell people to stop putting off their ambitions. There is nothing holding us back.

2013: A VIDEO YEAR IN REVIEW

Direct YouTube Link HERE

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Sequoia National Park: Finding Resilience in the Forest

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While some people have fond memories of themselves as children, with days full of opportunity and innocence and mornings spent chasing puppies and rainbows, my own memories are clouded with the uncomfortable sensation of a complete lack of control. It is a fear-based aura assuring you that something bad may happen at any moment, and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.

It has been years since I’ve felt that old panicky chill, like a frigid hand creeping up the back of my neck—until the day of the Boston Marathon 2013.

I was exploring a nearby creek with the dog as we boondocked outside of Zion National Park. My boyfriend Shacky was able to pick up some 3G and checked his Facebook account. A few seconds later, he informed me that someone had detonated two bombs at the Boston Marathon finish line. We knew nothing else.

My first reaction was disbelief, followed by worry for my friends who were running the race. The feeling was magnified by the fact that we didn’t have a reliable wifi connection or phone service. Off the grid, we didn’t know our friends were safe until a couple of days later.

After Zion, we visited Sequoia National Park. I spent the drive reading various blogs of people reacting to the bombings. I knew the feeling: that something bad could happen at any moment, and there was nothing we could do about it.

It took me a long time to process the Boston events, so instead of sending my under-developed thoughts out into the blogsphere, I sought refuge under the towering sequoias. Many of these trees had stood for at least one thousand years and had known both suffering and despair. What could they teach me about tragedy?

Back in the 1800s, park rangers scrambled to put out the natural forest fires they believed threatened the sequoias. Although they were successful, the rangers soon noticed something unusual: The ancient trees stopped growing.

Richard Hartesveldt took it upon himself to investigate this puzzling matter. He learned that these magnificent trees were resilient enough to survive even the most intense fires, and depended on wildfire to clear out their competition for fertile ground, a reliable water source, and sunshine. They were difficult to destroy. (If the trunk of the General Grant sequoia tree were a gas tank on a car that got 25 miles per gallon, you could drive around the earth 350 times without refueling.)

Hartesveldt’s most fascinating discovery was the fact that the wildfire heat was responsible for prying open the sequoia’s pinecones and releasing its seeds. Sequoia seeds would fall onto the ash residue from the fires—the ideal fertile ground for baby trees. These babies would someday soar to an average weight of 700 tons—more than two fully loaded jumbo jet planes, transforming what was once a hotspot into a deep, dense forest floor. Millions of seedlings would sprout after a single fire.

Sequoias need fire. Their nature is to take root in the midst of adversity.

Lewis L. Davis was the first civilian park ranger in the early 1900s. He moved into a cabin on the park’s property and patrolled the grove for seven years, patiently raising sequoia seeds and learning more about their relationship with fire.

A century later, I ran through the forest and stopped to caress the deep burn scars at the base of the powerful trunks that Davis had cared for. These trees not only overcame adversity, but used tragedy as a tool to develop a new generation of giants.

In life, there will always be fires. It’s a natural reaction to panic when we smell the smoke. But as the heat starts to rise in our own lives, we should think of the sequoias. We can’t always control the fire, but we can always stand resiliently among the flames as proud examples to those who will someday run here.

tree28The above is my contribution to the book The 27th Mile, an anthology by runners for runners. All proceeds will support the victims of the tragedy on Boylston Street at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Learn more about this project HERE.

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Are You There Running? It’s Me, Vanessa

Vanessa Runs

As a preacher’s kid, I often saw my dad conduct marriage counseling. In his office, he kept a standard Marriage Counseling Questionnaire that he would hand out to each partner separately. They were instructed to complete it alone, without consulting their mate. My dad would then take the answers, assess them, and focus his sessions based on the responses.

The questions were meant to expose differences and highlight potential reasons for divorce, covering a broad range of topics. The most common themes were finances, expectations, and family values. Did she want kids while he didn’t? Did he expect they would live with his mother?

As a teenager, I would thumb through the questions and imagine that when I chose my own life partner, I would have it all figured out. We’d be on the same page about everything.

It didn’t work out that way.

The first partner I chose was perfect on paper, but less ideal in real life. We nailed the questionnaire, but something happened afterward that I had not at all factored into my future.

I changed.

I changed my mind.

I changed my passions.

I changed my outlook on life.

He didn’t change with me, and I found myself angry at the questionnaire. It had promised me a happy marriage. I had studied and aced the exam, yet somehow still failed.

Fast forward to a few years later when I started sizing Shacky up as a potential mate. I didn’t care about his financial stability, his job prospects, his religious beliefs, or whether or not he wanted kids.

I asked him only one question:

“Do you think you will ever get bored of running?”

He paused to think, then answered.

“No.”

“Okay,” I replied. “I’ll move in.”

And that was that.

This sounds like an idiotic way to start a relationship, but for me it was a valid question. Through the most turbulent and unpredictable years of my life, my love of running had been the only constant, growing stronger with time.

Over the past few months, I have watched with curiosity as many of my friends have lost their running mojo, renounced racing, given up ultras, or just moved on to other interests. Many have claimed to be “bored” with running, a concept that Shacky and I discussed while climbing to the top of Nevada Falls at Yosemite National Park last week.

Why weren’t we bored of running? We bounded down the dirt trail and mused about it.

How does one get bored of running? We gazed out over the roaring waterfall and theorized.

When I wasn’t reading the Marriage Counseling Questionnaire as a teenager, I also enjoyed the quirky tales of a silly girl named Margaret in Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. It’s a diary-like collection of prayers that record both the mundane and exciting details of Margaret’s pre-pubescent life. She prays about growing boobs and embarrassing moments.

I approach running the same way. It’s something I come back to every day, like a diary—through both the mundane and exciting.

Are You There Running? It’s Me, Vanessa.

Running for me is not in itself something I can get bored of. Perhaps we get bored of our weekly training routes? Maybe we are bored of specific race scenes? But running itself is just a form of movement, like driving or walking to the fridge. If we are bored of driving to work, are we really bored of driving itself?

In my training for Zion 100, I took a step back from high mileage running to incorporate some cross training. I did some Crossfit-inspired workouts, and a lot of yoga. Although I enjoyed those activities in different ways, at mile 30 on the Zion course I had an epiphany:

Shit, I really just like to RUN.”

Yesterday we were playing on the trails with Catra Corbett, described by Chris McDougall in Born to Run as the “kaleidoscopically tattooed” woman who ran the 212-mile John Muir Trail (then turned around and ran back). It took her 12 days, 4 hours and 57 minutes, round trip.

As we started running our third or fourth incline together, Shacky asked her if she ever “trains”.

“Do you ever wake up in the morning and think, Oh shit, I have to run 35 miles today!

Catra scoffed.

“Pfft, NO! I do this for fun! Maybe that’s why I’ve been able to do it for so long.”

Catra doesn’t get bored.

On Saturday we followed Catra out to Miwok 100K 60K and fed her fresh mango from the Muir Beach aid station. We spent the rest of the day cooking bacon in the RV and passing it out to runners, while cheering and rocking the cowbell. One woman walked up to us and said, “Thank you for doing this. Nobody else is doing this on the rest of the course.”

I smiled and thought about my friends who had gotten “bored” of ultras. For me, there is still a strong lure here.

After spending some time in Catra’s home and picking oranges from the tree in her backyard, we got into the RV and started driving toward Auburn. I thought back to the first time I ever heard about Catra, reading Born to Run on a park bench in Toronto, Canada. I dug through my bag for a highlighter, and highlighted Catra’s name.

I must remember her, I thought.

Later, I got on Google and looked her up. I found her Facebook page and sent her a friend request. In my mind, her world was so mesmerizing, so fabulous, and so different than my own.

I’m blown away to I realize that this has now become my world too. I’ve transitioned from highlighting the name of a running idol to prancing around with her like we’ve been lifelong friends, all thanks to this one humble form of movement. I am thrilled to think of how far running has brought me, and how closely it has aligned my everyday life with my wildest dreams and strongest passions.

Are You There Running? It’s Me, Vanessa. I’ll be here a while.

Photo: Catra Corbett

Photo by: Catra Corbett

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Social Media—Bane or Boon to Trail Running?

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This week I sat under the shade of one of the largest trees in the world, handed Shacky the camera, and didn’t take a single picture. I folded my legs over a slab of rock, and watched tourist after tourist line up, take a photo, and move on.

I took my time there. I took deep breaths, gazed upward, and wondered everything there was to wonder about that tree, the General Grant at King’s Canyon National Park.

The last few days have been a frenzy of travel, photography, and trail running. We have rushed from one National Park to the next, photographing the glorious sights, running through paradise, and sharing our experiences online. It has been rewarding, but intense, and I feared I had forgotten what it felt like to just sit under the shade of a giant tree.

For two days we had no wifi or cell service. Running through the forest, I caught myself thinking, “I can’t wait to post this on Facebook!” The term, “Photos, or it didn’t happen” came to mind, and I realized I have slowly come to really believe that. It scared me enough to not take a picture of General Grant.

The day after entering Sequoia National Park, we ran the Marble Falls trail. Near the end of the route, the trail became narrow and the ground was loose, causing my right foot to slip and tossing me straight over the mountain. It was like the ground gave out under me. One second I was running, and the next second I was eye-level with the dirt, and still slipping.

I threw my arms up, and Shacky caught my hand before I disappeared completely. He pulled me out with nothing more than a few scrapes on my ankle.

We took a couple of photos of my wounds and the Vanessa-sized hole I left in the bushes, but they didn’t look gruesome enough to post on social media. So I didn’t. This decision was followed by a strange sensation that my fall, if undocumented, didn’t really count.

Pictures, or it didn’t happen.

That evening we camped near a rushing river across from the trailhead. It was close to the road so the dog was allowed out, but late enough in the evening on a weekday that the space was abandoned. We let the dog and the cat outside, watching them sniff and play. I went inside to put some food out for the cat and that’s when I heard Shacky yelling.

“What’s going on??” I asked, as he rushed Ginger inside.

“IT’S A BEAR!”

“What??” I practically fell over myself trying to reach the camera. Thankfully, kitty smelled her food and had already dashed inside on her own accord.

Shacky later made fun of my photo instincts in a Facebook status update, only to find that most people agreed that a photo would have been preferable to rushing the animals inside.

Pictures, or it didn’t happen.

We never did get that photo. The bear disappeared down the stream as quickly as it had come, but for a few days I was proud of my quick-thinking photography instincts. Then I started really thinking about it, and now I wonder just how proud I should be…

The week was nearing its end at Sequoia National Park and I hadn’t updated my Dailymile account for days. “If I don’t do it by Sunday, it’s going to automatically post my weekly mileage and it won’t be right!” I thought to myself.

For Alec Zimmerman, a young woman from Washington, going off the grid had much more serious consequences. Alec was hitchhiking through South America, and found herself without Internet access for a total of six days.

When she finally did log into her email, she discovered her “disappearance” had become an international incident, and the FBI was searching for her. Except she was never lost. She was just off social media. For SIX days. Beth Whitman tells the full story on Wanderlust and Lipstick.

As Whitman writes:

“Without the pressure of having to check email, update your status on Facebook or tweet a photo about your latest meal, you’re FREE! Free to actually live in the moment and enjoy the experience rather than worrying about how to capture it.

I know there’s a camp of travelers that stays connected – tweeting about their travels and posting to Facebook regularly while on the road. And, look, I’m guilty, too, of posting my travel photos and food pics. But I’m saying that there IS value in spreading your wings without succumbing to the addiction of constantly being online.

I nod solemnly at Whitman’s words, yet I secretly wonder if I really know what that type of freedom feels like. Back in Sequoia, when we heard of free wifi a couple of miles up the road, we immediately drove there instead of spending the night at the next trailhead like we had planned. We update our statuses, posted some photos, and felt better.

Pictures, or it didn’t happen.

Ever since hitting the road for full-time travel in the RV, social media has taken a new role in my life. No longer available to me 24/7, I am online less, but feel more of a responsibility to share.

I don’t mean responsibility in a bad way, because I am passionate and excited to take photos, write about our adventures, and share our experiences, but I also know that people have come to expect that. I know people are waiting for the next album, the next blog post, the next status update. And I am so eager to please that I can forget to keep some moments to myself, quietly tucked away in my memory as intimate experiences.

Social media is not bad. It is a tool for sharing. Just like blogs, or photography, or newspapers. It is neither good nor bad—it can go either way. It can be used to inspire, connect with our communities, or showcase beautiful trails. It can also be used to waste time, rob us of the present moment, or distract us from our beautiful surroundings.

Yesterday I posted on Facebook looking for suggestions on where to run in Yosemite National Park. Without minutes, I had a new Facebook friend: Matt Holly, a Yosemite park ranger. The next day, we were shaking hands and he was handing us maps to his favorite local trails “where most people don’t go”. We later picked him up from work, drove him home, and will be spending the night camped out in front of his house, sharing our beers.

These connections are invaluable to us as nomads. When every day we are faced with new and unknown places, social media serves as our only comforting link to the familiar, connecting us electronically to valuable tips, trail suggestions, and locals eager to show us some hospitality.

Looking back on my Facebook photos, I can smile and think, “Wow. I was really there.” But every so often, I also need to pause and think, “Wow. I am really HERE.”

I need to look up at General Grant and have my first thought NOT be about taking another picture. I need to sit under its shade, take a deep breath, and know this really happened.

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blogsymposiumbuttonThis post is part of the TrailRunner Blog Symposium. It was chosen as the top Editor’s Pick for May 2013 and published at trailrunnermag.com.

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Check out my book: The Summit Seeker

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