Venturing off-road leads to simple yet profound discoveries.

I’ve never been much of a trail runner. Okay, I’ve never been much of a road runner either, but that’s not the point. As one whose feet never get more than an inch off the ground, I worry about bumps in the sidewalk. So it’s hard to imagine encountering branches, roots and rocks.

But I finally gave alaskatrail1in. With all the hoopla about the pleasures of trail running, I thought I should at least see what the fuss was about. And to my surprise, I discovered a fun, new running environment.

It didn’t hurt that the first trails I tried were in Eugene, Oregon, where the paths have names like “Amazon” and “Pre.” It wasn’t hard to figure out what people liked about running on them. These bark-covered, well-kept, well-marked routes were ideal for my first tentative off-road ventures.

It also didn’t hurt that the next trails I tried were around Lake Tahoe, California, where physical efforts are rewarded with spectacular panoramas. This terrain wasn’t nearly as predictable, however. Sometimes it seemed I was dodging as much of the trail as I was using. Nevertheless, the joys of off-road running were beginning to take hold.

Somewhere out on these paths, I felt a change taking place. I found that my flat-footed, stubby-legged stride, which looks so awkward on the street, actually worked to my advantage on the trail. My low-to-the-ground build also made me more stable. On this rugged ground, where even the fast move slowly, I was able to keep up.

Then there was the inescapable romance of running through the woods.

Without knowing it, I was becoming just one more animal in the forest. As I ran, I wasn’t always sure what I was seeing or hearing, but I felt more connected to the squirrels and birds and whatever else was hiding in the brush.

There was a certain giddiness to the experience. The irregularity of the terrain masked the irregularities of my running. And walking the steep uphill sections was not merely accepted but advised. The more I ran, the better I felt. And the better I felt, the more I understood.

Life is simpler on the trails. Running here can bring you closer to what running was meant to be. Running doesn’t need to be only about going alaskatrail2farther and faster. It can be about feeling free and unfettered. Running can be about opening yourself up to people, and it can be about opening yourself up to your surroundings.

It’s not that we can’t benefit from running on the pavement or on the track. We can learn a lot from logging dozens of miles or hammering through repeats. But these lessons are learned as much with our will and fortitude as they are with our legs and lungs.

On the trails, however, away from the more obvious measures of skill and the tangible signs of what we’ve gained or lost, we can learn with our eyes, ears and hearts. And some discoveries can be rather humbling. In this rugged environment, we may find that, as part of the animal world, even the finest of us aren’t very well suited to deal with nature. Despite all of our human sophistication and intellect, even a half-witted chipmunk can outsmart us in the wilderness.

Trail running has added another dimension to my experience as a runner. While I’m not prepared to give up the comfort of water fountains, mile markers and smooth roads every day, I now believe that for me to be complete as a runner, I need to spend more time finding the forest through the trees.

Waddle on, friends.

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