trends in trailrunning

Trends in trailrunning has been my subject in earlier posts (here and here). The question at stake in this post is how important the trails – read landscape, natural beauty – really are to the way it seems to be developing as a sport.

One of trends I already wrote about was the one towards longer and longer courses. The publicity around the recently concluded 2014 edition of the 330k Tor des Geants was ample evidence of how this trend is moving from the ‘crazy fringe’ to the mainstream, becoming a seemingly ‘realistic objective’. Trailrunning portal Irunfar had one competitor race report in 2013, but for 2014 published (in addition to another very insightful race report – more on that one below) an article summarizing the experiences of all US participants, indicating the increasingly iconic status of this race. The Dutch trailrunning portal MudSweatTrails even published a preview, and a review of all Dutch experiences, similar to its Irunfar equivalent, and had stories about the preparation of several participants (more on that below).

Is this a good thing? Is that a silly question?  The direct trigger for returning to this trend was this announcement for a 2016 non-stop trans-pyrenees:

An announcement like this resonates with many of my strings, producing a cacophony of discordant vibrations all over a semi-conscious landscape of feelings and thoughts. The grandiosity of it, the heroism, the silliness, the impenetrable mystery of why anyone would want to endure the hellish lows that such an event is guaranteed to offer, the other-worldly quality, the promise of altered states of consciousness galore, of self-discovery, of… A nonsensical mix of attraction and fear. Fascinating beyond understanding, and very disturbing.  Sure, maybe this Janus-faced effect is only a personal aberration, limited to my confused and ever wavering self, but I doubt it.

I don’t expect the transpyrenea to ever acquire iconic status like the TdG (a tangent I’m not going to pursue in this post) but its appearance on the race calendar does throw up fundamental questions about the driver(s) behind this apparently insatiable need for longer and harder, traversing landscapes of mind-blowing beauty. Because we’re talking trailrunning here, with its promotion of connecting with, being touched by, disappearing into, feeling at one with – pick your favorite metaphor of the spiritual – ‘nature’.

Something seems to defy the very purpose of trailrunning here.  I haven’t come across a story yet by any normal, i.e. one of the 99.9% of us runners, about the TdG in which the environment traveled through didn’t disappear from view behind a wall of other experiences that may be deeply worthwhile in themselves, life-changing, whatever you’re after, but evidently are not about the natural environment. An insightful quote from Megan Hicks 2014 race report referred to above:

This is a story about biting off more than I wanted to chew. By the fourth day, my brain disconnected itself from my body and from the environment through which I was traveling. A coping mechanism, I suppose? Connections to the places through which I travel and the people with whom I race, that’s precisely why I do these things. Without a link to those during the Tor, I felt lost, purposeless, confused.

I want to be challenged in life. I, in fact, live for challenges. I learned through the Tor, though, that the challenge of an experience must not usurp the rest of that experience’s qualities. Mostly beauty, always some misery–that’s what ultrarunning and life are–but I don’t want mine to be only a beautiful misery.

Not wanting to argue that the TdG (let alone the not yet existing über-version of the transpyrenea) is nothing but a test of one’s abilities of making ‘relentless forward progress‘ under conditions of extreme sleep deprivation, that’s undeniably one of its defining features. Remaining able to move without getting into any kind of danger zone with the least hours of sleep required for your particular body-mind is at the core of this challenge. The course, let alone the landscape seems very much secondary, however much occasional bits may pop up in post-race reports. If anything, it is the support received that may shine through in what stands out in memories, very similar to what stands out in reports of ultra-exertion events that are not primarily about the beauty of the landscape but much more directly about testing physical limits.

I’ve written about the Barkley before, because that seems the to me the pinnacle of honesty about this kind of test: an event designed for failure. I’ll include a short glimpse here but for a more in-depth understanding, check out the longer documentary in my Barkley post:

One could argue that the TdG and anything even longer are different, on the one hand lacking some of what makes the Barkley mentally grueling, and on the other, by their sheer length, qualitatively altering the sleep deprivation challenge.  However true that may be, the issue remains that their landscapes seem quite immaterial to this difference.

Another example of an iconic ultra race that explicitly focuses on pushing a physical challenge (similar to sleep-deprivation) to limits, in this case high temperatures, rather than being designed to entice participants to take in the landscape traversed (not trail, and with a new route since 2014 which may somewhat change the nature of the race – I am unable to judge that) is the Badwater 135 miler.

Am I making too much of the landscape as core to trailrunning? In terms of my personal motivation for hitting the trails, I certainly don’t because that’s pretty much all there is to it for me. De-center the landscape and the activity turns into something qualitatively different. Something that I may also be interested in, and attracted to, but somehow feels mislabeled when described as ‘trailrunning’. Who knows, my understanding may be an outlier. Although trailrunning’s visual PR predominantly foregrounds the landscape, commentaries tend to include lots of explicit self-exploration verbiage.

Listen to the talking heads in this quite representative brand video about the Hardrock, the 100-miler, made tougher than most by its average elevation, total positive and negative altitude meters (and often the weather conditions), all against a backdrop of stunning mountainscape imagery:

Is that a better characterisation of what trailrunning is about? Learning ‘what we are made of’? What does that mean? Whatever it means, it certainly is something essentially different from the nature-focused experience suggested by the accompanying imagery. I feel that it would be more honest, or should I say less misleading or even less dangerous, to be explicit about that difference and not combine the two representations into a single confounded message. Whatever the intimidating commentary gets at, the imagery accompanying it underlines the grandeur of the landscape and inoculates against hearing what is really being said. The combination transmits an impression of it all being very heroic and conducive to personal growth. It’s the attraction of spiritual candy that says ‘who doesn’t want to be there’, that whispers ‘even you can do it…might require some hard training, but it’s a realistic goal’.

But is that true? I seriously doubt it. Maybe not very popular in this age of ‘it’s all in the mind’ and of the glory of transcending one’s perceived limits, but most are not Kilian Jornets or Anna Frosts or Lizzy Hawkers or Jared Campbells. For many of us the real hard races are never gonna be possible.  That admittedly leaves still many out there for whom they are (no, not the Barkley…). And it is admittedly none of my business to question the preferred form of altering consciousness, or is it self-medication? of those that can endure those challenges (to be clear about my position here: I, like all of our species, and many others, am strongly subject to the urge of the former, and in need of the latter, so I have no qualms about either). But I’m pretty sure that also for most of those who are capable of completing the extremely hard races, the trails, the landscape are not at the center. It’s about the inner experience, much more than about connecting to the surroundings, in line with ultra-trailrunning PR talk but not in line with its visuals.

The point I am trying to make is that for an overwhelmingly large majority of runners it does make sense to consider the very real possibility that this is just not for them. And as you may guess from my argument so far I mean that in a two-fold, or should I say staggered way. If nature is at the heart of what attracts you to trailrunning, these extreme races are not about that, and even when you are attracted to them because of what they really have to offer, they are probably one size too big for you as a life-enhancing, or at least (even then, most probably only in hindsight) worthwhile ‘trip’ and/or medicine.

I should add here that I am more certain of the first part of my layered argument than the second. Who am I to dispute the potential of anyone hitting rock-bottom? What’s the Barkley about anyway? Very true, and my only defense for even mentioning it is my belief that it is not OK to lure people into intense and difficult to handle experiences without proper informed consent.  I don’t believe PR video’s like this are conducive to properly informing consent:

Not with the purpose of accusing organizers of races like this of anything but to make my argument in terms as blunt as possible I want you to consider this perspective on representations of reality:

And may I conclude this short excursion with emphasizing the lady’s most important element in her bag of techniques: our ability to fool ourselves. The onus is on us, not on the races. I am thrilled that they are being organized. They offer a platform for inspiring displays of performance. Ultimately, it is up to those participating to figure out if what they are really after is offered by and achievable through the event they registered for.

As I am on the topic, I may as well comment on another trend, one that I sort of alluded to in an earlier post on the fuzzy edges of the category of running: the trend toward more and more technical terrain in mountain running that seems to blur the distinction between running and climbing/alpinism. Kilian Jornet recently released this short video about his exploits in the Mont Blanc region (thanks to trailrunningnepal for alerting me to this!). It starts with a really interesting disclaimer: this is not for everyone. But I can tell you (and him), from the comfy cockiness of my arm-chair, that is not how it works.

Visuals like this will motivate plenty of people to pursue similar exploits. Some of those are going to be perfectly capable, but others should not even come near a mountain. I’ve worked in the Nepalese trekking business during the times that the industry made the move from primarily supporting mountain lovers, with proper outdoor and climbing skills acquired over the course of many outings closer to home, to catering to general adventure tourists, many without much or even any relevant experience and skills. What it taught me is that accessibility makes such a development unavoidable. Disclaimers are like telling people not to think about an elephant. Can’t be done.

Obviously with this trend we enter a danger zone. Mountains may be the playground of the gods, but unfortunately we’re not gods. As part of their preparation for the 2014 TdG, two of the Dutch participants tried their hand at (a double, out and back) of the Haute Route between Chamonix and Zermatt. They stopped after arriving in Zermatt, taking three times as long as Iker Karrera’s FKT for this route (video). The report  of these two very capable athletes (unfortunately only in Dutch) is revealing and honest:

We tried to bridge high alpine challenges and ultra-trailing. We only partially succeeded. Instead of running out and back in 80 hours we took 67 one way. Nevertheless, this project delivered. Ultrarunning in hostile terrain has its limits, at least for us. The Ikers of this world do stuff that is beyond our limits. Sure, Iker recceed the route before-hand and probably had better conditions than we encountered. Sure, Iker didn’t have to drive 1000k on the day he started his challenge. Sure, Iker was acclimatised and we weren’t. But still. Some humility is called for.  Herewith. We bow.   

Ever been really scared and out of your wits in dangerous terrain? My two countrymen had the required experience (and a bit of luck); and the narrative of their experience is measured. But it’s evident that they, Barkley-like, were shown their limits by a hostile environment (their descriptor) that is both apt and revealing, coming from someone whom I am confident loves the outdoors, and loves mountainscapes. They point toward the universe one enters when crossing the limits at this edge of the running spectrum, the territory of panic, brain freeze, and other delights one tends to be served when one’s mortality suddenly becomes the reality it always is. It’s a universe no one willingly enters. And one has to conclude that for those seeking out this edge but able to stay at the safe side of the border (similar to those exploring the limits of endurance), are after an inner-focused experience. The environment is instrumental in evoking that experience but isn’t really part of it; Mmmm, near impossible to talk about this stuff without getting lost in woozy mind-babble.

As this post is already way beyond a quick read anyways, I may as well add another angle. In another sport I love, freediving, the divide between the inner and outer directed motivation is way more clear than in trailrunning. And the competitive aspect of it is fully inner directed. All freedivers I have met love the sea. But ultimately that is not what their sport is about.

What a freediving course will give you is some confidence under water, some guidance on equalization, and thus the ability to go deeper, and some skills to look after your diving partner (don’t go alone…). Skills one can use to pursue the self-exploration that drives the competitive athletes, but also to upgrade your snorkeling to something way more fun and more in touch with the marine environment.

And that’s what I do, but the difference between this and the sport so substantial that I am hesitant to even describe myself as a ‘freediver’. Making  such a claim would give all who know about the competitions a totally wrong picture. Trailrunning is different, by far not as black and white, much, much more grey tones, in what a particular event or version of it is (predominantly) about. But at the extremes, the differences within trailrunning are equally black and white.

Now, I’ve pontificated about this experiential space labeled ‘running‘ (I prefer pedestrianism) and ‘trails‘ before. Do the above, trend-watching triggered reflections add anything to my web of conceptual connections? I take away four insights from them:

The inner-directed/outer-directed dichotomy wasn’t on my tentative list of relevant properties for the conceptual ‘running space’ yet. It differs from most on that list, i.c. the clear-cut objective characteristics like distance, running surface, etc, but is certainly one that needs separate attention and is pretty much core to what the running space ‘means’ for any particular runner.

Its focus on the subjective made me think of other perspectives that share this entanglement with runners’ psychology. This post has focused on trends pushing the envelope of particular event-formats beyond their original limits and by doing that altering their predominant experiential quality.  A very obvious aspect of running, one at the core of its definition as a sport, i.e. competition,  has very similar effects. Highly competitive races require those who want to go for the podium to be totally focused on the ‘job at hand’. Not much scope for immersing themselves into the landscape, ‘connecting to the land‘. They require inner-directedness by definition.

The third is that nomenclature does have its importance. My conceptual space has areas where the distinctions are fine-grained, like track-athletics, and vast swaths all covered by just one label, like (ultra)trailrunning. The beauties and beasts living in these large dominions are so diverse that what they share becomes close to meaningless in light of their differences. That’s true for much in life but based on my experience with the development of the Nepalese trekking industry I would argue for at least differentiating the more/most extreme events and exploits so as to decrease opportunities for misunderstanding and self-deception. Needless to mention here that the addition of the even wider-ranging ‘ultra’ qualifier doesn’t cut it. We would really need a much broader palet of terms.

And lastly, I am now even more aware of what in trailrunning matters to me most personally, which shows that all this ruminating on my fancy may not add much value to the blogosphere but at least fulfills my personal goal of discovering some patterns in my mental chaos.  For me the trails – read landscape, natural beauty, connecting to my surroundings – really are the core of trailrunning.

From start to finish this has been a lot of heavy-duty pondering and opinionating; all a bit silly, maybe even dangerous. So cannot close without something to take the weight off it all, and root me again. Lots would do, but for this time some Stromae  seems appropriate.

About roger henke

Still figuring out the story line that would satisfy myself here. Listening to what my family and friends evoke, what the words I absorb, the images that move me, the movements that still me, point to.
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7 Responses to trends in trailrunning

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