Choose Your Own Adventure -- The Why and How of Adventure Running, Part 1

I recently was asked to give a presentation for Trasie Phan's "Beyond Ultra" series for her ultra running workshops, Ultra University. My presentation was about adventure running and it was called "Choose Your Own Adventure." I spent a lot of time creating a cool, animated presentation. I'm not a very polished public speaker and the thought of getting up in front of a group of people frightened me, but I thought if I had a pretty presentation, it would take some of the focus off of my public speaking skills (or lack thereof). Unfortunately, when I loaded the presentation onto the computer, a cable wasn't working, so I did the talk without the presentation. All things considered, I think it went well, and I wanted to share what I said here on the blog. It was kind of long, so I'm going to separate the post into two parts. Part one will be the why of adventure running, and part two will deal with the how of adventure running.

The "Choose Your Own Adventure" Slide-Show

I don't feel like an expert on this topic, but I have been lucky to connect with people who are good at planning these types of runs, whether it be a run across Zion, the Grand Canyon, or a creative linking of local trails. I see myself as that one guy in every prison break movie who doesn't come up with the prison break plan, but maybe floats the idea, or is the first one to volunteer. This person is also usually the first person to die.

To make sure you are in the right place, I want to start by having you think of a downhill section of your favorite trail, and I want you to imagine running down that trail, maybe a little too fast, outside of your comfortable, safe speed, running at a speed that if you fall, you may roll a couple of times, and their might be blood, and I want you to imagine that you are coming to the bottom of that trail and there is a stream just wide enough that if you jump it you might be able to clear it, but you also may come up short and get a little wet. What do you do at this moment? How do you feel? Did you jump? Was there a slight smile on your face as you took that leap, and did your heart rate go up a little bit? If you jumped the stream, even if you were a little scared, but still took that leap, then you are in the right place. If you skidded to a halt and looked down the stream for an easier way to cross, or if you imagined yourself turning around and walking back up the hill, you might be a triathlete.

That feeling of being scared and excited at the same time, of feeling alive, that is the feeling that connects runners, especially trail runners. That feeling of childlike exuberance, and of knowing that this is what you were meant to do, and that this is what human beings have done for thousands of years, that is the feeling that keeps us coming back and that really gets to the heart of why I like to run, especially in remote areas, and across beautiful trails.

So, the question is why not just race? We have such a wide variety of ultra races that we can take advantage of. These races come with awesome t-shirts, big buckles, cheering supporters, food and drink every couple of miles, and well-marked courses (for the most part).

I love racing, especially trail racing. I love the struggle, and overcoming the pain to finish. I love meeting people on the course and sharing miles of conversation with complete strangers. That's all good, and I don't plan on quitting trail races anytime soon, but when I look back and think of my most memorable moments on the trail, moments that literally take my breath away (or maybe it was just the altitude), moments where you feel that lump in your chest and you look around in amazement, those moments have come on a trail with a small group of friends on a route that we planned ourselves. These are the times when you know that no matter how many pictures you take, or stories you tell or blog posts that you write, there will be no way to convey that feeling unless you are there, sharing in that moment. Those are the moments that stick with me, and that I'm sure will stay with me for the rest of my life.

But why run these routes? I get this a lot, why not slow down and enjoy them, you go too fast to take in the views. Ben Horne, a friend of mine who passed away last year and who still continues to inspire, wrote something that really resonated with me. When he was running across the Appalachian Trail, he ran into a guy who said the same thing, why not slow down and enjoy it? Ben's response was
When holy people pray in the church, don’t they close their eyes? And then they can pray better, talk to God more clearly, without distractions? Staring wide-eyed at a stained glass window, taking a hundred photos, doesn't get me any closer to understanding why the building was created in the first place. Pushing hard and moving fast, too fast for this man’s liking, helps me see God like closing my eyes to pray.

I remember running through Joshua Tree with Ben and watching him count each different variety of wildflower that we passed, and exclaiming how big and beautiful the trees were here in the center of the national park, as opposed to those on the outskirts that have been stunted by pollution. Ben was a fast runner, and he didn't miss anything.

When I visited the Grand Canyon a few months ago, I overheard ranger saying that the average tourist spends 15 minutes at the canyon, taking in the view, getting the postcard picture, visiting the gift shop, then going on their way. As I sat at the South Rim, waiting for friends who were running across the Canyon and back, I watched these tourists, most were more enthralled with the squirrels than with the vista behind them. This isn't an exaggeration. I watched one guy take pictures of squirrels for about half an hour, I even snapped some pictures of him, but then I became the guy taking pictures of the guy taking pictures of squirrels, so what does that say about me? I don't want to be too judgmental  but when you're standing on the edge of one of the most amazingly beautiful places in the world and you don't take the time or effort to even walk a few feet into the canyon, I think it's a waste of time (unless you are some kind of squirrel biologist or something).

A couple miles down the South Kaibab trail
I love to run, and running through these spaces, connecting something that I love to do with the beauty of the outdoors, it makes me happy. When I run across these trails on self-supported runs, I experience the outdoors in a way that makes me feel alive, and on a deeply evolutionary and psychological level, I am doing what I feel I was born to do.

A couple weeks ago, on my kids' third week of winter break, I could overhear them fighting in the house, yelling at each other over which TV show they should watch. I couldn't get any work done, so I loaded them, along with the dog, in the car, and we headed to a local trail, Elfin Forest Preserve, which is a couple miles from my house. The route starts with a steep climb for about a half a mile, and my kids were dragging their feet, but when we turned the corner and hit the downhill section of the hike, all my kids started running. It was some kind of complicit agreement that they had with each other. No one said anything, they just ran, and as I watched my son, his arms helicoptering wildly at his sides, I heard him scream, "I feel so alive."

That joy in running, that wild, happy feeling of being alive is what connects us. I've watched the video below probably twenty times in the last couple of weeks. I love the images, the words, and the message. When I watch this, it makes me think of lines, routes on a trail map, lines that connect us, start lines, finish lines, and the lines that limit us. A few years ago, I never thought I'd run longer than a 5K. That was my limit, but luckily my line was not not drawn with a permanent marker. My line is constantly moving, being adjusted, moved closer by fear, and pushed out by enthusiasm, or something as small as seeing a picture of a trail in the Sierras, or reading an article about a stranger's experience on the Wonderland trail.

My line is drawn in chalk, and I know that it's okay to erase it and move it around. I hope that you draw your limits in chalk and that by the time that we lace up our running shoes for the last time, our pieces of chalk will be slivers, and our erasers will be worn out from overuse, then we can sit quietly and talk about those breathless moments on the trail.

Thanks for reading. In part 2, I'll go into the how of adventure running, planning tools, recommended equipment, and some online resources.


  1. I could watch this video every day and not get sick of it!

    1. and you did a great job with the presentation.

  2. Nice Dax. I love trails and adventure running because of the camaraderie that you just don't seem to get when road running.....


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