Trail Therapy

Speak to the earth, and it will teach you.
-- Job 12:8
Last week I read an excellent post on comfort running. Sarah wrote about her dad and dealing with his illness and loss. It brought back memories of my sister's recent double lung and heart transplant and finding peace on the trails of Palo Alto while Sharlie was undergoing her surgery and recovery in the ICU.

Tuesday was a hard day for me, and reading that came at just the right time. On Monday my wife reminded me that Tuesday was the 18th anniversary of the death of my youngest sister. I don't know why I always forget that anniversary. I guess I'm just bad with dates, so when she reminded me, it kind of shocked me.

I visited Lexi's grave on Tuesday. The grass and weeds were winning the war on the headstone. I stooped down, probably looking more like a landscaper than a grieving brother, wearing dirty running shoes, shorts, a smelly shirt and a hat. I dug with my bare hands to uncover the edges of the stone, and swept the dirt off the dates with my palms, July 28th, 1980 - March 5th, 1995.

I brought flowers, but the flower cup was stuck in the earth, so I dug around it, and pulled, hard with muddy fingers, and slowly alternated between moving it back and forth, swiping the spiders off my fingers, and pulling through the mud. It budged and finally gave. I cleaned the dirt and mud off my hands by rubbing them on the grass and on my shorts.

Eighteen years is a long time, but short, too. I keep thinking it's going to get easier, to feel better, that someday it will just be the faint, happy memories, but it hasn't been like that. Tuesday's sadness was fresh and raw. Some years on this date, I don't really feel anything, just a numbness, but Tuesday was unexpectedly sharp.

It's not the remembrance, but the absence that makes me sad. The shadow of a life, the missing place, that should be filled with warmth, finding love, having children, and laughing until she can't breathe at a family dinner. She would be 32, a woman, and I imagine her comforting her nieces after a tough day, or coming over unannounced just to hang out for the afternoon, maybe sharing some music (her tastes tended to be a little harder, I remember her listening to Metallica before she died, and I imagine we would have swapped tapes, then CDs).

Coming to terms with death is, I think, the hardest thing that we have to do in life. I think we do our best to ignore it, and that is why it comes as such a shock when someone close to us dies. Running helps, though, it helps loosen that tightness in my chest. I leave later this afternoon for a trip to Joshua Tree, and I can't get last year's trip and running with Ben out of my head, and I know that this tightness and hurt deep in my chest will be there until tomorrow, and then I'll run the trails, past the wildflowers and the giant Yucca plants in the interior of the park, a place where most don't go, and I already know I will feel lighter. The trail helps me with that. Writing this helps me with that.

I didn't cry at the cemetery that morning, but afterwards, running down the Broken Hill Trail at Torrey Pines, remembering my youngest sister, and thinking of the struggles of my other two sisters whose lives have been changed by Cystic Fibrosis, I ran hard, covered my eyes with sunglasses and pulled my hat low on that overcast, grey morning.

Thank you for reading.

Choose Your Own Adventure -- The Why and How of Adventure Running, Part 2

I wrote Part 1 of this about a month ago with the promise of a Part 2. The first part came much easier to me. It's a common desire we all share, a desire to get outside, to explore, to unplug. That stuff is easy to write about, but "the how" is less fun, and less easy, but that Part 1 has been dangling out there for a few weeks, and it will bug me until I match it up to its more technical and more useful partner, the How of Adventure Running.

I want to start this by letting you know that I'm not an expert, by any means, especially in the multi-day fastpacking. I've had some great single day adventures in the Grand Canyon, Zion, Joshua Tree, on the PCT, and in the San Bernardino Mountains, but my multi-day experience is limited to researching (admittedly way too much time spent online reading accounts and too much money spent researching new products) and trying to gear up for an upcoming run on the John Muir Trail.

So, given my limited expertise, I still wanted to share what I know in the hope that it will help beginners move from organized trail running events to exploring some great trails on their own or with friends.

Assemble a Posse

Sir Mix-A-Lot and his posse, preparing for the Trans-Broadway Traverse
The first step in all of this is to find a group who can stand you long enough to spend days on the trail with you. In my case, it was easier said than done. It took some serious Facebook stalking, but once you find the right people, all it takes is floating some crazy idea out there, something like, hey we should go run 220 miles in the Sierras over 7 days this summer, and the right people will step forward, and by right people, I mean the wrong people, the people that share your same passion for the outdoors with a mix of craziness thrown in, the kind of people your parents warned you about. People like this guy, whose idea of some good training runs goes something like this:

If you're looking for running adventures, this is the type of person you need to connect with. It's a good idea to mix in some sane people as well. Pace is important, but I have run with much faster people who have slowed down for me, and slower people who I have slowed down for. These adventures aren't races, so pace isn't the top priority, but if you are trying to finish at a certain time (before sunset, for example), pace does become a consideration. I have found that a difference of 1-2 mins. per mile in either direction works for me. A good place to find these like-minded adventure seekers is through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and also in the real world at races, in trail running groups, or during organized trail maintenance sessions.


The next step is to find a good trail. Start local, use sites like or to find local backpacking routes. As a runner, you should be able to do a 2-day (maybe 15-20 miles) backpacking trip in one day. If you're just getting started, I recommend an out and back route. The logistics are simpler than a point to point run, there is less chance of getting lost, and once you reach the turnaround point, you will be aware of what lies ahead. If you're lucky enough to live near a national trail (like the PCT, AT or Continental Divide Trail in the U.S.), that would be a great place to start. The trails are well-marked and well-traveled. Another good place to look for trail routes is local trail races. The trail maps for these races are usually posted online. I also hear there are these computery things called "Apps" and there may be one or two that have trails marked on them.

National trail map. The trail possibilities really are endless.

Equipment is an important consideration when you are planning to do your own adventure run. Part of the draw of long trail races is that you don't have to carry all the crap you are going to need to cover that distance. Luckily, there have been a lot of recent innovations with the lightweight fastpacking equipment, so you can go longer and carry less weight than you would have in the past.

Your required equipment list is going to change with practically any run you plan, and what works for some will not work for others. Most of this is learned during training (make sure you train with the equipment you plan to use on your adventure run), but I want to list what I consider the bare minimum equipment for an adventure run (with links to my favorites).

Mandatory Equipment

There are so many good hydration packs out there, and new, lighter ones are being released every year. I have used the Ultimate Direction Wasp pack for the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim, Zion traverse, and many other long trail runs, and it has worked great for me. UltrAspire is also creating some great packs, and I'm currently using a Kinetic for 20+ mile training runs. The Steripen has saved my ass a few times when I have run out of water and had to fill a bladder in the stream. Iodine tablets are a good backup as well. I always try to carry a couple pills. Nutrition is something that needs to be dialed in during training, and for longer runs, I like more solid food. I'm going slower than I would in a race, and the solid food (I use baby food, beef jerky, rice balls along with VFuel gels and Kind bars) works for me on long trail runs. Again, nutrition is something that you need to figure out for yourself before you set off on your adventure.

The optional equipment is everything else. I usually carry a wind shell, because it is light enough that I almost have to take it. I also carry a cell phone that I use to take pictures, but could also be used to contact someone in an emergency. I recently bought some trekking poles for the John Muir Trail, but I haven't used them much. If there is snow or ice, you should also pack some Yaktrax. I also pack a small handkerchief to dry my tears, but that is a personal thing.

Comic courtesy

In Part 1 of this post, I linked to a video. I just re-watched it and while I hope going over the nuts and bolts of adventure running is useful to you, it really is all just about getting out there, on the trails, in the mountains and trying it out, experiencing it for yourself, taking some risks and re-drawing your own line.

Thank you for reading. Enjoy your adventure.

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