Finding The Joy In Trail Running: 5 Lessons Learned

From Sprinter to Ultra Marathoner in a Year

By: Bret Bechis
September 22, 2015

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Prior to Fall 2012, the last timed mile I had run was the Presidential Physical Fitness Challenge fifteen years earlier. As a 6’1” 210lb baseball player, ski racer and surfer, sprinting comprised most of my running, and as a means to an end at that. Living in San Francisco, I’d always used the hilly Corona Heights parks for sprint training, until one day, eyeing the top of Twin Peaks from Buena Vista Park, it struck me that it might be fun to link the two into one trip. The ensuing three-mile lap left me sore for days but with wide eyes and the feeling of having unfolded a secret treasure map of the city for the first time.

Photo: Moe Lauchert

A single foundational running goal was born – become an artist. All the transcendent runners had shared a common joy in the underlying experience and in so doing they themselves had learned to see the world as a canvas to be painted with a pair of running shoes. For me, doing so would mean figuring out the pace and flow of endurance sports through full immersion in the biggest events I could find and reverse engineering along the way.

I entered a half marathon between the Golden Gate Bridge and AT&T Park, with the goal of running the entire race. I didn’t make it. But sensing the finish line and pushing through to finish the experience was primitive and inspiring, a sensation unearthed from the end of the competitive ski racing days. The gratitude and adrenaline following the run inspired a signup for the Stinson Beach ½ marathon along the famed Dipsea trail.

Photo: Rumon Carter

On my first lap of the course it became clear the world of trails was far different, and in many ways, much more digestible for a sprinter as a series of ascents, descents, mini-runs, obstacles, huge inspiring vistas and wildly varied environments and terrain along a broader course, with sections for cruising and sections for especially quick feet. The only others who seemed in the know were free-spirited and wildly enthusiastic hi-fiving runners from age 20 - 60. These half-day adventures were so informal, positive, wild, endorphin-filled!

Ten months, two pairs of neon shoes, two all-night reads of Born to Run and a number of courses later loomed The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler, which covered the entire Marin Headlands trail network along a course which had captured my imagination every day since the first run along the Dipsea. With the event came a return to the lessons that had fueled the previous year’s explorations:

Photo: Matt Clark

1. Remember how lucky you are.

You have the ability to move your body in incredible ways and the opportunity for it to take you to special places. There are millions of people who do not have this ability. Even walking is special. Run, walk, hike, move, to fully express yourself through your body for everyone who can’t and for the simple fact that you won’t be able to do so forever, either. Each run is a chance to celebrate, venture a little further, see just what’s in the tank and use the muscles while you’ve got them! There’s nothing like exploring just what you’re capable of.

2. Get an awesome watch, then take it off.

Set an end destination and block out a half-day or full day. The goal is to explore and to feel uninhibited by time or pace or anything strenuous. Focus on the flow of heading in the direction you set out to reach and meet who you meet along the way. Just bring enough provisions for the journey and remember to smile. There will be fast moments, slow moments, distressed moments, joyful moments – the only rule is to keep moving forward. The finish will come and you will get there, the only question is whether you are ready to finish for the day!

3. Add running to a broader adventure flow.

Don’t set a race schedule with a training regimen and a time goal and drop everything else in your life in pursuit of the goal. Be more creative - sign up for something exciting each month – a run, a swim, a hike, something that excites you to have a go at. Try seeking an adventure flow state - a steady pace, not trying to peak for any one event. Running is simply a new way to diversify the adventure portfolio with weights, skiing, cycling, yoga, travel, whatever else you may already fancy. You could understand running and yourself better in the context of all those activities rather than throwing all the eggs in one basket – learn to breathe in yoga, charge in skiing, stabilize with weights and imagine new routes through travel. Let one adventure focus lead into the next or back to where you started, just follow through! From the combination of those experiences you can channel your strengths and design your most authentic and joyful running experience.

4. Inspiration.

Seek out the most inspiring places, times, weather and music to complement the previous three lessons. The biggest hills, the most beautiful water, the sunniest vistas, the oldest and wisest redwoods, whatever makes you tingle, put yourself in the middle of it. Go for solitude before the world wakes up or tucks in for the evening, for misty breath sunrises and wind-calming sunsets. Choose weather that puts you at ease or smack in the harshest elements. Bring music to fit the pace. The longer the run, the more meditative and pensive the soundtrack, the more adventurous, the more brass-filled fanfare of Rudy and Forrest Gump, the higher tempo, the more electronic and bass-filled sing-alongs. Always put yourself in the middle of your own dream, just don’t forget to smile.

5. Presence.

Sing, laugh, smile, cry, shout. Let your emotions out, let yourself feel and know your size in the larger world. Have the presence to imagine a new route through the city or trail in a national park and explore it – the routes you dream up are the ones that will keep you coming back for more. Rip it when you feel light, trek when you feel heavy, close strong when you feel the finish, but always, keep moving forward!

Photo: Matt Clark

I finished the North Face Endurance Challenge two hours under my goal, without a watch. I had such a blast I set my calendar around the event the next year, as well. This year I’m aiming for a third go.

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Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.