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Blog, Running, The Outdoors

Why I Love Trail Running

2023 was full of highs and lows, but finishing the year with a 40 mile birthday run in Joshua Tree was a peak life experience. It had me rolling into 2024 with optimism and gratitude in spades.

All of the time and energy that went into making this run happen was worth it, but the last few months of 2023 were absolutely dominated by training and work. There was little time for much else.

Race training tends to take over your life. Sometime in October, I found myself in a familiar spot: the momentum of the training cycle had taken over. I never lacked motivation to run, but it often meant running before sunrise or after dark.

When you’re training in the Santa Cruz mountains in the winter, daylight savings is the final nail in the coffin… not only is it cold and rainy, but now you’re running in the dark with a flashlight.

Between a demanding career, trying to eat healthy, and maintaining enough contact with friends and family so they don’t think you’re dead, training for an ultra ensures that you won’t have downtime for much else. Reading? Netflix? Forget about it.

At some point in this training cycle, inevitably the question arises: why am I doing this?

Training or not, I spend most of my non-work time in the woods alone.

Running has been part of my life for almost two decades now. I’ve invested significant time and energy into this hobby, but haven’t really stopped to ask myself why. My Strava data goes back to 2007, and it says I’ve spent almost 2000 hours running. That’s 83 days.

Why do I spend such a significant amount of my time and energy running?

What’s so great about this? It’s freezing cold, and there’s no cell signal.

This question prompted some good reflection. Here are some of the answers that came up for me while contemplating why I dedicate so much time to trail running:

I love the outdoors. It’s where I go to “touch grass”

I’ve been fortunate to live in some incredible places, and trail running has allowed me to embrace my surroundings and connect with nature daily.

It also lets me cover a lot of ground quickly. The stamina that comes with a lifetime of running can facilitate some big adventures in short windows of time… like going deep into the Yosemite backcountry in a single day, or a recent “fastpacking” adventure to Sykes Hot Springs in Big Sur.

Heaven? Or Henry Cowell Redwoods after the rain?

Sometimes I’ll have a challenging day, personally or professionally. If I get out for a run, I’ll find myself in nature, maybe surrounded by redwoods or next to a rushing stream, and without fail, this will turn my day around and I’ll remember that life is good.

Surrounding yourself with the beauty of nature can really put things into perspective. For me, it tends to prompt a lot of gratitude.

Running is self-care

On or off-trail, running is a huge part of my self-care regimen. I often find myself in a deeply meditative state on my runs.

There’s something about focusing on a technical trail that seems to promote mindfulness. It doesn’t happen every time, but with the right music on the right trail, running can be transcendental.

I’ll find myself both incredibly focused while also checked out: not thinking about what I’m doing, while also laser-focused on the trail and my steps. I’ve heard some people describe this as “flow state”. It can feel like a video game… especially when you’re listening to video game music.

On the topic of mental health, running got me through the pandemic. It was the one thing that never “shut down” in 2020, and I leaned into it.

This photo was taken after a solo 50k run that started in Pt Reyes and ended in San Francisco. I planned this route because races kept getting canceled due to the pandemic, and it ended up being one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Problem-solving on the go

This part may seem contradictory to the self-care/flow state point above, but I’ve found that some of my best problem-solving happens while I’m out on a run.

I certainly don’t hit the trail with intentions to find solutions to work problems, but it often plays out that way. I do not find this process to be intrusive. It’s pretty satisfying to come home from a run and write a JIRA ticket for a solution that addresses a technical SEO problem.

It’s how I get my nature photography fix

I love photography, but I rarely make time for it as a hobby of its own. Trail running gets me to beautiful places quickly, and when daylight savings time cooperates, I often catch amazing sunsets from killer vantage points.

I’ve had some incredible moments of solitude in this particular spot in the Marin headlands, just north of San Francisco, before heading to work in the city.

I don’t often explore touristy spots in SF… but I do run through them. Sometimes I’ll come to a screeching halt and turn around mid-run, like “I have to get a photo of that”.

A magical view of the Golden Gate Bridge

Sometimes these interests are at odds with one another. I’ve had trail runs where I’m stopping every 5 minutes to snap a photo. But how do you run by something like this perfect little mushroom and not stop to take a photo?

A beautiful mushroom in Forest of Nisene Marks

Running keeps me focused on a goal.

My running has slowly advanced over the last 20 years, and distances that used to feel crazy to me aren’t a big deal anymore.

Years ago, I remember signing up for the Broad Street run in Philadelphia, which is a 10-mile race. At the time, that distance felt crazy to me. Why would anyone choose to run 10 miles?

A few years later, running a 50k at Burning Man felt comparably crazy.

Burning Man 50k in deep playa

The 2018 Burning Man Ultramarathon: Deep Playa

The goalposts keep moving, and each accomplishment comes with feelings of satisfaction and personal growth.

To recap, trail running gets me outside, it’s a crucial part of my self-care routine, it helps me work through solutions to problems, it affords me some epic photography opportunities, and it keeps me focused on a healthy goal.

I try not to take a single run for granted, and I hope to continue trail running for decades to come.

Why do you run? I’d love to hear what motivates you in the comments.

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