12 April 2013

Can trail running develop into an unhealthy addiction?

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Assuming that by 'unhealthy' you mean:

  • Getting outside most days every week.
  • Working out in the cold and wet which makes you appreciate those bluebird days that much more.
  • Forming incredible bonds with friends and exploring new routes that most people don't even hike.

And assuming that by 'addiction' you mean:

  • Adopting a lifestyle of fitness that is incredibly simple and economical when compared to some other 'healthy' activities (skiing, rowing, triathlon...).
  • Surrounding yourself with like minded people who support you in this habit.

Then the answer to that question would be an unqualified 'yes'.

I am nothing if not the pot calling the kettle black when I say that trail runners are addicted to their habit. Let me illustrate my point with a case study. Me.

I ride bicycles - have for years. I commute to work on a bike, I've gone on cycle tours and I've raced in just about every cycling discipline there is. Cycling caters to everything that gets me excited like going fast, banking around sweeping corners, conquering epic climbs and getting out there with friends. Back in the day running in general seemed to me like the antithesis of all these things. Not only did it look slow but running on the road sounded boring and talk of running on trails caused me to re-live memories of hiking with (read: being drug along by) my parents when I was a little kid, unable to keep up and being miserable. "Are we there yet...?" "I need a rest." "I'm tired." Yep, that was me. And the emotional scars of childhood hikes ran deep.

A few years ago my wife started running. Since she had supported my cycling for many years I figured it was only fair that I support her now. After diligently training the first event she entered was the Iron Girl 10k at Green Lake. This was a run for women only and I was struck by the phenomenal vibe of support. Next up was the Dawg Dash 10k which started and finished in the University of Washington football stadium (which in itself was kind of fun to experience). Wow I thought, these events attract a lot of people. She topped off the year by running the Las Vegas Half Marathon WHICH WAS ATTENDED BY THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE. Damn, this running thing sure is popular!

As I watched my wife walk toward me after finishing her first half marathon I was blown away by the sparkle in her eyes and the glow emanating from her body. Overcome with emotion (pride for her and the energy from the thousands of participants no doubt) I resolved right then and there that I would join her next year and run this half marathon myself. I think I purchased my first pair of real running shoes that same week...

At first my running was limited to the cycling off-season. In my head I was still a bike racer and was just cross training. For the next couple of years I would lace up my running shoes every fall, suffer through the initial discomfort of starting to run from scratch and ramp up my running fitness as quickly as my body would allow.

Funny how fate can play a hand in things.

It turns out one of the new members of my cycling team was an accomplished ultra runner that was using the bike to help him come back from a serious injury. Wouldn't you know it, we became friends and suddenly my fall and winter were filled with trail runs instead of road runs. It took me a bit to realize that here I was splashing around in the cold and wet and I wasn't complaining. And before you know it, I'm competing in trail races.

Fast forward a couple of years and I have run my first trail marathon.

The following spring I didn't quit running like I had in past years when my cycling ramped up and instead tried to milk my running fitness a bit. Turns out I milked it enough to finish my first ultra. Man that was hard but what a rush!

As I got used to running I was discovering that I could indeed find the same things on the trail that I loved about the bike; namely going fast, banking around sweeping corners, conquering epic climbs and getting out there with friends. This wasn't just cross training any longer, it was FUN.

So much fun in fact that last year I decided to change my focus from cycling to running and to set some ambitious running goals.

Along the way I joined a running club, made tons of new friends and have been happily re-experiencing not only all the hiking trails I used to loath as a kid but so many more. Those deep scars are healing.

Oh yeah, I did finish that road half marathon I said I would. And a few others. Turns out road running is not boring like I thought it looked. Especially when you incorporate as many urban trails as possible on your 'road' run.

Unhealthy addiction? Nope. I just wish I had discovered this habit sooner in life. I suppose there might be one small downside... running has required me to take a house full of this:


And find room for this:


Luckily I was up to the task.

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