Smells Like the Color Green

Until recently, I had no idea how many people hate the idea of running—and by extension, runners. I’ve gotten a few dirty looks on the trail over the years, but not often. Then the virus changed everyone’s reality, and I started reading tweets where people were experiencing open hostility. Running, in a lot of people’s minds, violates the stay-at-home order. It doesn’t, but that’s not the focus of this. I hope to simply paint the other side.

I’ve been running since I was 17. I can honestly say it saved my life. It was my first form of therapy and continues to be the best form. I started running roads because that was my option where I grew up, but when I moved west, I started running trails instead.

Road races have a certain crowd and a certain kind of energy. People in short shorts and long pretty legs would bounce around and run a mile or so to warm up before the race. They would be stocking up with goo and tiny water bottles and—in general—taking things very seriously.

Totally fine. I can hang out with these people and none of that bothers me, it’s just different than trail. The first time I did an organized trail run, I knew I was in the right place. It was pre-dawn in the mountains, nearly everyone had coffee or whiskey, most people were either hungover or still drunk. When the race started, there was a collective yell and a shambling start as we all tried to convince our tired muscles to wake up for the first hill—a hill that didn’t let up for the next ten miles.

Trail running, especially the longer distances, taught me that what you look like means nothing. Young or old, thin or thick, tall or short, it doesn’t matter. Not only does no one else care how fast you are, but if you try and guess people’s pace by what they look like, you’re going to be humbled quickly.

The one thing nearly every trail runner has in common—they’re rooting for you. That’s as true for the person in the lead as it is for the person on the sidelines who busted up their knee in a fall and is rooting people on with a beer in hand.

Running is one of the most egalitarian sports around. You don’t need anything other than running shoes. I realize that white skin might also help here, but that’s also not the focus of this either—nor could I write that article as a white man; however, I would say that if you run with people of color, please ask them how you can help.

This piece of writing is simply about what running has taught me.

Distance running teaches one of life’s most important lessons: how to suffer and keep going. I use to live in Colorado and in one run it was common for me to go from shorts and a t-shirt to a coat and beanie and everything in between. Snow, hail, wind, rain, mud, sun (way too much sun), cold, and heat—and through it all, you run. When your lungs are on fire and your legs feel like jelly, you just keep moving.

Trail running is like hiking for impatient people. I was on a long run once in the mountains and we passed a group of men doing the same route but with backpacks. They were taking three days to hike it; we started at sunrise and would be back in Boulder in time for dinner. It’s not like we were making record time and not enjoying ourselves. We’d stop at a waterfall to refill our bottles, stand aside and catch our breath while a moose wandered down the middle of the trail, and eat lunch above treelike with the most amazing view. I feel like we enjoyed the trail almost as much as they did. I love backpacking and I’m not saying running is better, but you can definitely cover more ground in a pair of running shoes and Ultimate backpack.

I live in the Pacific Northwest now and it’s a different kind of lesson: gratitude. We sign an NDA when we move to the PNW and collectively we’re all supposed to lie about the weather, but since no one reads this blog, I’ll let it slip—the PNW probably has the best weather in the world. My run this morning was cool and shady, but never cold. It’s spring here and running through the forest smells like flowers and the way trees smell in the low areas with moving water, fresh and green is the only way I can explain it. The birds were singing and the forest floor is smooth and spongy, the perfect surface.

When you first start running, it can take some time to get used to. But if you are new to the sport you might be surprised at how quickly you can get to the point where you can run without any more effort than walking. Maybe I just run too slow. But for me, it’s not exercise to stay or get fit, it’s just fun being out there. And honestly, if running isn’t your thing, just get out on the trails and walk. I’m not patient enough for that, but you do you. If you have a dog, they’d probably love to join you (keep in mind that dogs, like humans, need water, rest, and time to get in shape).

I don’t know why, but since the pandemic has started, I’ve noticed a lot of new people on the trails. I may not know every local runner, biker, and hiker, but I’ve been running trails for decades now and generally we know how to spot our own.


If you’re new to the forests—welcome

A few things though:

  1. Pack out all waste. If you’re on a longer hike and nature calls, that means your poo and your toilet paper too. It also means plastic water bottles, tissue paper, food wrappers, and beer bottles.
  2. Nature is my church. That’s true for a lot of us. Leave the bluetooth speakers at home.
  3. Bikes yield to pedestrians, both yield to horses. Downhill traffic yields to uphill. If you’re approaching a horse, say hello (so that the horse knows you are there), get off your bike or walk if you were running, and wait for them to give you the ok to pass.
  4. If you’re walking your dog(s) and the leash is at full extension across the entire trail, or if you’re walking four abreast, please be aware of your surroundings so that other users of the public space can share that trail with you. No one gets the whole trail, we’re all just sharing it.
  5. Lastly, if you’re enjoying your public spaces, vote for people who protect them. In other words, stop voting for republicans entirely and start to actively pay attention during democratic primaries. More people are using public spaces, we need more of them, not less. And besides the actual spaces, we need rangers to protect the park and the people in it as well as trail crews to build new trails and maintain existing ones. If you want to try running, then when things clear up I’d encourage you to do a trail race—the people are the best. If you’re short on funds, most trail running communities have a ‘fat bastard’ race—which is free. Other races will give you free entries if you volunteer at other events. While it’s called a ‘race’, it’s really just a bunch of friends who haven’t met yet doing a catered hike. Some do the hike faster than others. Everyone is cool though. It’s a community that is very open and accepting. Of course, I say that as a white male, I’m open to the possibility that this isn’t a universal truth. Many communities also have local running groups. Your local running store can probably help. You can also search Facebook.