A trail runner defends his right to public lands

 

One September morning, with huckleberry bushes burning a fierce red against a dusting of snow on the banks of the upper Nisqually River, I left Mount Rainier National Park headquarters on a pilgrimage.

Twenty-seven hours later, depleted but filled with a near-religious sense of reverence and elation I've rarely felt since, I arrived back where I'd begun. I'd completely circumnavigated Washington's great mountain on foot, running the entire Wonderland Trail. This route is something of a crown jewel to backpackers, who typically plan on taking 5-to-10 days to cover its 93 miles and 22,000 feet of elevation gain.

Perhaps understandably, the idea of running the length of that trail in a single day can be baffling to people. How could anyone, they ask, possibly appreciate such a majestic environment while running? Was I simply, as Marjorie "Slim" Woodruff put it recently in an opinion piece for Writers on the Range, an "extreme (athlete) seeking ultimate bragging rights?" I'll argue that I'm not, and that trail running is about far more than physical achievement.

I have been a backpacker and day hiker all my life, and in my day job as a biologist I cherish the particular variety of experiences that moving slowly or staying in one place provide. There's the opportunity to allow wildlife to come to you, and the meditative way layers of meaning unravel the longer you stare at something from a particular vantage point. But trail running provides unique rewards. As a way of experiencing nature and landscapes, it has as much depth and resonance as hiking.

As I ran around Mount Rainier, hour following hour, I found myself focused on the changing intricacies of topography and geology. I found myself better able to understand the mountain's majestic scale, and the broad patterning of different habitats splayed across its flanks. And because I spent an entire night moving in complete solitude, I experienced things I never experienced as a hiker. I saw the gleam of the mountain's great icecap growing and then receding as a full moon tracked across the sky, and was treated to the indescribably eerie sound of elk bugling on both sides of me as I moved quietly through a herd.

During the run, I packed out the remains of all the food I brought with me. This should not be surprising as it has been the norm in all the outdoor communities I've been a part of, but as the sport has grown, some hikers have expressed concern new runners fail to follow leave-no-trace principles. Unfortunately, this is not restricted to trail running. Not far from Mount Rainier, in the Enchantments Wilderness, backpackers have left alpine lakeshores strewn with toilet paper, candy bar wrappers, and trampled vegetation. Here, as in the Grand Canyon and other overused areas, education and smart policy – rather than vilification against trail runners – is surely a better approach.

I can't help but think that some of the recent outflow of animosity towards trail runners reflects the latest iteration of misunderstanding between different recreational user groups. This is a conflict as old as our system of public lands itself. To backpackers and horsepackers in wilderness areas, trail runners are a strange new constituency to encounter. Ironically, the idea of fast-paced backcountry travel as a modern novelty is itself a fallacy. Some of the biggest icons of public land preservation were avid endurance athletes: Bob Marshall regularly went on 50-mile day hikes, for example, and John Muir was an ultra-light peakbagger.

I'm not suggesting that running is a better way to travel through wild landscapes than any other non-motorized method. And I don't doubt that those who criticize trail running have their own meaningful experiences in nature. But as I prepare to lead a group of college students to study how climate change is affecting Mount Rainier's forests this weekend, I'm excited to introduce them to a place I've come to know intimately by running through the night, and in turn hear what it means to them.

I certainly don't want to dictate how they visit the natural world, as long as they tread lightly and respectfully. I believe that a diversity of perspectives about the value and enjoyment of our wild places is crucial to building a coalition strong enough to ensure they outlast us. Ultimately, that allegiance to public land – not whether we recreate fast or slow – is what matters.

Ethan Linck is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He lives and runs in Seattle, Washington, and is a Ph.D. student in biology at the University of Washington.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR AND STAFF ATTORNEY
    Friends of the San Juans' Legal Director and Staff Attorney ("Legal Director") leads our legal advocacy and litigation practice and participates in many other organizational...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....