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
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.