Trail Running and Mythology

Sometimes I like to walk around Discovery Park and think about things, and today the thing I thought about was mythology and trail running.  I've written about that a little bit before, but for some reason it was on my mind again today while I was spotting seals and shore birds on Puget Sound.  (It's actually been percolating since I watched the video embedded at the bottom of this post.)

The word 'myth' is used nowadays to refer to a story or popular conception that isn't true, but in the traditional sense it referred to a story that stuck around precisely b/c it was true - or at least contained some element of truth, even if all of the factual details couldn't necessarily be substantiated.  Traditional myths frequently developed first as true stories - 'history' as we think of it - and across time took on extra details that resonated and made for better stories, in the way that most of the stories people tell about their childhood do (for instance).  And across time, the actual historical events in the myth became less important than the moral of the stories - the lessons the myths taught about the groups that espoused them, or about humanity in general.

In that vein, when I was studying religion, I came across the idea that myths are stories that people keep telling because they tell us something about ourselves.  They're stories that say something about our identity - usually something we like and want to remember, like that our ancestors were heroic, or overcame persecution, or were extremely good looking (and hence, so are we, whatever the evidence to the contrary).  As such, every good culture benefits from myths that establish and maintain its identity- whether it's the national culture of a global superpower or the sub-culture of a small group of weirdos.  They're stories that we tell about ourselves, as much as about their ostensible subjects.

The currently small group of weirdos that makes up trail running culture is no different.  In fact, it seems like we actually have a disproportionate number of mythological stories and figures.  Trail running is, after all, an activity that lends itself well to myth-making - ordinary people doing impossible sounding things on their weekends off from work.

Personally, I think because trail running works best as a counter-culture, our best legendary stories and figures are counter-cultural. Triathlon is for influencers - people who do tough things because they want everyone to know they're tough.  But trails and mountain running are for grizzled outdoor-folk - people who do tough things because they're tough and love the natural world, and don't need admiration to keep going.  Hence the mythological ancestors we claim are people like Gordy Ainsleigh, who decided to run a 100 mile mountain horse race himself after his horse came up lame, and didn't write a book or go on TV to talk about it, but did convince doubters that what he'd done was possible, such that a small number of others decided to join him.  That story is, in fact, the established origin myth of American ultra-running, even if there were Americans walking and/or running distances longer than 26.2 miles a century before Gordy's horse screwed up its leg.

I really think that the book Born to Run worked as a successful propaganda piece for trails primarily because it tapped in to this type of mythology.  It was a collection of stories that (if you ask the subjects) were kind of true, but not totally, but that resonated with readers to establish a mythological history of running (and more particularly trail running):  Running is natural and human and can take us back to our roots, and the most pure form of running is on trails, with no shoes, across really long distances.  Runners (and non-runners) identified with the message, and dove into trail and ultra-running in unprecedented numbers.  (Trail running seems to have stuck around as a movement so far, even if minimalism in footwear is already mostly dead.)

And because it's a counter culture, I think that the best mythological heroes in the trail running world are the introverts who don't self-promote, but let other people use them as a template to project heroic qualities.  In mainstream sports, loudmouths are frequently lionized (for better or worse - I love Richard Sherman as much as the next Seattle-ite), but in trail running self-promotion comes with a lot of stigma.  Dean Karnazes will never quite be a pantheon figure because he told most of his stories himself.  Scott Jurek made for a much better hero in Born to Run (when someone else talked him up) than in Eat and Run (when a lot of readers felt he talked up himself - though to me he's always seemed like a bit of a reluctant celebrity).  And because of her combination of introversion and achievement, Ann Trason will almost definitely remain one of the most revered figures in the trail world for quite some time.

In the Northwest trail community, we're blessed with a lot of people who fit this mythological mold: tough people who love the outdoors, do amazing things, and don't talk themselves up, and who others want to identify with and so help shape the culture. Historically the Seattle area has been as myth-worthy as anywhere else in the US.  The myth of Seattle in the '90s was the heart of this story.  And currently it's still true.  Both Heather Anderson, (Anish, or "The Ghost") who walked the PCT unsupported faster than any other human being has, and Joe McConaughy, some random kid who ran the trail in supported fashion faster than anyone has, come to mind.  And our current most established runner on an international stage - Jodee Adams-Moore - does as well.

My new personal mythological hero right now is Ricky Gates.  The life he's carved out, at least as it's presented in the video below, encapsulates what trail running culture is about.



I wonder why so many people feel this kind of Easy Rider lifestyle is what trail running is all about... What about the 9-5 guy that still loves to get out into the woods? Or the scientific techno-geek guy that is all about recording and documenting every training detail? This nomadic life is certainly romantic when you are young. AND SPONSORED. But I'll admit, it's great to have heros.
Unknown said…
I think there are a couple of different ways to answer that, but the key thing is that I think it's a false dichotomy to say that it's either about a guy like Ricky Gates or the others. I think Gates embodies the Trail Running ethos (if there is such a thing) b/c he's prioritized trails/outdoors/simplicity/etc. over some of the other possibilities in life. I think you can do that in other contexts, and it's just a matter of degree - most won't/can't live as extremely immersed in an outdoor sport as he does, but the ethic is potentially the same.

The movie Running the Edge about Scott Jaime's FKT attempt on the Colorado trail is a good sketch of that idea - he's a classic family man and career guy, but also a Hardrocker and quintessential trail runner by any standard.
@Tim - I like your ethic comment, I can get behind an ethic of prioritizing the outdoors.
spaceneedl said…
tim, my take was that the folks you mention (ricky, heather, et al) provide the mythology for the folks who can't, for whatever reason, do what they do.

and while i might quibble about the degree to which these amazing people pursue their trail dreams, i certainly wouldn't mind giving it a go, if i were situated differently.

but, i'm not, so i greatly enjoy reading/hearing/living the dream vicariously.
Dave said…
Good stuff Tim. I enjoyed the musings and the vid.
Unknown said…
Thanks errybody. Spaceneedl - it's also inspiration for what might be possible for a lot of us (at least for a season) in the future!