This article was originally published in the May/June 2023 issue of UltraRunning Magazine. Subscribe today for similar features on ultra training, racing and more.
Somewhere around 3 a.m., one of several black bears paid a visit to my temporary tent cabin—a seeming inevitability based on the clanging sounds of chaos echoing throughout the sea of heavy canvas shelters that formed the seasonal staff housing for Yosemite National Park’s Tuolumne Meadows infrastructure. Still, despite the expectation of the inevitable, it was fairly disconcerting to open one’s eyes to see the snout of Ursus americanus sniffing around through the tent flap, mere feet from the bed.
I wasn’t getting much sleep. And I had a 38-mile return leg along the John Muir Trail (JMT) to run back to Mammoth.
It was late summer in 1999, and my training for the Angeles Crest 100 was peaking. I needed one final very long run. A college friend from my Ohio University days was getting a taste of the mountain life working in the high country of the Sierra, and I had yet to visit her.
Time was running short. I’d been reading about the benefits of back-to-back moderate long runs versus one uber effort concept. Here was the perfect opportunity to kill two training birds with one social stone.
Leaving Reds Meadow in the crispness of a fall-like early September morning with nothing more than what I could fit into a small running pack, I turned north on the JMT for 38 miles of Sierra backcountry I had yet to see. Arriving in Tuolumne mid-afternoon, I wandered over to the bustling general store and café to rendezvous with Megan. Over burgers and beers, the intervening years since graduation evaporated.
Not being a runner herself, of course she thought I was somewhat out of my mind. What now motivated me was a far cry from our many southeastern Ohio evenings spent sunk low in a mangy couch on the rickety porch of a dilapidated house, drinking lowbrow beer and listening to the soulful southern sounds of the Allman Brothers Band.
Reminiscing eventually gave way to fending off bears and the too-soon dawn of a sleepless night grew in lockstep with my burgeoning hangover. The alpine is no place for a dehydrated runner to overindulge.
Before breakfast had a chance to fully digest, we were parting ways and, southbound now, I began, creakily, to retrace my steps. The long stretch of flat miles up Lyell Canyon was a welcome warmup and my reservations about how my body would respond to this second long day quickly vanished. By the time I reached the trailhead in the late afternoon, I was riding high on the twin euphoric joys of long-distance endorphins and long-time friendship.
Adventure running needs no definition and, unless you are going for a fastest known time (FKT), it has no rules. In a world suffocating under the weight of rules and regulations, and the incessant need to define, label and redefine everything, this realm of running feels increasingly sacred. It is whatever and wherever you want it to be.
Buzz Burrell, somewhat ironically, now one of the gatekeepers of the contemporary phenomenon that is FKT, is, at least equally, also known for his passion for unique runs, adventures whose only mission statements are to explore for the pure joy of exploring. An article written by Buzz years ago planted the first seeds of the credit card run, a multi-day adventure running concept funded by a pocketed piece of magnetized plastic and outfitted by a pack carrying less gear than most people take on a trip to the mall. A three-day “Softrock” credit card run of the Hardrock 100 course remains on my bucket list.
One of the attractions of adventure running is its backyard accessibility. With a touch of creativity, regardless of where you live, a multitude of options likely lie in wait.
The 3,200-mile transcontinental US Route 6 begins in my hometown of Bishop, CA. Running its length to the eastern terminus in Provincetown, MA, would certainly be an epic adventure run, however, my recent aspirations were of the much shorter, unpaved variety.
Paralleling the Owens Valley beginnings of Route 6, just to the west, is the Fish Slough Road. Part of the original thoroughfare established by early European settlers, it runs 29.5 miles north through critical wetland habitat, and past ancient petroglyph sites created by the original inhabitants of the land, along the eastern flanks of the Volcanic Tablelands. Conveniently, the road ends at the historic Benton Hot Springs, a popular getaway dating back to the late 1800s.
With the majestic, snow-covered White Mountains, the highest range of the Basin and Range geographic province, a constant companion to my east, I ran north, enthralled by the fact that, after so many years living in the area, there was still so much terrain out my back door I had yet to explore. Eventually, I reached the hot springs, where I found my girlfriend already soaking in one of the hot tubs with a glass of Rombauer in hand.
After a quick rinse, I slid in beside her, feeling an instantaneous hit of deep relaxation as the super-heated mineral water and red wine pulled away my soreness. It was Valentine’s Day weekend and, in an early February moment of inspiration, I had booked a night at the spring’s inn with both running and relationship in mind.
Hopeless romantic? Perhaps. Hopeless ultrarunner? Definitely. The reality is we have a tendency to compartmentalize our lives. Break out of that mold and your adventure running possibilities will know no bounds.