I must confess that I love the perfect trail. The kind of trail on the side of a mountain that opens your heart. The kind of trail that seems carved around the slope just for running.
In German-speaking northern Italy they call them Waalweg. The literal translation is irrigation channel path because they follow the gentle slope of the irrigation channels from the higher mountains down to the lower cultivated fields and vineries. Today, these paths represent tranquil trails, perfect for running and hiking. In Colorado, they’re often called flume: Lower Flume, Upper Flume, Middle Flume.
I have a million of these trails in my head. From California, in the Marin Headlands, to the Tahoe Rim Trail; to the Appalachian Trail over Blackrock summit in the Shenandoah National Park; to countless Alpine trails, there are too many to list.
From these trails, the views are breathtaking, at once encompassing the valley below and the summits above. The surface is run-able, and the grade is very benign. They are not too steep, not too rocky, not too exposed, not too scary: they’re simply beautiful.
Recently, ultrarunning has become an extreme sport, not only for the distance exposed, not too scary, just beautiful. Recently, ultrarunning has become an extreme sport not just because of the distance, but also because of the enormous and sometimes unbelievable amount of elevation gain and loss coupled with the technicality of the trails. I love running up and down mountains more than anybody. However, I’m not ashamed to admit that I love the perfect trail more than the kind poised to kill you at every turn.
If you follow the cultural running Zeitgeist, unless you are on the spine of a mountain, way above treeline, completely exposed, with 1,000-foot drops on either side, snow blind and sleep deprived, you really haven’t accomplished much. Many races today are highlighted by impossible ups and downs; slopes so steep I can’t keep my feet on them; 100 kilometers of terrain that takes a lifetime to complete; trails so exposed you have to hang onto a rope to traverse them; and trails so technical I cannot find a single spot of dirt to put my foot on.
As much as I see the allure of cheating death a million times a mile, I believe we should bring back the perfect trail.
We all search for the hardest, the longest, the most life-changing. However, this comes at a cost, and now running is not enough. You must scramble, hang, fight, and claw your way to the finish line. Just running, it seems, has become a cop out.
I don’t see it that way. I still love running’s feeling of purity. My long strides are unencumbered by a grade that sends me toppling backward. Being on the perfect trail opens my heart. For once, I can actually look up. I’m able to cover more than a mile in an hour, and I can see forever. I find myself very content here, with the Sunday families out for a hike, the neighbors walking their dogs, the chipmunks squeaking out of the way. Bring back the perfect trail, I say, as it has not been getting enough respect.
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