Get Out: Running without thinking

By on August 3, 2011

Albright Peak guards Phelps Lake from a height of 10,552 feet.

Albright Peak guards Phelps Lake from a height of 10,552 feet. – courtesy GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK

Jackson Hole, Wyo.-I had no intention of running 16 miles and more than 4,000 vertical feet when I woke up on Saturday morning.

I lazed around the house for hours, following my usual Saturday morning routine: make a pot of moka coffee, cook breakfast, go out on the porch to watch the sun do its daily business and listen to Weekend Edition Saturday, Car Talk and Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me.

My routine complete, I went to throw the ball for the dogs at the base of Snow King, where I watched a young guy—presumably a college cross-country athlete—run barefoot sprints on the baseball field. That stirred my competitive juices, and around one in the afternoon I threw my trail shoes and water bottle in the truck and headed to the Death Canyon trailhead in Grand Teton NP.

I didn’t hit the trail until about 2 p.m. I set a good pace as the sky darkened with storm clouds and didn’t stop running for three and a half hours.

My knowledge of the trails around Phelps Lake and Death Canyon was previously limited to the track that led to the jumping rock, so I didn’t know quite how to answer when an older gentleman I passed asked if I was running to the top. I didn’t know where the top was. My quick response was a little inscrutable: “I’m running wherever I go.”

Soon enough, the trail started winding up Death Canyon. The trail’s grade is easy enough, nothing too steep, but the few park visitors I passed on the way up were incredulous to see a young man running something they found so difficult to hike. “That is the most impressive thing I have ever seen,” one man said as I ran past him and his wife. “And you’re not even breathing hard. What’s wrong with you?” he asked rhetorically. These kinds of encounters are pretty common for trail runners, and if you ask a trail runner whether she gets an ego boost from them and she says no, she’s lying.

I was still feeling fresh when I reached the cabin at the Static Peak trail junction, where a sign read, “Static Peak Divide: 4 miles.” That didn’t sound too bad, so I tracked right onto the trail and started up a seemingly endless series of steep switchbacks.

I understand that running isn’t the most compelling thing to read about. It’s kind of like reading something somebody wrote about reading. Running’s a largely internal, personal challenge. It’s mental. When people tell me they can’t run, I tell them they can but they think they can’t. Thinking is the biggest impediment to running.

It would follow, then, that, for the most part, the things that go through your head when you’re running aren’t that interesting. I can’t quite recall what I was thinking about as I ran up to snowy Static Peak Divide and then scrambled to the top of Albright Peak. I was probably just thinking about running, about my form, and repeating some pithy musical phrase from “Banshee Beat” by Animal Collective in time with my breath.

I didn’t have much time atop Albright Peak. I howled and whooped at the valley below, and thunderclaps from the billowing storm answered from the west. I booked it off the peak and back to the trailhead, prancing over the technical, rocky terrain of the Death Canyon trail, passing groups of hikers I had passed hours earlier, thinking, “Well, I’m still running. How does ‘Banshee Beat’ go again?”

Albright Peak (right) guards Phelps Lake from a height of 10,552 feet.

About Benjamin Bombard

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