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the great equalizer

I took up trail running about a year ago with the intent of mixing things up in my marathon training.  Like Quenton Cassidy, of Once a Runner fame, I went to the trails to improve my track performances: "He was trying to switch gears; at least that is how he thought of it. And though it was a somewhat frightful thing to contemplate for very long, he was really pulling out all the stops. After this he would have no excuses, ever again. . . He was not enthusiastically going about the business of breaking world records or capturing some coveted prize; such ideas would have been laughable to him in the bland grind of his daily routine. He was merely trying to slip into a lifestyle that he could live with, strenuous but not unendurable by any means, out of which if the corpuscles and the capillaries and the electrolytes were properly aligned in their mysterious configurations, he might do even better something that he had already done quite well...." (163).

Like most neophytes, I found instant appeal in the terrain, camaraderie, buffet style aid stations, and post race feasts.  Trail running has given new meaning to the Once a Runner phrase "trial of miles; miles of trials."  I have found the camaraderie that miler John L. Parker Jr. described.  "As with shipwreck survivors, hostages and others in dire circumstance, duress fosters familiarity"  (11). After sharing so many miles enduring the elements, taxing terrain, and fatigue, trail runners form a bond comparable to those who share a foxhole in battle.  This bond is something that transcends age, geography, ethnicity, and social class.  It is the kind of bond that forms on the best teams, but it is often what is missing once one graduates to the world of paying bills, putting on weight, and trying to squeeze a run in between work and family time.

Ryan Bak, Jacob Puzey, & Brad Bogdan
Photo by Long Run Picture Co.
The most appealing thing I have found about the sport, however, is that track and road times really don't mean anything.  All-american honors, age, agents, and big shoe sponsorships can all be thrown out the window.  Every race is an opportunity to prove oneself.  Trail running has become the great equalizer.  I have run with and actually beaten those with far superior track and/or road PRs, but I have also been crushed by those whose track and road PRs don't hold a candle to my modest marks. Trail running has become the great equalizer in American running and for all intents and purposes may be America's best chance to reestablish itself as a world distance running power.

For example, just this past weekend at the Hagg Lake 50K, with only a few miles to go, a guy who hasn't broken 2:40 in the marathon (Yassine Diboun) passed and almost beat 2:14 marathoner Ryan Bak.  To add to the excitement, neither was leading for the first half of the race, but rather Bradley Bogdan, a Boise State Graduate Student with a 30:39 track 10K to his name, took to the trails at a torrid pace.  While Ryan and Yassine pursued him, I was left with the realization that the only way I would see them again is if someone BONKED, got injured, or took a wrong turn.  (This was not a wish by any means - you don't wish that upon a comrade - but simply a realization based on previous experience that it was certainly possible.  Last time I ran with Ryan I was leading and took a wrong turn and last time I ran with Yassine he helped me through a rough patch when I bonked).   
Yassine Diboun worked his way through the mud to eventually overtake the leaders.
Photo by Kevin Smith

The unique part about the sport, and this band of brothers, is that we each took different paths to get to the same place. Yassine played DIII basketball, Ryan was a DIII XC & Track National Champion, Brad ran for DI Cornell and Boise State, and I was a walk-on at a JC and finished up at a small DII school.  Ryan signed with Nike after his marathon debut at CAL International, Yassine is between shoe contracts (but ran for team INOV8), I have a little deal with Brooks (because the high school team I coach is pretty good), and Brad represents Pulse Running and Fitness out of Boise.  Each of us works or goes to school full time (or both), yet each weekend the trails beckon and we respond by showing up looking for the opportunity to meet new friends, share a few drinks & laughs, and slug through a long run together.  In the interim we prepare for these rendezvous by doing the bulk of our weekly mileage on our own.           
Ryan Bak slogging through the mud  en route to victory at the 2012 Hagg Lake 50K
Photo by Glenn Tachiyama

Trail running has returned the sport to its primal roots.  Like Quenton Cassidy, we are relearning that,  "It has not so much to do with chemicals and zippy mental tricks as with that most unprofound and sometimes heart-rending process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprise the bottoms of training shoes. The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials" (210).


  1. Very nice Jacob! I've moved back to the trails myself, and definitely agree. Your road race times don't mean squat out there. It's much more laid back, and there are far more challenges than in road running. It's like comparing trail running to the treadmill. :P Look forward to reading some more of your articles.

    1. Thanks for the feedback! I, too, am looking forward to reading about more of your adventures.

  2. Great writing Jacob...I like the idea that along being what you run, you are also what you read/think. It was a good day at Hagg Lake. I will likely see you at Chuckanut and other venues where trails and dreams meet up and a new "trial of miles" commences.
    Best of luck to you.

    1. Thanks Glenn! I appreciate you taking the time to share your work and talents with the rest of us! Quite admirable! I look forward to seeing you at Chuckanut! Until then - Happy Trails!