Dirt. Rock. Sand. From the forest-covered hills of northern Michigan to the Colorado mountains, my summer of 2017 was about running new trails and running old trails in new ways, renewing my love for something that changed my life two years ago.
My trail-running had waned leading into the summer, as I spent much more time after work at CrossFit than running. I love CrossFit, but part of it, too, may have been the monotony of running my home trail loop almost exclusively. My home trail is a 1.5-mile loop through the Greenview Natural Area and Pioneer Woods, property open to the public and part of the Ann Arbor Pioneer High School complex. Coursing through a small patch of southern Michigan deciduous woods on dirt singletrack, some parts covered with woodchips by volunteers, it's a fine trail on which I often see deer, squirrels, and colorful birds whose names I don't know. It's right across the street from my house, and it's what got me into trail-running (or any running) about two and a half years ago, helping me get in shape for the first time since college 15 years ago. Before that, I'd gained about 70 pounds from unhealthy eating, drinking and sitting. I started with one mile, stopping frequently, breathless, but came back the next day and the next, inspired by Cam Hanes' motto, "keep hammering." I combine the loops for 3, 4.5 or 6-mile runs, typically, and maybe it was running those same loops over and over which led me to trade my trail shoes for barbells so often.
In late June, I competed in the Train To Hunt Challenge at the Ambridge Sportsmen's Club west of Pittsburgh. Train To Hunt combines 3-D archery, CrossFit-style lifts and trail-running with a weighted pack. The trails at Ambridge Sportsmen's Club follow their 3D archery course and access two-tracks up steep hills - almost mountains to a Michigan flatlander - and on that weekend they were brutal. Recent rains left the 1.6-mile trail a sloppy mess, and since we were running it with 50-pound packs and carrying our bows (for the two 3D targets along it) immediately after a challenge course that included box stepovers, sandbag tosses, burpees, and four 300-yard runs, my quads were cashed before I even started on the trail. I ran when it was dry and when it was flat and muddy, which wasn't often. Most of it was uphill or downhill and muddy, which I mostly power-walked.
I earned a third-place finish amongst the six competitors shooting traditional bows, but I knew that my endurance was lacking on the trail course. Still, I was excited to earn an invitation to Train To Hunt Nationals at the Powderhorn Ski Resort in Mesa, Colorado, just two weeks later. Our first trail there (part of the Grand Mesa National Forest) followed an even more brutal challenge course, similar to the one described above but with more reps and box stepovers. The 8,300-foot altitude certainly got to me, so in addition to starting the 1.6-mile trail up and across the mountain ski runs with cashed quads (and a 50-pound pack), I was also sucking wind. My calf cramped up halfway across the mountain and I fell down, taking what seemed like forever to rub my cramp loose and continue the course. I finished in last place.
The next morning was the "meat pack" part of the competition, carrying a 50-pound sandbag straight up a deadfall-strewn mountainside ski run 1,900 feet for a 2.2-mile loop. I ran up to the base of the ski run, but the terrain and my cramping quads required a hike with carefully placed feet. While other athletes took advantage of the downhill segment to reclaim their pace, the cramps in my quads required me to keep it slow. My only thought was not to let my legs ever straighten, worried that they'd seize up and prevent me from finishing. I did finish, though, on legs straight as stilts and in last place before collapsing. I was thoroughly humbled, but proud to finish.
Two weeks later, I was recovered enough to run an old trail in a new way. I've backpacked the 11-mile Shingle Mill Pathway in northern Michigan's Pigeon River Country State Forest often, but I've never run it. I was up north for a meeting, so I decided to stay up there and split the run in two, fast-packing it an evening and the next morning with my camp in a backpack. The trail follows the Pigeon River through wetlands, uplands, mixed forests and pine-covered ridges overlooking the river in the heart of Michigan's elk range. I ran four miles the first evening, camping at a familiar spot on Grass Lake, listening to loons call from my hammock throughout the night. I finished the remaining seven miles the next morning, and found a new favorite summer adventure: fast-packing. I may never fish again.
My wife Michele and I took a week's vacation immediately after that, camping at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, staying at a hotel in downtown Traverse City, kayaking Torch Lake, (attempting) surfing in Lake Michigan, and backpacking at Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area. I had a chance to run two new trails that week which - combined with the previous weekend's run - completely re-energized my passion for trail-running.
The first was the Lasso Loop in the Sleeping Bear Wilderness Area. I started where the forest met the dunes, running in the hot sun through sand on a barely perceptible trail where the dunegrass didn't grow. I dropped off the trail and ran along the shoreline, sometimes veering into the water to go around sunbathers. I rejoined the trail where it ran up into the woods, coursing through conifer and hardwoods, past small wetland complexes, and the campground before turning back to the dunes. Through the dunes and back to the beach, I ran past endangered piping plovers hopping along the surf, covering 8.8 miles, one of my longest runs to date.
A few days later at Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area in the Huron-Manistee National Forest, I ran an out-and-back trail along the ridgeline overlooking the smaller shoreline dunes and Lake Michigan. After starting out on a mixed-forest dirt trail, it soon entered the larger dunes and was soft sand, uphill. I ran through backcountry camps pitched directly on the trail and up and around a horse-shoe shaped dune to stand on the crest an look out over Lake Michigan, the best view a trail run has ever provided me. On the run back, I almost stepped on a root until it moved, revealing itself to be an eastern hognose snake! I covered 4.5 miles and jumped in the lake.
In early August, I watched my brother-in-law compete in a triathlon, and it spurred my competitive instincts, so I signed up for 10K trail run two weeks out. At this time I also switched from thick-soled Hoka One One's to a zero-drop Altra Lone Peak 3.0. At my in-laws in Oakland County, I drove out to the Bald Mountain Recreation Area, which I've hunted before but never ran. On two successive days I ran a 4.5 mile loop and a 4.3-mile loop. The trails are single-track dirt, with a few low hills and surprisingly rocky at times, but unsurprisingly buggy.
Early on the morning of August 19, I lined up at the start line of the Running Lab TrailFest at the Brighton State Recreation Area. I stayed with the front of the pack through the first half of the course, but felt my pace slow through the single-track hills after mile four. I used two other runners to pace, keeping one behind me no matter what after I passed him on a downhill stretch of road. The next runner I kept up with until about mile five, when he left me in the dust going up a hill. I finished fourth out of five in my age group, but was proud of pushing my distance comfort level in a race, my second race ever, other than my three Train To Hunt competitions.
In late August, my wife and I flew back to Colorado for a five-day mini-vacation with her family. We picked that time because her brother, sister and brother-in-law were competing in the Boulder Sunset Triathlon. We arrived at the AirBNB house we were renting up the mountains in Jamestown just before midnight the night before, when I found out there was a 5K/10K as part of the event. I set my alarm early, rode in with my wife's cousin and her brother's girlfriend, who were running the 5K, and my wife, and signed up for the 5K. While it wasn't a trail course, it ran along a paved road and then a gravel road along the levee at the Boulder Reservoir. I was trailing a pack that took the left chute near the finish line, when I realized that they were continuing on in the duathlon and the finish line was for me! I doubled back to the divider, turned the corner and sprinted into the 5K finish, learning that I'd actually finished first among the males running the 5K. I felt a little redemption from finishing last in the Train To Hunt Nationals the month before, finally making a podium in Colorado.
The next day in Jamestown, I couldn't resist running some real Colorado mountain trails, though. After a quick internet search, I found out that the Ceran St. Vrain Trailhead in the Roosevelt National Forest was only about four miles up the road, so I drove to it and ran it. It was amazing, following the St. Vrain Creek along a rocky single-track hiking trail and along ridges overlooking tree-covered valleys. My feet were forced to tap-dance around jutting rocks and roots, part of what I love about trail-running. I did an out-and-back for about 4.5 miles. Two days later, my sister-in-law led us all on a seven-mile hike to a mountain lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, part of the same national forest, for the most beautiful view any hike has ever led me, though I didn't run it.
The morning we were due to fly back, I had to get in one last trail run. Both of the vehicles were in use, though, so I had to find something a little closer if I didn't want it to be solely a road run. So I ran down through the town of Jamestown, across a bridge, up a hill street, down it, and down a dirt road to the National Forest boundary, where I saw a mule deer buck before he bounded away. A closed forest road resumed in a non-motorized single-trail up where it petered out in a gulch. I followed a game trail up a foothill, cresting with a view of the mountains across Lefthand Canyon. I returned down the hill, through town and back up another one to our rental house for a total of 4.3 miles.
Back home, I took that same approach on Labor Day Weekend. It would have been easy for me to step outside and run my regular trail, but less than 20 miles away is Pickney State Recreation Area and the 17-mile Potowatomi Trail, ranked by LaSportiva recently as one of the top 10 trail runs in the Midwest, which I've hunted and hiked but never run. That's farther than I'm running yet, but I combined parts of the Crooked Lake Trail and the Potowatomi for an 8.2-mile run. Like all the new trails I ran this summer, each step held the promise of something new around every bend, the alertness needed to avoid each new root or rock outcropping that may emerge in front of you. It occupies your mind completely like fly-fishing and still-hunting, fully immersing you in the pursuit at hand.
Before trail-running, I didn't run at all. I could never get over the banality of a road or a sidewalk. I would hike and backpack, lift weights occasionally, when I could, but I ate like shit and found myself 70 pounds heavier at age 35 than when I started college. Running trails ignited something in me I never had - a willingness and a love for running, a connection to our most ancient ancestors I only get otherwise when still-hunting with a bow, and a renewed commitment to my health. Without trail-running, I would still be eating like shit and I would have never found CrossFit or Train To Hunt, I wouldn't have dropped 60 pounds and be in the best shape of my life at age 37, and, moreover, I wouldn't be as healthy and happy as I am now. But when I found that monotony creeping into the only trail I regularly ran, my desire to run tailed off.
A summer of new trails has reignited that flame, though, and now even when I run my home trail, I have that fire because I have the promise of new trails to find, of new races to run, and new ways to run old trails. Whether dirt, sand, or rock; forest, dunes, or mountain; city natural area, state recreation area, or federal wilderness area; as long as we have public land, there will always be new trails to run. And who knows where they might lead?
September is Public Lands Month. Support keeping public lands in public hands by joining Backcountry Hunters and Anglers at www.backcountryhunters.org. #keepitpublic
Drew YoungeDyke is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer and a Director of Conservation Partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation, a board member of the Northern Michigan Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, and a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers, and the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association.
All posts at Michigan Outside are independent and do not necessarily reflect the views of NWF, Surfrider, OWAA, AGLOW, MOWA, the or any other entity.