I remember my first trail run better than my first kiss. In the early 70s, we lived in an old house in Laporte, Colorado. With my two black Labs running around chasing squirrels, I'd walk for a half mile on a trail winding along the river, under a canopy of scraggly cottonwoods, then cut off at a fork in the trail to a junior high with a quarter-mile cinder track. There I'd do a regimen from Dr. Ken Cooper's Aerobics -- try to run two miles (8 laps) in less than 12 minutes (something like that, you got cardiovascular "points" for speed and distance).
In those days, running was done almost exclusively on oval tracks. Few people even hiked on trails, much less ran on them. REI was still a tiny co-op in Seattle, selling climbing ropes and ice axes to hard core mountaineers. The only trail runner I'd ever seen was in a film clip of Kip Keino, the great Kenyan distance runner who beat American world record holder Jim Ryun in the Olympic 1500 meters in Mexico City, then won a couple more Olympic distance medals four years later in Munich. In the film clip, Keino ran up sand dunes and across a vast stretches of desert. His running seemed so effortless and free-spirited.
Late one fall afternoon I was on the trail, headed to the junior high to run some laps, when, for no reason, I started to jog. The dogs found it so unusual that they stopped hunting to come see what I was up to and trotted along with me for a couple of minutes as I hopped over a few downed logs and mud puddles. I took the cutoff, ran my laps, then ran back.
A couple days later, as soon as I got on the trail, I started running. I stayed on the trail and ran right by the track for a couple more miles. It was challenging, less monotonous than running laps on a track, and the sound of crunching leaves and the river seemed to carry me along. I found myself totally absorbed in navigating the rocks, roots and windfall, and watching for wildlife. That was it, I was hooked. Trail running had called my name.
Since that time, in all kinds of weather, I've run trails all over the West -- in the Tetons, Gros Ventres, Valhallas, Never Summer Range, Indian Peaks Wilderness, Flat Tops, Wind Rivers, Cascades, Elk Mountains, Rocky Mountain National Park, even into the back bowls in Vail.
My generation didn't invent trail running. Humans ran for many generations before they ever raced, and there does seem to be something primordial about it. Many books on running begin with speculation on why we run, whether as hunters pursuing prey or prey fleeing predators. It is so natural that you have to wonder why something so natural and exhilarating seemed to go into hibernation in modern industrial societies as social stature increasingly equated with the amount of time you spent sitting on your butt as your body atrophied.
When it comes to exercise, each of us discovers what we like to do best. I enjoy other workouts besides trail running, but it will always be my favorite. I think about the poem by Robert Frost that goes, "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood..." That's how it was for me. I took off running on the one less travelled by, and it made all the difference.