In the enduring words of acclaimed novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, “Not all those who wander are lost.” Penned as part of a poem to describe Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, this phrase still transcends the most magnificent English literature about Middle-earth. As a distance runner, I am prone to wandering and getting lost, though the former doesn’t always cause the latter. In fact, like other like-minded runners, I tend to consistently revisit the same routes time and again for the sake of convenience and familiarity. But as familiarity tends to breed contempt, returning to the same loop or out-and-back course is surely a precursor to boredom and stagnation.
Boredom is bounced, however, by wandering off the same path. In the words of famed inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who knows a thing or two about tinkering for the sake of breakthrough, “Don’t keep forever on the public road, going only where others have gone and following one after the other like a flock of sheep. Leave the beaten track occasionally and dive into the woods. Every time you do so you will be certain to find something that you have never seen before.” A jaunt in the woods, at least for me, was how I left the beaten path, the unforgiving daily combination of concrete and asphalt.
The decision to leave the roads for the trails has been a worthwhile exchange as towering trees, mountains, flowers, shrubs, rocks, and water crossings leave an impression on the mind that lingers long after a run or race has concluded. I’m reminded of John Muir, naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, and his take on trees. “It has been said that trees are imperfect men, and seem to bemoan their imprisonment rooted in the ground. But they never seem so to me. I never saw a discontented tree. They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast rooted they travel about as far as we do.” We travel far through the woods like the mighty trees.
I believe the message that Muir is articulating is simple. Make a date with a tree. Or two trees. Wander away from the world for a few moments (or hours) and explore the majesty of creation. Wander – but pay attention to signs too, for in failing to do so you may very well become lost. Last fall, I managed to finish a 50K trail race in the mounts of Blue Ridge, Georgia, but I did get lost a few times. While the course was fairly well-marked, I found myself at a loss about where to go next at a few select intersections. Less concerned with finish time than I was with finishing the race upright (i.e. no falls), I stayed in place and waited patiently for another runner to appear from the woods so I could solicit guidance for where to run next.
In addition to wandering off the roads and on to the trails – while taking care to avoid getting lost – it seems clear that wandering may also allude to slowing down from a speed standpoint. I’ll be the first to admit that I relish the thought of running fast, making no distinction between road or trail. Both beckon to be explored at a quick rate of speed, but there’s the rub: whizzing by the scenery leaves little, if any, time to contemplate what’s around. To explore. To stroll. To saunter. To amble. To wander.
Trails are conducive to strolling, be it with a walk, run, or hike. Trails naturally slow runners down as earth doesn’t provide much in the way of energy return like asphalt or concrete. I’ve met many men and women, however, who missed the memo about the soft ground inhibiting speed. I have a friend who consistently clocks six-minute miles during trail races and looks anything but gassed afterwards. Ultramarathons, which are typically held on trails, exist to test the physical and mental breaking points of the world’s finest runners. And yet competitors still finish events of this magnitude in amazing times.
The courses are iconic. Western States. Hardrock. Pinhoti. Barkley. In a 2013 article for Outside magazine, author Jason Daley lists nine grueling ultramarathons that are “extra-long, incredibly tough, and take the type of commitment and logistics once needed for climbing a Himalayan peak, all brought to bear in some of the world’s most dazzling landscapes.” What’s a runner to do but run these courses, though based on the elevation gain and loss, wandering (i.e. walking) will likely be the norm from time to time. Many entrants may get lost on the way too. But while a misstep might cause a deviation from the prescribed route, the stunning scenery will not be lost on them. No, they will lose themselves in a grand adventure that is utterly jaw-dropping.