From trail running to longer wilderness journeys

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In this post I share how my love of trail running as a teenager evolved into a passion for rugged, off-track wilderness expeditions.

I started trail running regularly when I was 13 years old and quickly became addicted to the endorphin high and the sense of freedom running gave me. My mum and I went trail running together around five times a week throughout my teenage years. At 14 years old I did my first 25km trail run, around Lake Rotoiti. From that moment on I was hooked. Weekends were often spent trail running in the Abel Tasman or Nelson Lakes National Park. I was never fast and I never raced. For me the motivation to run has always been about being connected to nature and the simple joy of moving my body.

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The more I ran as a teenager, the more curious I became about exploring beyond marked trails. I found myself on the Mount Robert ridge gazing out towards distant peaks and on the summit of Mount Arthur looking into the depths of the Kahurangi National Park. It was like Narnia – I wanted to step through the closet and enter a world of never-ending mountain ranges. A world where I could test my limits, connect more deeply with nature and spend more time away from the hecticity of modern life. At around 20 years old I started doing longer day walks and began walking each of the Great Walks in one day. But soon the trails I was drawn to got much more rugged. Routes like the Lewis tops, Ball Pass and the Copland Pass in Mount Cook National Park. Eventually trail markers gave way to poles, cairned routes and then completely off-trail wanderings through some of the world’s most rugged places.

A background in regular trail running gave me great endurance and fitness to start longer trips and rugged off-track tramping missions. I developed my proprioception, agility on uneven terrain and micro route finding.

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My trips started getting longer and my backpacks started getting heavier. That’s around the time my regular trail running routine gave way to rugged multi-discipline wilderness expeditions. My first expedition-style trip was in 2013  when I spent around 80 days walking across the Nepal Himalayas. That journey changed my direction in life, fuelling my inspiration to start working on long wilderness expeditions. Before that journey I was usually racing the clock on personal trips in New Zealand, walking the entire day and just making it to camp before nightfall. Dinners would be rushed, often half cooked and food was simply energy. The outdoors was mostly about the physical challenge for me at that point.

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I developed a newfound appreciation for slow-paced journeys which continued to grow throughout my twenties. During a longer journey, you become part of the landscape. The wilderness is not merely a backdrop, it becomes your home. I’ve spent lots of time thinking about the optimal trip length and what it is that makes longer trips feel so good. My friend Brad Meiklejohn, a passionate adventurer and conservationist from Alaska, describes longer trips well.“A good trip has to be 10 days or longer. Any shorter than that you don’t really get away. The first few days are still in transition away and the last few days are the beginning of re-entry. You need a solid chunk which is neither.” Our world is becoming increasingly cluttered and our heads are too busy. Being detached from that for a few hours is nice, but it takes a few days for your mind to truly disconnect, to slow down and start working in a totally new way.

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I go on long trips for the same reasons I used to love trail running.  My mind can wander in a really positive way and I enjoy the physical satisfaction and mental challenge. While there are many parallels between trail running and longer expeditions, there are also distinct differences. The endorphin high isn’t the same. In rugged tramping missions it’s a slower release but it lasts much longer. It’s not better or worse – just different. I also find long trips give me a greater appreciation for the simple things in life and for living a life that’s authentic to me.

After a few years of heavy-weight missioning I started figuring out how to travel lighter so I could move faster. That’s then I when I started experimenting with wearing trail runners on my expeditions. I found moving more enjoyable, I was more agile and could still move through off-track terrain efficiently. I started using half crampons in the snow, still wearing my trail runners to cross alpine passes.

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When I don’t have time for long wilderness journeys, I still get a kick out of shorter trail runs and mountain bike and packrafting weekend missions closer to home.

I’ll be sharing a few of my favourite weekend scrambles (in New Zealand) on this blog over the NZ winter.

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