Freedom of the Trail

peter in ET hat

Elevation Trail listener, Peter Bianco from NYC, looking out at the Statue of Liberty.

Welcome back to Elevation Trail where today, on the eve of Independence Day, Gary David and I talk about concepts of freedom in trail and ultra running.  Hope you enjoy the show and have a great 4th of July.  Please comment with your thoughts on freedom of the trails.

Freedom of Ultrarunning

gary tarc50

Gary David (aka Quadzilla) running his first 50 mile race last month.

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18 thoughts on “Freedom of the Trail

  1. Nice podcast. So many different ways to think about “freedom”. Interesting that you guys have focussed on the tension between individualism versus rules/structure. Personally, freedom for me is about time (the freedom to “waste” it doing whatever I feel like), and economics. Originally, at least in America, “liberty” was only extended to property-owners (well, white male property owners actually). That’s all in the past, right? Still, I think the money piece might be the most interesting angle on how the desire for freedom plays out in ultra running.

    Good point about the imagery in ultra-running: photos that portray solitary individuals running in beautiful natural settings can be a bit deceptive, especially if you choose to enter the big corporate races where you get stuck in crowds. (There are lots of small, beautiful races where that doesn’t happen, of course. I just ran one and was totally alone on beautiful trails for 90% of the time). But let’s go one step further & look at how those images are being used. Everyone and their dog is trying to cash in on the ultra-running phenomenon these days, and it’s easy because people will spend a lot of money to buy whatever they think will make them a bit more free. (I want a less mediated interaction with nature. One way to do it is to carry less crap with me when I head out into the bush. So what do I do? Go out and buy a ridiculously expensive “minimalist” waist pack, or water filter, or whatever.)

    But also, look at the imagery of the lifestyle of some of the “vagabond” – professional or semi-professional – elite runners trying to find a way to train full-time or simply avoid the 9-5 grind. Let’s pick on Ricky Gates as an example of an elite trail runner who portrays himself as the very embodiment of freedom. Take a look at Gates’ blog; the guy could quit running and get a job on Madison Avenue (if Madison Avenue even still exists) in a three seconds flat. In reality, for all I know, he’s a trust fund kid & doesn’t actually need a regular job. But I think his lifestyle, or at least what we know of it via blog images etc. (basically ripping around the world, sometimes on a motorcycle, going to interesting places to snap photos, run mountain races and whatnot) has a kind of appeal that goes right to the heart of the American desire for independence & “freedom”.

    The clothing & gear companies, and everyone else making a buck from the trail running trend know what they’re doing when they use this imagery to sell product. The North Face does it well with images of Tracy Garneau (who I hope will kick some ass at Hardrock this year) running trails around what looks like Jasper. But Salomon takes the cake with the way Emily Forsberg and the others on the team, when interviewed, tell us that they eat cinnamon buns & nuttella, follow no structured training plan, and simply lace up their shoes and prance out into the beautiful mountains when the mood strikes them. Then you hear Greg Vollet say that his mission is not to sell more shoes for Salomon, but to spread the gospel of trail running. This is so fake. It’s all about selling clothing.

  2. We agree? I must be off my game ;-) … You might not like this follow-up point though. Buried in my comment is a further question about the role of the runners, sponsored to whatever extent as “ambassadors” etc. of various brands – a question about their complicity in this by virtue of allowing their bodies to basically be billboards (and perhaps the cheapest form of advertising out there) for the various retail product companies. Whether or not a sponsored athlete genuinely believes in the greatness of whatever product they’re advertising is not the point. I realize that free/discounted shoes etc. are greatly appreciated by athletes. But is it worth it to basically be a human billboard, the purpose of which is to contribute to the profit line for a clothing company? … Just a question. :-)

    • I know your stance on it. I look at it this way, I was a “billboard” for La Sportiva, Rudy Project, VFuel, and Udos beforehand. The only difference is that now I don’t pay for them, which, in my income bracket, is amazingly appreciated.

      For example, at the end of this race report from Bear 100, I list off the gear used – none of which were sponsors. Same thing I do now (list off gear, review gear, etc) whether sponsored or not. http://footfeathers.blogspot.com/2010/09/bear-100-mile-run-race-report.html

      It’s really no different than you wearing your gear with the brand names on it. My gear is all by choice. I choose to use it regardless of price.

  3. Yeah, obviously everyone has to wear *something*. But that’s not really my point. Like I said, my point has nothing to do with how genuine your appreciation for any particular product line is. If you agree on the point about how retail companies are kind of duping the burgeoning masses of new runners with deceptive imagery etc., then you have to accept that the sponsored athletes who agree to let the companies use their images to sell product, are also partially responsible for, and contributing to, what’s going on.

    • Yeah, I agree I’m contributing to the marketing goals of some companies. I hope, and would be honored if, I influence someone to try VFuel, La Sportiva, Rudy Project, and Udos. Good companies and quality products and I’m proud to represent them in a small way. In the end, I’m happy to contribute to the promotion of certain products. I’d be paying for them anyway (and was for quite a while beforehand).

  4. Of course. And I just listened to Karl Meltzer praising the heck out of Red Bull (not exactly a health promoting product), Gary Robbins on Arcteryx (let’s face it, they’re going to put on a very badass 50 next month), Anna Frost about how wonderful Salomon is for all they do for her, and as much as I enjoyed Scott Jurek’s book Eat and Run, was the whole thing not just one big advertisement for Udo’s? … etc.

    Let’s put it this way: are there any retail products you endorse in the way you describe here, that you are not sponsored by in some way?

    But this convo is veering away from the point about how images that speak to a desire for independence & freedom, some of which are very deceptive, are used by retail companies to sell product (er sorry, to promote trail running). I really just wanted to tack onto that, the point that the athletes who agree to have their images used in this, are contributing to it.

    • Yeah, I promote Black Diamond and have always promoted Pearl Izumi and have given credit to Hokas for several races and S-Caps and Salt Stick and Clif Bars and Headsweat hats and steak and cottage cheese and avocados and Injinji and Body Glide and Band-Aid, Brooks, Asics, Wright Sock, Petzl, GoPro, New Balance, Nathan, Hydrapak, and anything else I use during all the ultras I’ve run because people typically ask and I like to share what works, paid for or not.

      You can have a sense of freedom in a minimalist way (I’m certain I have a smaller environmental footprint than probably anyone who may listen to or even know of Elevation Trail) or you can enjoy freedom with a ton of crap packed in a giant RV. It’s individual, regardless of the commercial aspect to it.

      It’s also up to the individual to discern reality and the visage of promotion. Blaming companies is a copout, like blaming MacDonalds for people being fat.

  5. You were fine with it (critiquing the retail outfits such as Salomon) until I suggested that the elite (athletes) are playing into it and also partly responsible …

    How would you know if your environmental footprint is smaller or larger than mine? That’s a bit arrogant and presumptuous, wouldn’t you say? Do you grow your own food?

    I do agree that individuals should try, at least, to think critically about the information they receive: they should know that there may be bias involved when medical advice is pushed by a pharmaceutical company, nutritional advice by a for-profit supplement company … and, of course, gear by anyone who is paid to promote xyz product.

    Related to your other point, it’s very individualist (and American) to say that the experience of freedom is something that the individual is themselves in control of. I would argue that, in fact, we’re getting into highly debatable territory there and that there are many sociological factors that limit the extent to which you can legitimately say that an individual autonomously determines their perspective and choices. But that’s a much larger philosophical & political kettle of fish …

  6. Christina,
    What does this world devoid of commercialism and materialism that you refer to look like. I am not sure I have grasped, at least from your brief comments above, a vision of what you seem to infer is a superior “way”.

    Tim & Gary (and Matt),
    I appreciate your work- much needed alternative perspectives in the sea of ‘mountain glee’* that the trail/mountain running community is subsumed by. I also like your gaff-encrusted, pregnant silence-punctuated, and, at times, apodictict, ‘community table’ approach with the podcast. Please do not have a show on MAF (or MAP for that matter)- unless it is a parody! Actually, a parody of Endurance Planet (complete with ‘valley girl’, ‘mountain man’, and ‘biochemical man’) would be an interesting vehicle for a parody, in the right hands of course.

    *term attributed to your colleague Matt in a piece he wrote/spoke about pertaining to Jornet and his portrayal by Salomon.

    Tim & Christina,
    As far as carbon footprint, it all comes down to kWh/day consumed. Mine is 75-80 kWh per day on average for a full four season year in a climate region that has snow for 5-6 months per year (the calculation is guided by the protocols developed by MacKay- http://www.withouthotair.com/). In my region 61% of all electric power comes from hydro, 32% coal, 5% nuclear, and the remainder is a mix dominated by wind. For calibration, the average US citizen is at 250 kWh/day, the average UK citizen is at 125 kWh/day, and the average EU citizen is at 80 kWh/day. Energy sources for these vary significantly by country and particularly by region within a country. If you are going to talk about 10 km road running times, it is inherent that you give your time, likewise, if you are going to talk about carbon footprint you have to quote your energy use, and your energy source(s) (coal, hydro, nuclear, wind, solar, hydrocarbon, etc.). This is what makes up a carbon footprint.

    • You’re correct, Le Manchot, I shouldn’t have made that blind assumption regarding carbon footprint. My life is about as minimalist as I can get it but I have no idea how others live.

      Thanks for the comment.

  7. Le Manchot:

    Where is my utopia? It’s in my head, of course ;-)
    I’m not against commerce. I’m basically just reacting to the feeling of being over-marketed to, (maybe over-reacting). But I think wrt ultrarunning, it’s reaching a saturation point, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s recoiling a bit. I feel put-off when I see top runners plastered in billboards (i.e. every single thing they’re wearing is an advertisement for a sponsor). I never liked billboards on the side of the road either.

  8. I think as with mountaineering and backcountry hiking, you are going to start seeing a “fast and light” element emerging in ultra. I base this on nothing else but what has happened in mountaineering and backcountry hiking. We’ve also been seeing it in hydration and nutrition as well. But of course, then that will be marketed and we’ll be having the same discussion.

  9. So, I just happened to go to Youtube with the intent to cruise for free music, but lo and behold, there was Salomon, somehow marketing themselves to me. So, like a fool, I clicked the link, and what comes up? A big header with a photo of Ricky Gates funning. The caption is, did you guess, it: “designed for freedom”. http://www.youtube.com/user/SalomonTrailRunning

    I can’t seem to get this issue out of my mind, and I think this is why: the outdoors *should*, in fact, be a place where something like freedom, of the feeling of it is possible. But by turning outdoor experiences into retail experiences for city slickers, something basically wrong is taking place. An experience of the outdoors should not be something anyone has to purchase. And that is, essentially, what is happening, in tandem, and partially (for some folks) due to this kind of marketing.

    Yeah I know, I can’t let it go. …

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