Being both an avid hiker & a runner, I find the nexus between the two modes of trail travel intriguing. For me, the differences that separate running and hiking are outnumbered by the similarities that place them together on a continuum that is movement. Sure running tends to require a higher level of fitness, and plenty of hikers will be quick to point out that they used to run until they ground their knees down to a pulp or whatever. Fair enough. Nevertheless, I find the divide between the two communities curious. Most of the folks I know who actively hike and backpack express a certain amount of awe at the athleticism required to run trails, while simultaneously sniggering a bit regarding the legitimacy of trail-running as a means of experiencing the outdoors. I’m regularly asked if I actually see, let alone enjoy the views around me since running requires so much attention to the terrain underfoot. But the real critique has a philosophical undercurrent. Why am I in such a hurry? What destination is worth such expenditure of effort? Am I having a mid-life crisis? I must be shallow, unreflective & unable to be still, to be quiet, if I dare to run rather than walk through the woods.
What I find interesting about all of this is the way in which these critiques rise from a basic assumption about running as a symptom of malaise, neurosis, or lack. I get this implicit (and sometimes rather direct) message from a good number of people in my life who believe running to be a symptom of (pick your ailment): insecurity, unhappiness, narcissism, intellectual deficit (jock syndrome), an eating disorder, OCD … the list goes on.
In response to the hikers who freak out if you so much as whisper the word running, I usually point out that “running” in the mountains typically involves a great deal of hiking, especially up the ascents, and that moreover, most back-country runs are not races. In other words, I stop for breaks to take in the views, eat & rest whenever I feel like it. I also tend to take a lot of photos. Anyone who’s seen the ridiculous number of trail vistas I’ve shared on Facebook & Twitter has got to admit that I’ve seen a tad more than my shoes & the two feet of trail ahead of me.
On the other side of the fence, most of the folks I know who identify as “ultra” distance runners do not hike much except incidentally as part of a run, and most definitely do not backpack or even camp. I’m painting with a very broad brush here, but based on what I’ve seen, ultra-runners tend to like their wilderness experiences in the form of day-trips with a race bib pinned on and a motel room waiting at the end. (Again, there are definitely exceptions to this generalization). If they go out for a non-race backcountry run (meaning, not loops around a city park), it’s with a particular kind of workout goal in mind, the enjoyment and experience of being in the wilderness a secondary benefit. I might sound like a jerk for saying this, but it’s almost as if they want to see themselves as outdoorsmen or women, but without real exposure to the risks & vulnerability that the backcountry inevitably forces you to confront. It’s “wilderness” in a neat & tidy package, sanitized & controlled by virtue of its commodification.
I find myself ruminating about this because I travel in both communities, and also because I’m constantly on the prowl for folks who want to do long backcountry runs with me. It’s a challenge to find people who want to run, as opposed to backpack long trails, who are also willing to camp, as you often have to do, due to the remoteness of the locations & the time required to drive to and from trailheads. There are the people who want to run long, but they don’t want to sleep in a tent. And there are the people who are totally comfortable camping, but don’t want to run. Fewer seem to be open to both.
Two of the long trail runs I did this summer covered routes that I’ve previously backpacked: the Skyline in Jasper, and the Iceline in Yoho. I backpacked the Iceline two years ago with a few folks from the Kamloops Hiking Club, and we covered the approximately 25k route plus a side trip to Kiwetinok Pass & Lake over three days. A few weeks ago, I returned & ran the same 25 kilometer route by myself in an afternoon. Both experiences were brilliant & memorable. I will say that I prefer climbing 1500 meters of vertical without 40 pounds on my back, and that I like being able to get through less interesting stretches of trail (long fire roads under forest cover, for instance), and up to the higher areas I find more interesting, more quickly. On the other hand, there’s nothing quite like the experience of being in the wild, sleeping under the stars, unplugged & forced to survive on your granola & your wits for multiple days. Sure, I know plenty of academics who would roll their eyes at this & start in on the social construction of “nature” and the artifice around so-called “wilderness” experiences. But discourse has its limits. Some things have to be experienced to be understood.
And so it is for mountain running.
Like almost every trail in the Rockies, the Iceline starts with a steep switchback through the forest. After a couple of miles, you rise above the trees east of the Emerald Glacier and the trail becomes exposed and rocky. At about the 5.5 km mark, you reach the Iceline highpoint (a popular turnaround point for an out-and-back option).
About 8 kilometers in, you drop into a subalpine forest. The trail soon brings you to Little Yoho Valley, where you can make a side trip to Kiwetinok Pass & Lake, or continue toward the Stanley Mitchell Hut by the Little Yoho backcountry campground.
After passing Lake Celeste and just before Marpole Lake and Twin Falls (around the 14k mark), you get to a boulder field. This is the only part of the trail that I didn’t especially appreciate. It’s slow going, a bit of a scramble, and not especially scenic. I also remember getting a horrific blister on this stretch of the trail when I backpacked it.