Confessions of a backslidden trail runner

A scene from the last time I did a trail race. It’s been awhile. (Clint Green photo)

It’s no secret that I like to hit the trails whenever I can. Hiking has been a passion of mine for a while now, and when I moved to Tulsa I found an urban trail area that is built for not just hiking, but trail running.

It didn’t take long for me to dive deep into that. I’d been running some by that point, but trail running was a whole other animal, something that I took to within weeks. I bought trail shoes, joined a trail running group and spent whatever free time I had learning the park’s trail system. Hell, I ran a 25K trail race before I completed by first half marathon. I quickly – and proudly – identified as a trail runner.

Fast forward to the present day. Between those early days of excitement, when getting my dirt on was fresh and new, to now, I’ve put on some miles. Raced a bunch of races. Tripped over who knows how many rocks, roots and stumps while winding my way through the woods. Even repped a manufacturer of trail running shoes for a couple of years.

This brings up the need to confess something. I haven’t been in a trail race in nearly two years.

For that matter, I haven’t run on trails since last summer.

Scandalous, right?

It’s not like I haven’t been running. And it’s not like I haven’t been on the trails. I just haven’t run on the trails. It made me feel like a phony for a while, but then I got busy with other things and didn’t think about it much.

But this weekend, I’m breaking this unfortunate streak. I entered a 10K trail race close to home. I’ve run it before – the 10K and the 25K – and both races kicked my ass. And I’m sure it will again.

I also believe the trail running gods are seeing this as bit of revenge toward me for my lack of fealty. I’m not in great shape, and the weather forecast looks absolutely terrible: low 30s to start, with rain all morning. This, on a course known to hold a lot of water when it rains even the slightest. I predict a lot of slipping, shivering, falling and humiliation on my part. The trail gods’ judgment will be severe for this backslidden acolyte.

So be it. I’ve missed the trail running race scene. Road runners are great, as are their races. But the flavor of a trail race gathering is its own thing – admirable, fun, weird and always a party, even under the most miserable circumstances.

My goals are simple. First, finish the damn thing. And second, try not to finish last. So wish me luck. It’s been awhile since I’ve raced in the dirt. Hopefully I haven’t forgotten how.

Bob Doucette

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Work day: Trail repairs, great volunteers and a word about preventing future trail damage

Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go… (Laurie Biby photo)

I’ve been a big believer in taking care of the places that take care of you. And I’m glad we have a bunch of like-minded people here in the Tulsa area.

The Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition, partnering with Tulsa’s River Parks Authority, held a trail work day last Sunday at Turkey Mountain. This is different from cleanup days, in that the focus is trail repair.

Somewhere around 30 people showed up. The trails there are popular for cyclists, runners and hikers, but all that traffic, plus the normal wear and tear from the elements, has taken a toll. People using their free time to do some hard manual labor for the trails is a good sign that people aren’t just engaged as users, but also as stewards. Here’s a bunch of pics of people getting after it on Sunday morning.

Rutted trail needs some work. (Laurie Biby photo)

Volunteers getting started. (Laurie Biby photo)

Working on the trail. (Laurie Biby photo)

We were blessed with a huge dirt pile and plenty of people willing to move said dirt from Point A to Point B. (Laurie Biby photo)

Building the base of an improved trail section. (Laurie Biby photo)

This gal was nonstop movement. (Laurie Biby photo)

Repairs coming along… (Laurie Biby photo)

Putting on the finishing touches. (Laurie Biby photo)

We’re several years past the day when the TUWC was formed. If you remember, the organization was born in the wake of plans to build an outlet mall on Turkey Mountain’s west side. Strong advocacy from TUWC members and effective public pressure turned that plan aside, eventually leading the land in question to be set aside as a permanent part of the city’s greatest wild green space.

During that period, the TUWC held a bunch of work days like this, and turnout was strong. We know a lot of that was due to the publicity Turkey Mountain had gotten over the mall controversy. Seeing a solid turnout last week, now a few years after the mall issue was resolved, is a great sign that people still have a sense of ownership of the place where we all like to play. Many of the people who showed up have also been active in developing trail systems in Claremore and Tahlequah, so there is a sense that not only will Turkey Mountain remain a high priority for outdoor enthusiasts, but that the region is primed for growth in outdoor recreation and sports.

There is, however, another issue that has arisen. And this one is not as positive.

January was a wet month here in Tulsa, and the section of trail we were working on was a muddy mess. It made our efforts more difficult, and frankly, I lobbied pretty hard to have that stretch closed for a month or so. It needs time to settle and harden.

In the midst of doing all this work, there were people out doing their thing, including a good number of cyclists. In the muddy sections we weren’t working on, new, deeper ruts were being formed before our eyes.

To be clear, let’s just say it: Any sort of traffic on the trails when they’re muddy is going to cause damage. And I know cyclists don’t want to hear this, but bike traffic on muddy trails leaves the most wear and tear.

I’d offer this: Wherever you live and whatever trails you use, think about the condition of the trails before you go out. A little muddy is no big deal. But if they’re saturated, consider letting those places dry out before you go. I’m happy to do the repair work. That’s going to be needed no matter what. But it makes sense to mitigate the damage by laying off when you know your favorite routes are going to be mud soup. You’ll save the trails some grief, as well as the components on your bike.

Bob Doucette

Oklahoma women running far: Camille Herron sets a 24-hour record, and Bevin Ver Brugge claims a 100-mile first

Camille Herron

A couple of Oklahoma women decided this past week was a fine time to to make their mark. And by making their mark, I mean doing things no one — man or woman — had ever done.

First up is Camille Herron, of Warr Acres, Okla. Camille is a well-known ultra runner who last year set the U.S. record for a 100-mile race at the Tunnel Hill 100 (12:42:39, a stunning 7:38 per mile pace). That record was broken this year, but not one to stand still, Herron broke another record this past weekend, tallying 162.9 miles in a 24-hour period at the Desert Soltice Track Invitational (8:50/mile pace). And by breaking a record, I mean breaking a world record. In doing this, she also broke the 100-mile track record.

Next up is something more local, but also impressive. In Tulsa, runner Bevin Ver Brugge took on a very personal project: that of doing her first 100-mile run on her local trails.

Bevin created a loop at Tulsa’s Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness that, when done eight times, would give her that 100-mile total. She set about doing it on Dec. 1.

A hundred miles is tough no matter what, but doing this at a place like Turkey Mountain is particularly difficult. The elevation changes aren’t as severe as you get in more mountainous states, but the trails themselves vary from mellow and runable to highly technical, riddled with rocks and roots that make for slow going. Compounding that is the presence of a bunch of fallen leaves, hiding all those tripping hazards.

She completed that task in a bit over 36 hours. But the time is not the record here. While Turkey Mountain is home to plenty of races (including a few 50Ks), it’s believed that she’s the first to run 100 miles there in one go. In doing so, she also picked up more than 9,000 feet of vertical gain — not too shabby in the middle of the Southern Plains.

Watch this video of the emotional finish at the trailhead.

Brewery-hopping, a hike, a book launch and a homecoming

A common thread from last weekend: A bunch of people connected by a common love of the outdoors going back many years.

Ever have one of those jam-packed weekends that left you trashed, but grateful?

Sunday afternoon I dragged myself to work after a non-stop weekend of, well, a little of everything that didn’t end until just before my shift started.

Friday evening, I had one last run with a fella named Donald who has been part of my run group since it started in November. Back then, he came in bigger than he’d like and slow. We had to stop every half-mile or so. He changed that in a hurry, and by now is running a 27:45 5K. I’ve never seen anyone make such a quick turnaround – he was running under a 30-minute 5K within two months.

The run group after a fun few miles on the trails a couple of months back. Donald is the guy second from the left.

Anyway, he’s moving to Oregon. It was going to be just the two of us running that evening, so we decided to go out with a bang by hitting the trails instead of the streets. It was a fitting way to send him off, seeing he’s about to head into trail nirvana soon.

That night, a friend of mine, Matt, was flying in from California on his annual trip to see family and friends. This time, he brought five of his Cali buddies with him.

Anywhere Matt goes, there’s a throng. Some people have that humble, fun charisma about them that draws people. That’s Matt. So I got to meet his buds and reconnect with his Oklahoma friends all in one night of pub-crawling.

Interesting aside: One of his California friends, Kelly, has read the book I just put out. It was fun listening to what she had to say about it. It’s rare I get face-to-face reader interactions on anything I write, not to mention from some who was, to that point, a complete stranger. Very cool stuff. Matt and his entourage would spend the next few days crisscrossing northeastern Oklahoma, Northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri while the rest of us bade them well.

Saturday was going to be a big day. That night I was doing an “Outsider” book launch shindig at a downtown bar. Nothing fancy, just show up, hang out, eat, have a drink and gather with friends. I made it low-key because I’m not good at this party stuff.

So as I’m getting ready to head over to a friend’s house to do some fence repair that afternoon, I get this message:

“Meant to turn right at Walsenburg, got a bit lost.”

And he sends me these two photos.

Hmmm… this looks familiar.

Wait a minute. This is like a mile from my house. Dude…

So here’s the deal. Walsenburg is in southern Colorado. Bill is from Denver. Prairie Artisan Ales’ taproom is in downtown Tulsa.

You get the picture. The dude flew in that morning from Denver just to hang out and be at that night’s party.

Bill (left) and Mike on their 13er rampage a couple of weeks ago. (Bill Wood photo)

Man, that’s a friend. I did something similar for him back in 2012, driving to Colorado to hike with him as he climbed Mount of the Holy Cross, his final peak to finish the 14ers. He said he figured he owed me one.

On the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross for Bill’s 14er finisher in 2012. I’m second from left, Bill is second from right.

I met him at Prairie, had a couple of pours, and we moved on to a couple more taprooms (American Solera and Cabin Boys, in this instance) and grabbed some grub. Bill knows his beer, so it was good to take him around and get his take on some of our local breweries. He gave us a thumbs up.

With a belly full of beer and burritos, I headed home to nap it off before the launch. Eventually I made my way to the venue, and as I’m getting ready to go in, another surprise – I watched as my parents walked in the door ahead of me. It’s always good to see them, but this was a particularly pleasant surprise. I didn’t expect them to be there. They’ve been supportive of me through good times and bad, so I shouldn’t be shocked that they made the trip from Dallas to be there. That’s just who they are.

The launch itself was like a homecoming. I had a bunch of my Tulsa friends there, people who have let me into their circles since I moved here seven years ago. Buddies from my college days showed up. A dear friend from Arkansas and her daughter. Hiking friends from the Oklahoma City area. Folks I met through advocacy efforts on behalf of Turkey Mountain. It was a dizzying array of people from many strata of my life. My only regret was not being able to spend more time with all of them. You’d think it would be all about the book, and I’d do something like a reading or whatever, but no. We just hung out for a few hours and caught up. I like it better that way, mostly because I’m not entirely comfortable with being the center of attention. (Thanks for all the party pics, Steph!)

Needless to say, that went pretty late, followed by an early breakfast and then picking up Bill for one last outing. He’s heard me talk about Turkey Mountain (as have you all) quite a bit, so I figured I owed him a hike out there. We put in seven hot miles through the woods and talked about life. The book came up, too, and he had some observations that I felt were deep. Like I said earlier, I get a kick out of hearing people’s thoughts on what they’ve read. Often they’ll have conclusions that I didn’t see, and I wrote the dang thing.

Not exactly the Rockies, but I figured Bill could use some trail time at Turkey Mountain.

We followed that up with some post-hike pizza, then one last brewery stop (Heirloom Rustic Ales) before he had to head to the airport and home. Like the three other taprooms we visited, Heirloom does great work. It was also a hipster hangout, complete with not one, but two dudes (one sporting one of those ironic mustaches) spinning vinyl on a turntable.

After all that, I was whipped. But in a good way. There are a lot of people I met last weekend I’d like to get to know better. Folks I want to visit again soon. People I know I’ll see again, if for no other reason than to climb a mountain. The bulk of these folks I know through hiking, climbing or running. And those who aren’t directly tied to those experiences share a common love of the outdoors. Good people all. And I’m blessed to know all of them.

If you’re curious about the book “Outsider,” you can order it (print or Kindle) here.

Bob Doucette

Risks on the trail: Four thoughts on fears, security and exploring your trails solo

If you read too much of the news, you might be under the impression that running by yourself, particularly on trails, is risky.

I’ve been thinking about a few stories over the years that might give weight to this belief. One story mentioned booby traps set up on a popular trail system. Another referred to an assault. And still others mention mountain lion and coyote attacks on unwary runners and cyclists.

This is reflected in conversations I’ve had with some folks about why they haven’t ventured out on their local trails. Most of the time, the answer is that they would, but can’t find people to go with them.

They’re scared of hitting the trail alone.

A recent social media conversation seemed to confirm this more. In this instance, a runner was taking a friend out on their local trails to get in a five-mile loop. The trails in question are close to town and popular. The person in question showed up to meet her friend armed with a handgun and a couple of Tasers.

I’m not sure if this person walks around doing every day tasks with so much weaponry, but my guess is no. Something about running in the woods, even with an experienced partner, illicited enough fear to warrant packing heat.

I’ve written about carrying firearms in the backcountry before, and devoted another post where women adventurers shared their insights about hiking and running solo.

Looking back at the aforementioned stories, the conversations I’ve had with people, and what I’ve seen online, I’ve got mixed views on just how safe — or unsafe — going alone on the trails really is. Some thoughts:

  • Generally speaking, trail running on your own is pretty safe. Criminals are unlikely to commit the effort and time it takes to stage a crime or look for opportunities on trail systems. It’s too risky and too much effort. Places close to town have too many people, and remote trails are too much of a hassle. They’re more likely to break into your car at the trailhead while you’re gone. Hostile wildlife encounters happen, but are extremely rare. Your biggest risk is likely turning an ankle or some other injury that leaves you unable to walk out, and that danger can be mitigated by having a charged cellphone with you (if you have service) and letting people know where you’re going and how long you’ll be out.
  • More and more, we’re conditioned to be afraid, and the answer to our fears is increasingly a gun. Concealed carry and open carry don’t bother me. I don’t because I don’t see the need being so great that it’s worth the trouble. But others do. That said, there is a growing sentiment that the world is filled with bad people lurking around every corner, hoping for a chance to do you harm. I know plenty of people living in sanitized subdivisions, sometimes gated, with gun safes filled with all sorts of weaponry, almost as if they’re expecting an armed incursion into their neighborhood in the ‘burbs is on its way. Those fears tend to manifest themselves in people arming themselves when venturing out into trail systems. Do what you want, but generally speaking, that handgun is going to be nothing more than extra weight. My nightmare scenario: running on a trail, startling someone who isn’t paying attention, and getting blasted in the face.
  • I usually see hikers in pairs or groups, but most often see runners alone, regardless of gender. What does this mean? It means trail running is safe enough that runners are and have been fine with pounding out some miles on their own for some time now. Knowing your trails, being aware of your surroundings and moving confidently go a long way toward being comfortable out there. What’s different about them than my skittish friends? Experience. They’ve been out there enough to know that barring some really bad luck, they’re going to be fine. Tired, cut, bruised or beat up (trail running does that to you), but fine.
  • A bit of security that doesn’t require shooting/Tasing/spraying someone is a dog. A good running dog can be a deterrent to folks who might be on the sketchy side. Bonus: Dogs make great buddies.

When I think of trail running, it’s different from regular running in that it’s a real “outdoors” experience, and it comes with same peculiarities of related activities like hiking, backpacking and climbing. There are objective risks involved that deal with the terrain, wildlife and weather. The trick is recognizing how to mitigate those risks (good preparation is key) while ferreting out irrational fears.

If you feel more comfortable running trails with company, by all means, find a friend. If security is a large enough concern that you feel the need to be armed, do what you have to do (but please be competent with your weaponry before carrying it in a public space). However, I can tell you by experience — as can many women and men I know — that you’ll probably be fine on your own and unarmed.

In short, don’t be scared. Go ahead and explore those trails.

Bob Doucette

Sharing the love of trail running

Just one scene on my local trails.

Summer heat doesn’t excite me. But those daylight hours sure do.

Sunsets that start pushing the nine o’clock hour mean I have that much more time to do things outside. I had my eye on spring and summer when I asked my weekly run group if they’d be interested in doing some trail running.

In case you don’t know, I started leading a Friday evening run group through my local gym. Early on, we kept it close to home, running the streets near downtown Tulsa where the paths were more predictable and there was at least a semblance of street lights. All that is absent on the trails, and I wasn’t about to take people who were new to trail running for a night run. Even with headlamps, that’s a lot to ask of a trail running newbie. So I waited for the days to get longer.

For our first outing, we did a simple 3.5-mile loop. It’s one I’ve done dozens of times before, with a sweet cruise down a wooded ridgeline, then a roller-coaster, technical uphill climb back to the trailhead. My road runners weren’t quite used to the sustained uphill that comes with trails, or the steepness those inclines present. And don’t forget the tripping hazards. I guess I should confess that the only one who bit it that night was me.

Last week, it was the mostly the same crew, but with a few new faces. Most were, again, road runners who hadn’t been on these trails much, if at all.

I took them down that same ridge but chose a different path for our return to the trailhead. It’s one of my favorites, one that meanders down a ravine and across a now-dry creek bed before beginning a steady, switchbacking uphill ascent that doesn’t let up much. It’s technical and difficult, and one small slice of it is too steep to run. That part of the route is everything I love about trail running, cloaked it woodlands and scented with the sweet smells of springtime in the forest.

We’re all in decent shape. Some of the gang is clocking in at 23 minutes or less on their 5Ks (not me, of course). But everyone comes back from these trail runs a little humbled by the challenge. Twice I’ve asked if any of them wanted a little more, and both times they’ve all said they were cool with calling it a night. They enjoyed it but knew when it was time to head for the house.

In the past, I’ve run with groups who’d chill out at the trailhead, drink beer or maybe go for tacos. We’d talk about running, but also everything else about the outdoors: hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, you name it. I’ve found some kindred spirits in those groups and more than once, we’ve hit the road to hike distant trails and climb mountains big and small. Trail running is a gateway drug to all things outdoors that I cherish.

But the basics of it are what’s best. After that first run, one of the fellas talked about how much he enjoyed just being in the woods. No cars, no machines, none of that. Only the sounds of the forest and his footfalls. Being out there calmed his mind, he said.

Man, I can relate. I nodded in agreement, thinking about how a few years ago, in the months after I lost my job due to a layoff and weeks later, lost my oldest brother to cancer, it was running on these very same trails that proved to be the best medicine. I was hurting bad. But the earthen paths through the trees got me through. Years later, the trails opened a whole new chapter in my life.

I know that’s true for a lot of people. My story isn’t unique. But a lot of people could benefit from coming here, even if it’s just for a stroll. Being in wild places is a healthy thing.

And I guess that’s why these runs are special to me. I get to share these paths, these woods, and everything they hold. I get to take people to all my favorite places, “secret” routes that I discovered a long time ago. Maybe they’ll get what I got. Perhaps they’ll gain something different, but equally good.

We’ll keep running our downtown streets. I’m sure as the weeks plow into the summer, those will be some really hot, uncomfortable outings. But the long, sweltering days of summer will also give us enough daylight to take special trips to the trails. One thing is for certain: It’ll be worth the sweat.

The run group after a fun few miles on the trails. It’ll be a new route for them each time we go.

Bob Doucette

The best stuff I own: Five all-stars from my personal gear stash

Some of the best gear I’ve ever owned is in this photo. Keep on reading…

I don’t do many gear reviews, mostly because I don’t have access to a lot of new gear. What I buy, I make it last.

But what I can offer you is something different. Call it a shout-out to the products I’ve used that have become standouts for my outdoor endeavors.

I own a multitude of tents, sleeping bags, hiking boots, running shoes, backpacks and a whole bunch of other gear for hiking, backpacking, camping and climbing. Almost all of it has performed well.

But there are a few things in my gear cache that stand out. So what I’m offering you is a roster of my all-stars. Here goes:

MSR Pocket Rocket stove, attached to an Iso-Pro fuel canister.

MSR Pocket Rocket camp stove: When the Pocket Rocket debuted, it was dubbed the lightest camp stove on the market. At just 3.5 ounces, it held that title for a long time. I bought mine 13 years ago and have used it on every overnight outing in four different states, and in all sort of conditions. It’s simple, effective and durable. Unless MSR discontinues the style of fuel cans that the Pocket Rocket uses, I can’t see replacing mine anytime soon. It’s shown virtually no wear, does its job efficiently and well, and barely makes a dent in my pack weight. You can read my review of this stove here.

I’m sporting the Columbia Omni-Wick pullover on the slopes of Mount Sherman. Nice and toasty.

Columbia Omni-Wick pullover: Another one I’ve had for a while, along with other Columbia gear. The Omni-Wick pullover has been my go-to softshell for all seasons, and in several locales. It’s warm, durable, lightweight and versatile. It’s an essential piece of gear for mountain hikes and climbs as well as for any winter activities. It kept my toasty during a marathon that was 26 degrees and windy. Enough said.

Comfortable, versatile, durable: the Merrell Moab Ventilator.

Merrell Moab Ventilator hiking shoe: I’ve been a Merrell fan for years, and this particular hiking shoe has been one of the most reliable pieces of footwear I’ve ever owned. It’s rugged enough to handle more severe terrain (think Talus-hopping above treeline, or bushwhacking in various wilderness areas) but still comfortable, warm and breathable. I might trade it out for other footwear I own given the conditions of a particular adventure, but the Moab Ventilator is my default hiking shoe for good reason.

The Salomon Sense Pro trail running shoe. Best trail runners I’ve ever owned.

Salomon Sense Pro trail running shoe: Another durable, light and high-performing piece of footwear. Unlike the other pieces of gear mentioned here (all of which were purchased), I got a pair of these through a testing program the company had going up until a couple of years ago. You can read my reviews of the Sense Pro here and here. They’re comfortable on various types of terrain, let you feel the trail and protect your feet. They’re great as lightweight hikers and drain water well. And they stay comfortable, even at long distances (I’ve run mine as far as marathon length). Of all the trail running shoes I’ve owned, these have been the best, and it’s not even close.

Me sporting the Solaris 40 backpack by The North Face. Simply put, the best piece of outdoor gear I’ve ever owned, ten years and counting.

The North Face Solaris 40 backpack: One piece of gear to rule them all. I’ve got several backpacks from a number of high-quality brands. All of them are excellent. Some are expedition-size packs, others are day packs. The Solaris 40 is in that latter category, and it might not be fair to compare it to the others. But I have my reasons for giving it the crown. I’ve owned it for 10 years. It’s been all over the world with me. It has all the features you expect in a great day pack: hydration sleeve, an ice axe loop, a lower compartment for ultralight sleeping bags, backside ventilation, and multiple pockets designed in a streamlined fashion. It’s been a reliable summit pack, day hiking pack and is the right size for hauling electronics for more urban uses. It’s also my daily use bike commute backpack. I use it almost every day, and aside from a scuff here and there, the Solaris has shown no signs of wearing out. It was the best $80 I’ve ever spent on ANY piece of gear, and defines the term “versatile.”

So there you have it. My starting five, so to speak. What has been your best gear? Let’s hear it in the comments.

Bob Doucette