A Brief, Incomplete History of Trail and Mountain Running

Disclaimer:  As I take on the impromptu and unofficial role of trail and mountain running “historian” here, I will be glossing over, or even ignoring, many significant moments in the history and development of the sport in order to highlight facts that are formative for this specific write-up.  

Born to Run?

Our story precedes the Bruce Springsteen song, long before anyone was sweating it out on the streets of a runaway American Dream.  In order to understand the history of running, we are going way back in time.  Where to start?  Some would argue for an essential understanding that we were born to run, that our evolutionary ascendance was driven not by impressive physical strength, size, or speed, but in part by our capacity for endurance–specifically, our ability to run for extended periods of time.  Look at contemporary tribes like the Tarahumara, or the evidence of prehistoric humans utilizing a slow, group chase, hours and miles long–known as “persistence hunting”– in order to aerobically exhaust their prey and enable an easier kill.   While rooted in violence, this strategy might have provided the genesis for trail and mountain running.  

The Power of Legend

As you wrap your head around how and why people find the motivation to race tens, if not hundreds, of miles in a single stretch, it’s interesting to reflect on the legend that helped foster the creation of the famous “marathon” event.  After the Athenians defeated the Persians at the “Battle of Marathon” in 490 BC, they supposedly sent a messenger, Pheidippides, racing on foot back to the city of Athens to exclaim the news.  Having trekked over 25 miles upon his arrival, he collapsed and died from exhaustion after making the announcement of victory to an assembly of citizens.  Again, at this point, the sport still couldn’t seem to extricate itself from associations with death and violence.  But for runners, this was a strangely iconic moment.  And with the benefit of trial and error over the course of a few more centuries and millennia, we realized that just about anybody could do it with the benefit of proper training, hydration, calorie intake, and maybe a few aid stations interspersed between the start and finish. 

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Pheidippides dramatic announcement and death following his legendary run from Marathon to Athens.

Birth of Ultra-Marathoning

As for the impetus for ultra-marathoning, look no further than the story behind “The Western States 100”–the most reputable race of it’s kind in the United States.  In 1973, founder Gordy Ansleigh had participated in a 100 mile equestrian competition on the same course, but his horse exited early due to exhaustion.  In the following year, Ansleigh intended to prove the race could be completed under human power within 24 hours.  He would finish in 23 hours and 42 minutes–a testament to the seemingly innate magnetism towards the boundaries of physical and mental endurance.  Salomon captures the story well in the short video below. 

The State of Trail and Mountain Running

We are now far removed from the prehistoric necessities of running, mostly removed from death by marathon, and recently removed from testing the ultra-marathon distance in an equestrian competition.  Where does that leave us?  As more and more collegiate and professional runners attract to the distance, I believe we are finding our sport in the advent of true racing and marketable excitement.  Just look at what athletes like Jim Walmsley or Zach Miller did in 2016.  There is nothing tepid or strategic in their style as they fly from the gun, entirely on guts and grit, toward staggering reward or tragic blow-up.  The footage below on Zach Miller’s finish at TNF 50 is must-watch material.

What’s going on in Maine?

For the masses, trail and mountain running isn’t just an underground sport anymore either.  It’s on the rise.  And ultra-marathoning is too.  This bodes well for Maine–a state that has so many accessible and incredible venues to host the sport.  In terms of local organization, clubs like Trail Monster Running, a group that I hope to cover more extensively over the course of 2017, are already a fixture on the scene–hosting weekly group runs, directing races, and dutifully promoting all the state has to offer on trail and mountain running.  You can find more information about “TMR” and how to get involved on their webpage.

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A section of the Maine Appalachian Trail

Where to now?

This concludes the introductory post for 2017.  The next piece will deviate off the historical path to focus on running in Maine during the depths of winter.  I’m a big believer in education, structure, and internal and external motivation as methods to reach running goals–or any goals in life, for that matter.  So for those of you wondering what’s it like to get outside and run during this time of year, where to go, and what you will need–that’s what we will cover in next week’s post.  In between, as always, I will re-post and comment on any interesting, relevant articles I’ve found on the internet.

Thank you for reading.

-Finn

Finn Melanson

About Finn Melanson

My name is Finn Melanson, I am an ultra-marathoner, and I care deeply about Maine. Runner’s High is a blog that combines my passion for running with a desire to promote the great outdoors and strengthen our state’s sense of community through coverage of the road-running, trail-running, ultra-running, and hiking communities and their impacts on Maine’s economic and social livelihood. Thank you for reading.