Trail Running with Gretchen Hurlbutt at Wanderlust 2016
Over the course of the Wanderlust Aspen-Snowmass 2016 Festival, I participated in two trail runs in Snowmass, Colorado – one traversing the shaded, rolling hills of the Tom Blake Trail and the other climbing the switch-backed ascent of the Rim Trail.
Gretchen Hurlbutt, Elite Marathoner and Olympic Trials Qualifier
Gretchen Hurlbutt, elite marathoner and olympic trials qualifier from Boise, Idaho, led both runs. With set back shoulders, a slight frame, and apparel hitting the Richter scale in brightness, Gretchen typifies an avid runner, radiating both her love and experience in the sport.
Before each run, participants met at a designated location at the Wanderlust venue called “The Trailhead.” There were around six people for each run, but during the runs, they would usually separate into two groups of three. The runners ranged from former competitors in the big Hawaii World Championship Ironman to a self proclaimed “recovering honeymooner” getting back into shape.
The first run was slow as nobody was used to the high altitude nor the terrain yet. Nevertheless, we ended up splitting into two groups, our movement resembling that of a slinky. I found myself in the lead group with Gretchen. Among other things, we discussed her unusual gait – where one foot strikes with the heel and the other with the toe. (She admits she has been trying to fix that.) She also taught us different breathing techniques like filling up the back parts of the lungs with air, pursing the lips when pushing air out, and taking slow breaths. None of these had to be implemented for this leisurely run.
The second run, however, was different. Filled with marathoners and runners accustomed to the high altitude, and on a trail with an elevation change of 1,200 feet, I mistakenly paced the group on the way up. Behind my labored pants and attempts to fill the back of my lungs with air, two Mo Farah’s were discussing fun marathons they recommend.
When we peaked at the Tao mosaic on top of the Snowmass Rim Trail, I was quickly relieved of duty. Now third in line, the pace increased significantly and I found myself sucking wind and inhaling dust. At one point we passed a bench; it hurt a bit looking at it.
For the rest of the run, I strained to keep up. Ripping all the muscles in my body, pushing through the cramps rising up my abdomen, carefully and deliberately placing each footfall, it was all a blur. Ultimately, though, I did it; I returned to the bottom of the trail head with the lead group.
Later, as I walked down to the bus station, each step a reminder of the mountain I scaled, I realized that I actually gained more by running in the back of the group. And, reviving memories from my high school sports teams, I remembered that sometimes there is a benefit to not leading the group, but following.
There’s a parable within the racing world: “The lead dog has the best view.” This idea that winning is rewarded can be expounded to any other competitive field: sport, business, discipline, etc. And I can attest, the sweaty shirts in front of me were not pretty. But I will also attest that by following, I was pushed beyond what I would have been had I continued to lead the group. And even more importantly – the other runners also gained more out of the run with the increased pace. Being in the back doesn’t give a view of the foreground, but it does require an honest view of yourself, your abilities, and of the others around you.
While I certainly understand a competitive mentality for races, this mentality can sometimes permeate beyond into our practice domain. For that reason, I think it’s important to remember that sometimes we gain the most not by being in front, but by being behind, surrounded by those that make us better. It is this positioning that allows us to gain insights into ourselves. After all, none of us have ever achieved our best all alone.