The Speed of Experience

Every September as the summer winds down our running group the Boise Area Runners (BAR) host a campout in the Sawtooth Mountains. After months of training and race schedules, it’s a great casual gathering of friends in an amazing landscape on the cusp of the fall season. The hardiest (and healthiest) runners tackle the whole 19 mile enchilada of the Alice-Toxaway loop while others run out and backs. Due to an early season injury and a long slow recovery, tackling this non-official challenge was not in the cards for me this year. So instead Dana and I decided to head up early on Friday and backpack in to serve as “trail fairies” to our friends running the trails.

We had just made our way over the 9,500 foot pass from Toxaway Lake down to Twin Lakes when we saw our first runner. Having already covered the 13 miles we had the previous day and that morning, Serena was light on her feet and looked to be in great shape. No doubt she would finish the loop in another hour or so. Dana and I on the other hand probably had another 4-5 hours of trail ahead of us. 

Seeing Serena speed off around the switchbacks made me reflect on the way we move through the mountains and the difference in experiences that brings. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just a little jealous of the runners. One of my favorite aspects of trail running is the lightness of travel and distances you can cover in a relatively short amount of time. I usually attribute “runner’s high” to a lack of oxygen, but the satisfaction of covering ground in a minimalist fashion is one of running’s great appeals for me.

By the time Dana and I made it back to the group campground we were more than happy to lose the heavy packs, kick off the boots, and have a beer. As we talked around the campfire reflecting on the days experiences we got on the conversation of the unofficial speed record for the Alice-Toxaway loop. One of the folks in the group (who himself is a speedster) said that he had heard of a runner who had done the 19 miles in under 3 hours! However, the runner said it was the worst way to complete the loop because you are so focused on the speed and trail directly in front of your feet that you can’t see any of the beauty around you.

As I sat there by the fire I reflected on that statement and our time covering the same 19 miles over two days of backpacking and camping. Obviously as a photographer I stopped….a lot to take pictures, but in embracing the slow pace you see all the details around you from the grand alpine lakes, to the chirping pikas dancing among the rocks. As Alice-Toxaway is also one of the most popular trips in the Sawtooth Mountains you end up (or at least Dana and I do) stopping to talk to a lot of fellow travelers who on this trip ranged from Houston, Texas to Portland, Oregon. So while our footsteps may have been slow, it gave us time to take in the trail experience in much more detail.

I fully intend to run the whole 19 mile loop in the future and look forward to the experience and sense of accomplishment that will come with it. I think this experience will be greatly enhanced having taken in the surroundings at the much slower pace that backpacking provides. One is not better than the other, just different and in that difference lies the beauty of moving through the mountains.  

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