Runner vs. Nature: Mountains

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If you’re a regular on our blog, you are well aware that a runner vs. nature post means that we will be offering helpful tips about how runners can best interact with some form of wildlife or force of nature. Sometimes our interactions are precarious and other times they are awe-inspiring, but they are always memorable because we as humans are intrinsically partnered with the world around us.

For this particular post, I’ve decided to draw inspiration and advice about Mother Nature from Mother Nature. My source? The mountain goat. This valiant, stately mammal can accomplish things on the face of a mountain that humans could only dream of doing. Scaling up, and descending down, steep and rocky terrain, surviving with ease at staggering altitudes, and leaping up to 12 feet in a single bound are abilities that would make our lives much simpler (and way more fun!). But alas, we are not the mountain goat. Our response? We humbly acknowledge our limitations, and press on into the challenges presented. The mountain goat has adapted and thrived in its natural habitat. While humans have also learned how to survive the dangers of mountain running, it has been a long road of discovery. Follow us as we take a look at the majestic mountain and (hopefully) find something useful to take with you on your next run.


No, not your lower extremities – “feet” as in the unit of measurement. Altitude is one of the great challenges of running in mountainous terrain, and has taken its toll on many a runner. One can begin to feel the effects of altitude as low as 5,000 ft (hills get harder, catching your breath takes longer), and altitude sickness can occur as low as 8,000 ft. A variety of potential effects can occur (in general order of severity): dizziness, sleeplessness, nausea, shortness of breath caused by fluid in the lungs, fever, and clumsiness, laziness or even violence caused by fluid on the brain. Altitude sickness varies widely based on the individual, the weather, hydration levels and general health. How can you handle altitude well? Ease into altitude running, stay hydrated, and (for your first days/weeks) don’t worry about your watch – your climbs will be slower and harder, but that is to be expected. Check out this article by Running Times to learn more about training in altitude. Lastly, at higher elevations, you are exposed to the weather with little protection, so be prepared by packing multiple apparel layers in case of rain or abundant sunshine.


I recently witnessed the perilous nature of forest flora while on a run through the small and rolling mountains of San Luis Obispo with another RW employee. The factors that contributed to the unfortunate run-in of his head with a tree limb were threefold: the low clearance height of the branch, his taller than average stature, and his brimmed cap. On a normal day runners love trees (blessed shade!); but on occasion, even good things can become a threat. Several other varieties of flora that can fall into the “threat” category are poison oak, plants with thorns or briers that can tear at your clothes or skin, and any other form of overgrown brush that can scratch or snag. Our recommendations for encounters with these forms of plant life? Wear a short-brimmed cap (or your normal hat backwards), be observant, wear protective clothing such as pants, tights, high socks or gaiters, and wash up with Tecnu or dish soap if you may been in contact with poison oak.


While we’re on the topic of living threats, we may as well state the obvious. Being outdoors usually means potential interaction with wild animals, and I’m not just talking about squirrels here. If you’ve ever had the unfortunate experience of an encounter with an animal that could have had you for dinner, you understand that these mountain dwellers are not to be underestimated. Depending on where you run, bears, mountain lions, coyotes, wild hogs, steers, and many others are possible threats. Ways to avoid or deal with these creatures vary depending on the animal, but some general advice is to run with others, avoid running at dusk or night, and look as human as possible – think bright colors and lights.


Let me begin with this: to all of you who have taken a spill while running on a trail, I have good news for you. It’s not all your fault. Yes, you may have felt like a bumbling fool when it happened, but the reality is that rocks, tree roots, and formidably steep terrain are at least partly at fault. You can also place a bit of blame on the fact that you weren’t born with the natural capabilities of a baby ibex. However, these situations are not completely out of your control; slowing down, being well aware of your next five paces, and wearing a pair of trail shoes with an aggressive outsole can assist you in avoiding your next embarrassing and painful tumble.

Faster Friends (at least, on the downhills…)

If you haven’t already noticed, runners are not the only humans who enjoy mountainous terrain. We share these beautifully rugged regions with none other than our brothers and sisters, the mountain bikers. And while affection is not always the dominant emotion expressed between the two groups, the reality is that both the runner and the biker are on the mountain for the same purpose: to enjoy the sport they love in a breathtaking and physically challenging environment. In an effort to enjoy the outdoors together, there are a few “rules of the road trail” to abide by: (1) yield to the person going uphill, (2) runners, avoid wearing headphones, (3) bikers, wear a bell, and (4) look up and ahead, always making yourself known to the oncoming runner or rider.

Fearless Enjoyment

I realize that I just filled your brain with a list of factors that have the potential to induce a certain amount of anxiety. And while a healthy realization of risk is beneficial, here is where I tell you to avoid any level of fear that will hold you back. Isn’t the beauty of the mountain embodied, in part, by the risk it presents? Doesn’t the joy of reaching the top lie in the challenge of getting there? You run on the mountain because overcoming the opposition you encounter means something. So run on.


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