Why Do So Many Thru-Hikers Become Trail Runners?

Thru-hiking is the ultimate backpacking adventure, taking athletes hundreds or thousands of miles. Popular thru-hikes like the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail entice thousands of people to cross multiple states every year. With only backpacks and essentials, thru-hikers leave jobs and loved ones to walk through woods, over mountains and across deserts. 

It’s not an easy undertaking, and many drop before completing the hike. The experience is unlike almost anything else, and the trek that allows people to live on a trail with others in the thru-hiking community creates a euphoria that is hard to replicate.

But not impossible.

Many thru-hikers are inspired by their long-distance pursuits to hang up their packs, throw on running shoes, and venture into the world of trail running. The community and approachability of trail running has attracted many accomplished thru-hikers and their deep knowledge of bipedal transportation.

The drive to knock out more miles has attracted hikers like Jeff Garmire. Appropriately nicknamed “Legend” on trail, Garmire has a long list of hiking accomplishments, including challenges like the Triple Crown: knocking out the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, and Continental Divide Trail, all within a year. Combined, those trails total almost 8,000 miles and include treks from Southern California to Washington on the PCT, Georgia to Maine on the AT, and New Mexico to Montana on the CDT. Only a handful of people have ever completed the Triple Crown, let alone all three in a single year.

Garmire has lost count of the miles he’s backpacked, but he knows it’s more than 30,000. In recent years, however, he’s focused more on adding to his trail running résumé.

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“I think it’s kind of a simple thing. You don’t always have as much time as either backpacking or thru-hiking takes, and while it’s a totally different experience when you’re trail running, you’re still out on the same trails, and you can cover more miles faster and see more in a day than what usually takes a two- or three-day trip,” Garmire says. “So I think it just scratches the itch to get out into the same environment, just in a different way.”

The jump to trail running, combined with his backpacking experience, has allowed Garmire to set multiple unsupported FKTs on routes like the nearly 500-mile Colorado Trail and Vermont’s Long Trail.

Hiking into Running

Garmire first set foot on the PCT in 2011 and says he found a lot of similarities to trail running. Slowly increasing his mileage day over day, feeling good about setting a new PR, and having a strong, supportive community are staples across both disciplines. He started his hike on the PCT with about ten miles a day, but soon he was topping 40, a progression that proved invaluable in his transition to trail racing. Once he knew Garmire could hike dozens of miles a day, the jump to running seemed logical. With an incomparable endurance base and a much lighter pack to carry, he had a positive and prepared mindset for events like Montana’s Rut Mountain Runs.

“Climbing is really something that I do well, just because it’s pretty much the exact same thing as hiking,” Garmire says. “Most people are power hiking the ups, but you have a lighter pack, so it feels easier.”

With that uphill advantage came some challenges, including a lack of familiarity with running hard downhill or on flat trails—sections most trail runners relish.

Stephanie Lorenz, another thru-hiker who has tackled the PCT and the Arizona Trail, says she also feels strongest while climbing.

“With trail running specifically, you’re not running the whole time. It’s not realistic, especially if someone is new to the trails,” Lorenz says. “So being a hiker has really helped me just kind of set that ego aside of ‘I have to run up this hill?’ No, you can actually hike up this hill, and you’re a great hiker. So just get up the hill or the mountain and you’re good.”

Before getting into backpacking, Lorenz started doing short trail runs while in recovery from struggles with alcohol. Time spent healing in the woods led to a thru-hike of the PCT in 2018, but running has called her back, and she’s currently training for her first ultra.

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“When I was on the PCT, I could hear people talk about ultrarunning or just longer runs. And I was just very intrigued, because I knew what trail running was doing for me in a small capacity and seeing what thru-hiking was also doing for me,” Lorenz says. “It’s just so therapeutic for me and just felt so healing to be in my body. And so then I just had this dream, I think, just from picking people’s brains on the PCT. I just want to try to run long distances.”

But There Are Differences

Lorenz is also facing some challenges in making the jump to running, especially when it comes to fueling.

“The nutrition aspect has been a little bit tricky. On trail, while backpacking, I never had a particular diet and just ate whatever whenever,” Lorenz says. “But I have noticed with running, and specifically on my long runs, I can’t just put a bar in my body. Sometimes my body just doesn’t want to absorb it.”

The obstacles that come with training for a trail race shouldn’t be taken lightly by anyone new to trail running. There are plenty of similarities between backpacking and running, but also enough to make it a brand new endeavor. But many thru-hikers find that trail running offers a new way to feed their passion for long days in the mountains without the need to spend months away from home. Being familiar with high mileage means one of the critical parts of ultra training—building a strong base and gradually introducing your body to big, long days—can feel more manageable.

Despite the challenges, both Lorenz and Garmire say trail running continues to be rewarding and recommend others give it a try. 

“A huge way to get started into that whole realm is to find something local,” Garmire says. “You just have to go out there and do it, and you know, there’s no pressure if you walk the whole thing.”

“I’ve learned to give up comparing myself to either how I used to run or to other runners. That’s not fair, because the journey is now and it’s mine. So, it’s going to look different than somebody else’s journey, or it’s going to look different from my journey years ago,” Lorenz says. “So, just do it and trust the process.”

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