Sunday, March 30, 2008

Mother Nature Is My Coach

It recently occurred to me on a long run (80 minutes in, right when the runner’s high kicks in per usual) that although I train solo most of the time, I have taken a lot of tips from the runners around me. And when I mean “the runners around me”, I mean the deer, bobcat, coyotes, fox, etc., who live in the Open Space Preserves and parks I am fortunate to call my home trails. The wildlife run and bound across the forest floor with a grace only known to wild, four-legged creatures that live every day in the wild. I have learned a great deal about trail running by watching each animal closely. Perhaps it is time for me to admit that Mother Nature is my coach.

The Bobcat – “Run Quietly”

Bobcats are the masters of “running quietly”. Every part of their body is moving deliberately, no energy wasted, no sound. Running quiet is an essential skill to a bobcat, quite simply because they kill their breakfast every morning. But it also has a lesson for trail runners too - running quietly means running efficiently.

When you try to minimize the impact (and thus the sound) that you make with each foot strike, you will find that you naturally shift your body position forward and recruit more leg muscles. Each foot strike reaches out to softly touch the ground mid-foot, thereby engaging more foot and calf muscles for strength and stabilization. I also find my core gets more engaged to keep my center of gravity moving forward at a constant rate. I’m not sure if it’s any faster, but it sure feels effortless. Plus it’s an added weapon in your arsenal should you need the element of surprise when passing somebody.

The polar opposite of “running quietly” is running with an iPod. If you’ve ever had an iPod-wearing trail runner cruise by you, then you know this (I am also guilty as charged). If you have an iPod, you’re going to need to turn it off for a while to get the feel for it. I mean, you’ve never seen a bobcat go running by with earphones on his big fuzzy ears, right?

The Deer – “Be Confident and Leap”

Deer are fascinating to watch when they bound down the hillside, especially when you give them a good scare (see previous note on iPods). When watched closely, you can see that deer “leap”, propelling their full weight forward in one motion, with only a rough idea of where they plan to land. I think trail runners can gain two insights into this. First, take a leap of faith that your skills are better than you think and stride with confidence. Second, use this confidence to throw yourself down the hill a little farther than comfortable.

If you’ve done your training, you likely can run downhill much faster than you think you can. Try leaning forward just until you can feel gravity pulling you down the hill. and allow yourself to leap a little farther down the hill with each stride. This takes practice, but can take some serious time off your descents. Plus it’s a lot of fun when you get in the groove. This is also a great match to “running quietly”.

The Fox – “Have Fun”

We have this crazy fox that moves into the neighboring forest every winter. I call him Loki (the Norse god of mischief), because he loves distracting me from my workout with a game of chase. Loki is all about having fun. He jumps out in front of me about 40 feet ahead on the trail, gets low and playfully jumps side to side, and then takes off at blinding speed while looking back at me. I pursue in full sprint, futilely trying to keep his huge tail in sight. He loses me every time, but will usually pop up on the trail 10-20 minutes later, taunting me with more yips and jumps.

Loki definitely has the right mindset for trail running. If you can’t have fun, why do it at all? And if you’re grumpy, try throwing in some sprints or a game of chase to get you back in the mood. There is nothing quite like a smile rooted in pure adrenaline.

Thank you for your wisdom, bobcat, deer, and fox. You show us that Mother Nature has plenty of coaching to share if we just open our minds to it. I will run quietly, leap downhill, and do it all with a smile on my face as instructed!

See you on the trails.


(bobcat photo courtesy of Bay Nature magazine; deer photo courtesy of; fox photo courtesy of gdargaud)


  1. Super post, Scott!
    Without stating it overtly, you've captured much of what trail running means for many of us. The mind wanders, relaxes, makes subtle connections, and strips away the residue from our daily lives. Nice!

  2. Reminds me of Bernd Heindrich's book Racing the Antelope: What Animals Can Teach Us About Running and Life. If you haven't read this yet I would highly recommend it. It caused me to think of my running performance on a completely different level by recognizing what nature provides in respect to running performance.

  3. In the early 1970s there was an article in RW that noted when deer are leg-injured they stand in cold water. (Wonder if they also lie on their backs with hot compresses.) Deer also run with a stiff-legged running style. Very efficient. In Lore of Running, Tim Noakes, MD speculates whether it's the kalenjin runners' muscle elasticity (springiness) that partially accounts for the running ability. Seems we can learn much from deer. Also, Scott, your post on the runner's high, linked from this article, is wonderful - thanks! Finally, here's a small gallery of pics from the Bay Area, including Rancho San Antonio, in the foothills where you and I run (has pics of two "kitties" and a rattlesnake):

  4. You pulled that off very well--this may prove a hit post.

    I could see myself taking too big a leap of deer faith and landing on my face (which, if I'm not hurt too bad, could be very fun.)

    For a few miles in the middle of our last race, I was feeling like skunk...

  5. Great post, Scott.
    Just make sure you don't get too close to the Mountain Lions!
    The story of Loki reminds of my feathered friend "Reddy." I run past this one spot everyday where Reddy, a big red-tailed hawk, lives and he greets me every time I pass by circling above me and letting out a hoarse kree-eee-ar scream.

  6. Scott - I listened to the EndurancePlanet podcast this morning. You have a great story. I'm glad I checked out your blog too - where do you find the time?!?

    You can find the podcast at

  7. I found your blog through endurance planet, and enjoyed your interview. You had a lucky break with 9/11, and with meeting Dean before he was famous! It sounds like your dog was a lucky break too. Perhaps some of that luck will rub off on me- I will see you at the Eugene Marathon. Alex

  8. "If you can’t have fun, why do it at all?"


  9. Love the blog - the quails teach us how to cross trails too.

  10. What a great post... this should be a magazine article!! Running without sound... I think I am more of a i-pod runner... will have to try this out :)

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  12. Great reminders and visualization opportunities, Scott, super post.
    Last week I was flying down PG&E at Rancho and my GPS marked 4:23 min/mile pace, my legs were barely not fast enough to cope with speed and gravity... Need to try the deer jumps next time, scary... ;-)

    See you on the WS trail,

    Farther Faster

  13. wow...made the EndurancePlanet podcast I see..

    Keep up the good work!

  14. Richard -

    Sounds like a great book! I can't seem to find Racing the Antelope, but will keep looking. Let me know if you see it somewhere online.

    Thx, SD

  15. Scott, here is a link to the book:


  16. Very nice blog and article. You are a pet and nature lover. Its a beautiful gift that GOD sent to us, so love the nature. Thanks.


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