The Nine is not for the faint of heart. It’s a daunting 20-mile route which summits nine of the Catskill High Peaks — and it’s longer if you get lost, for what’s especially challenging is that five of the peaks have no trails, which means it’s necessary to “bushwhack” or move through the forest using map, compass, and GPS. Even with this gear, navigation is no simple task, for the terrain is steep and rocky, and the forests thick and tangled, which renders “the eye of little service,” as Catskills author John Burroughs wryly noted.
I had completed the Nine, or parts thereof, on several occasions: once trying to run it for speed, once at night, once in the winter. In April 2016, as a novice barefoot hiker, I tried to complete the Nine without shoes, but after six of the peaks I’d had enough. A year later I tried again and this time gave up after a single peak, defeated by the rocky trails.
Over time, my practice of running and hiking continued to evolve in a minimalist direction. I developed an interest in “natural navigation” (moving through the forest without technology — meaning no map, no compass, no GPS). I began to incorporate intermittent fasting into my dietary and training plans. And I became somewhat more experienced at going barefoot. One day these themes coalesced in my mind, and I came up with a grand plan: to complete the Nine not only barefoot, but navigating naturally, and without carrying food or water. I would call this the Diogenes Challenge, after the ancient Greek philosopher who advocated for simplicity and self-discipline.
Upon reflection, however, the Diogenes Challenge seemed like a little too much, even for an arch-minimalist like me. I quietly let it slide and focused on other things.
Until one day my friend Kal Ghosh asked, when were we going to do it?
In a New Yorker article last fall, Kathryn Schultz attacked the legacy of Henry David Thoreau, calling Walden’s author “pond scum” and dismissing as unrealistic any political vision built upon his “rugged individualism.” Based on her reaction to Thoreau, she’d likely recoil in horror from Diogenes of Sinope (412-323 BCE), founder of the Cynic school of philosophy in ancient Greece. Known as “The Dog,” Diogenes lived in a tub, begged for food, and went barefoot, haranguing rich and poor alike for their pointless conformity, irrational behavior, and moral bankruptcy. Compared to Diogenes, Thoreau was pampered and tame.
You might be familiar with the image of a white-haired man carrying a lamp in daylight, searching for an honest man. That was Diogenes.
Brilliant philosopher, shameless exhibitionist, ragamuffin — take your pick, but before we concede to people like Schultz and dismiss the man, we have to ask the question, why is Diogenes still remembered some twenty-four hundred years after his death?
I recently came across a book by Professor Luis Navia of New York Institute of Technology, Diogenes the Critic: The War Against the World, which sheds some interesting light on this question.
As someone who enjoys running in the mountains, I find myself drawn to Henry David Thoreau’s vision of nature and wildness. But when you follow in Thoreau’s path, you discover that his admirers include not only outdoors enthusiasts, but also people with more extreme views. Consider the philosopher and writer John Zerzan, a self-proclaimed anarchist and primitivist, who criticizes industrial mass society as inherently oppressive and warns us that technology is leading humanity into an increasingly alienated existence, at the same time that it threatens to destroy the natural environment. To be sure, the anarcho-primitivist movement counts few members, but does that mean it’s safe to ignore Zerzan and his warning?
This Thanksgiving, if you’re spending time with family and friends, that’s fine, but if you consider yourself an “Epicurean,” that is, someone who places a high value on fine food and drink, unfortunately, I can’t find any philosophical justification for your preferences.
As a fan of the Stoic philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome, I thought it was only fair to give the other side a fair hearing, and so I set out recently to learn something about Epicurean philosophy, thinking it would be a study in contrast. After all, the dictionary defines Stoicism as endurance of pain without complaint, while Epicurean signifies devotion to sensual pleasures, especially fine food and drink. But I discovered, to my surprise, that this is not the real story.
In a recent post, I compared a weekend spent hiking in the Catskills to Henry David Thoreau’s two-year sojourn at Walden Pond, as both were experiments in natural living and self-sufficiency.
But then my daughter Emeline brought to my attention a recent article entitled “Pond Scum.” The author, Kathryn Schulz, questions why we still admire the literature of a man who was mean-spirited and a fake. She summarizes her opinion in no uncertain terms:
Friday evening, my nephew Nathaniel stopped by to visit during college break. Over dinner he mentioned a course he was taking on Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century transcendentalist who had spent two years living in a cabin by the side of Walden Pond. I had read Walden recently and appreciated Thoreau’s experiment in self-sufficiency and simple living, as well as his clever style. I asked Nathaniel, did he think Thoreau was a nature lover or a social recluse? Then I wondered aloud why Thoreau had left Walden after only two years.
Once dinner was over, and Nathaniel had left, I summoned Odie the Labradoodle, and we piled into the car for a weekend adventure that might, it occurred to me, share some of Thoreau’s values. For us, self-sufficiency and simplicity would mean hiking barefoot, skipping meals, and sleeping in a lean-to. However, instead of two years, our trip would last two days. It would be like Walden, just in miniature.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Behind me the sky had colored with the rising sun, while to the front the southern escarpment of the Catskill Mountains was silhouetted in mauve and cerise.
Odie and I were headed north for a minimalist adventure, the objective to climb three mountains, of which one would be a bushwhack. The protocol for me would be climbing barefoot and descending in LUNA sandals; Odie is always barefoot. Emboldened by slow but successful ascents of Peekamoose, Hunter, and Southwest Hunter, I had developed the peculiar ambition to climb all 35 peaks in the Catskills barefoot, and today’s activities would hopefully get me to number 6.
To make this expedition appropriately minimalist, I was carrying a small safety kit, but no food or water.
I recently read Peter Nabokov’s 1981 book, Indian Running: Native American History and Tradition. The book chronicles the 1980 Tricentennial Run, a 375-mile relay race across Arizona and New Mexico undertaken by teams of Pueblo Indians as a celebration of a 17th century rebellion against Spanish rule. An anthropologist by profession, Nabokov weaves into the book a broader discussion of Native American running, including how they ran to communicate, fight, and hunt, as well as to enact myths and to create a bridge between themselves and the forces of the universe.
I read the book with great curiosity, wondering if people whose culture predated the spread of modern technology and sedentary lifestyle were indeed natural runners and if so, how their capabilities would compare to the those of modern runners.
My grandfather told me that Talking God comes around in the morning, knocks on the door, and says, “Get up, my grandchildren, it’s time to run, run for health and wealth.”
After racing a cumulative 4,130 miles in marathons and ultramarathons, you’d think my feet would be messed up, but actually they’re quite beautiful, don’t you think?
Just kidding. Those feet belong to my friend Cindy Koch. My feet are almost as beautiful, but I don’t wear high heels.
To the contrary, my wardrobe consists entirely of “zero drop” footwear, meaning shoes where there is zero difference between the height of the sole in front and in back. Zero drop shoes have no heels, they’re flat.
I run in Inov-8 minimalist style road and trail shoes, generally the lightest-weight versions available, over distances ranging from one mile to one-hundred plus.
At work, I wear dress shoes made by Vivobarefoot. They have a thin rubber sole and a large toe box, but no heel or arch. My wife thinks they look odd (I agree) but I haven’t been fired for wearing them.
After throwing away a pair of sandals with arch support and thick cushioned heels, I’ve started walking and running in LUNA Sandals and am enjoying them immensely (no, those aren’t Cindy’s feet).
My shoes are considered “minimalist,” meaning that they offer little in the way of structure, support, or cushion. I started running in minimalist shoes after reading Chris McDougall’s book, Born to Run.
Inspired by the book, I conducted a simple experiment — and I recommend it for anyone who’s questioning their current footgear.
Pick a trail that’s not too rocky and run around in your shoes. Then take off your shoes and run barefoot for a couple hundred yards — do you notice any difference? Then put your shoes back on and run — what do you feel now?
When I tried this, the experience was very powerful. Without shoes, I felt like for the first time in my life I understood how to run. Instead of slamming the ground with my heels, I found myself placing the balls of my feet on the ground, paying attention to the texture of the path and the location of gravel and rocks. The sensation of pounding vanished. Instead, my focus shifted to picking up my knees, using legs and feet as levers, and engaging the core.
Then, when I put my shoes back on, the lightbulb went off again. I could no longer feel the ground.
I decided on the spot to go 100% minimalist. If it meant less running while I got used to using different muscles, so be it. And it did take me about two years to fully transition. Along the way I struggled with very sore calves and a couple of bouts of plantar fasciitis, and once I strained the achilles tendon and had to take two months off. But that was four years ago. Since then, I haven’t had an injury that took more than a week to heal. And I love the sensation of running naturally.
The problems with heels, at least for some of us, is that by tilting the body forward, they transfer mechanical load from the calves to the shins. As a young man, I suffered from chronic compartment syndrome, a form of severe shin splints, which eventually required surgery. I was running in conventional running shoes at the time with very large cushioned heels (New Balance 990), and these shoes evidently put too much pressure on my shin muscles, which would swell and go numb after about ten minutes of running.
An interesting study found that people with chronic compartment syndrome in their shins can reduce symptoms and avoid surgery by switching to minimalist shoes which encourage striking the ground with the forefoot, rather than the heel. The sample size in this study was small, and there wasn’t a control group, so don’t take it as gospel. But it sure makes sense to me. After I made the switch, my shins were happy, but my calves were quite sore, until they got used to doing their fair share of the work.
That’s my experience. But I’m not going to tell anyone else what kind of shoes to wear, because we’re all different.
Life is an experiment of one.
— George Sheehan
I thought maybe I should warn Cindy about the perils of high heels. But she seems to be doing just fine. Earlier this year she ran in the Badwater Salton Sea 81-mile ultramarathon. Here’s a picture of her running in a 24-hour race. All smiles. Nice work, Cindy!
As we all know, the best trail races are well-marked and have great aid stations.
So why would anyone offer a race with neither?
Last year, my friend Todd Jennings and I organized a race to celebrate the Shawangunk Ridge Trail (SRT), a magical footpath that traverses the entire 74-mile length of the Shawangunk Mountains in New York’s Hudson Valley. For those not familiar, the trail starts at High Point State Park in New Jersey at a junction with the Appalachian Trail, follows the western edge of the Great Appalachian Valley, passes rare pitch pine barrens and glacier-polished cliffs and talus fields, and ends just beyond a restored railway trestle high above the town of Rosendale, NY.
I had discovered the SRT by thru-running it, and the idea was – rightly or wrongly – to provide a format where other runners could experience the adventure of following the SRT through the wilderness, unassisted.
That meant no aid stations and no supplemental course markings.
Frankly, I was happy to do away with aid stations. I don’t feel good providing people with highly processed sugary foods. This stuff is increasingly linked with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and dementia. At the same time, the kind of food I personally favor isn’t necessarily the right answer for others. If my goal was to lay out a smorgasbord of high-quality tasty foodstuffs, I would have opened a restaurant instead or organizing a race.
There’s an easy solution: Let each runners take responsibility for managing his or her nutrition. After all, that’s what people do when they head out on the trails on their own.
I don’t have a problem providing water. But why would people who love nature want their water collected in plastic bottles? Here’s a lower-impact answer: Let runners bring water filters. After all, the SRT passes streams, ponds, rivers, lakes, and the incredible Bashakill, which is southern New York’s largest wetlands. This isn’t Death Valley.
Just because we don’t have aid stations for the SRT, doesn’t mean we have a casual attitude towards safety. We have checkpoints to ensure accountability of all participants, and we work with highly-trained search & rescue teams should it be necessary to extract someone from the course. As race director for SRT, I wasn’t hanging out at the finish line; rather, I was out on the course for 36 hours straight just to make sure everyone was OK.
What about course markings?
The SRT is blazed with paint splashes and plastic disks from start to finish. I verified this by thru-running the course two times, taking detailed notes along the way, and then working with volunteers from the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference to clean up certain portions of the course.
Even so, running a blazed course is surprisingly difficult. We runners tend to look down, so we don’t trip. That makes it easy to miss a blaze at a key intersection and head off in the wrong direction. Trust me, I’ve done it plenty of times.
To help runners stay on course, we provided paper maps and a free smartphone app which shows where you are relative to the SRT at the push of a button.
The goal of the SRT event is not to lure unsuspecting participants into an orienteering challenge or a bushwhacking adventure for which they are not prepared. After all, if someone gets lost, the race director bears the responsibility for finding them.
What’s required is that you pay attention. Call it being “mindful.” And, yes, it’s an added mental challenge on top of the physical.
But we feel good asking runners to step up to this extra challenge, because being mindful is a critical component of moving through the wilderness safely. So why not practice it in races?
Another reason not to like supplemental markings: I can name races where the volunteers put up the markings in the wrong spots, course marshals steered people in the wrong direction, or vandals even took down the markings and put them up heading the wrong way.
Plus I happen to think trees look nicer without orange tape.
In the future, racing might be an altogether different experience. Maybe there won’t be blazes or markings. Maybe you’ll just see turn signals flashing on your Apple Watch or in your Google Glasses. That’s OK. However technology may evolve, the principles of Minimalist Racing should remain the same:
respect for the wilderness in as close to its natural state as possible
an expectation that runners will be responsible and mindful