If you can’t take a joke, why live in the rainforest? Put it another way. If you can’t beat the winter weather, embrace Vancouver’s wet climate and head outside. That’s the credo of trail runners like Rich Wheater. “You’ve just got to get out the door. It’s never as bad as you think it will be.”
Speaking with a smile, Wheater observed that he finds jogging on hiking and mountain-biking trails preferable to pavement. “Trail running works the body more, gets the proprioceptors [small sensory organs] going, and feels natural. Plus, it’s free. You don’t need to pay to enjoy yourself. The low risk of injury is also appealing. And whether they admit it or not, people like to get wet and dirty.”
Asked if he’s a born runner, Wheater quipped: “Everyone’s a born runner. We’re all born with two feet and a heartbeat.”
If anything, the 39-year-old East Vancouverite was initially more inclined to scramble up rock faces than hoof it through the emerald forest. In fact, he only took up trail-running as a way to stay active on rest days between ascents. “I suppose I’m a trail runner by default. I’ve always moved as fast as I could to reach climbing routes at places like the Stawamus Chief.”
By his own estimation, Wheater spends 50 to 75 days a year scaling routes in dry locales such as Red Rocks in Nevada, where he and his partner, Senja Palonen, spent the previous two months before returning to Vancouver to prepare for a February 16 appearance at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival.
The Georgia Straight caught up with the duo in late January during a training run on the Baden-Powell Trail where it snakes across the lower slopes of Mount Seymour Provincial Park in North Vancouver. “Rock climbing is tiring. When I’m on a road trip, whether to Squamish or central Oregon, Skaha Bluffs in the Okanagan, or the Rockies, I can only climb four days a week,” he said. “I’m not a fan of slow walking, so I began running trails on off days.”
As to what sparked his interest in trail racing, Wheater credited Palonen. “In 2005, I entered the 5 Peaks series of trail runs that are sponsored by Mountain Equipment Co-op, where Senja works in the grants department. I didn’t realize at the time of the first race what a competitive streak I have. Since then, I’ve carried that trait forward to push through pain. Running is as much a mental sport as a physical one. You have to learn to keep going even when it hurts. And it always hurts.”
If you’re inspired to take up trail running but don’t know how or where to begin, a good place to start would be picking up a copy of Wheater’s recently published book, Vancouver Trail Running (Quickdraw Publications, 212 pp, $29.50), complete with detailed maps of 44 trail runs in Vancouver, the North Shore, Burnaby, and Port Moody, as well as tips on equipment, trail safety, nutrition, and running techniques. “There are a lot of hiking guides, but there wasn’t one detailed enough for running, either in the descriptions of routes or with good enough maps.”
Indeed, whether you’re a novice or expert, maps play a major role in determining a lengthy enough workout. “You can’t compare a 10-kilometre level run around Stanley Park or through Pacific Spirit Park with the same distance on the North Shore, where there are no novice routes,” Wheater said. “Aside from the Baden-Powell, trails on the North Shore aren’t all that long. A typical one-hour circuit might cover 10 trails and in winter can be especially challenging when wet due to an abundance of mud pits. You’ve got to be careful not to lose a shoe!”
Wheater suggested the best way to get started is to join a free outing with a group of runners from Club Fat Ass or Mountain Madness. “The most important thing to learn is to look down about a body length in front of you. You have to focus on the ground alone, otherwise you’ll wipe out fast. The most interesting and engaging aspect of this sport is that, unlike road running, it keeps your brain entertained.”
In less than a decade, trail running has morphed from a minor sport into a fitness genre of its own. Ballooning interest is reflected in the numbers of companies that offer lines of shoes and gear specifically targeted at this growth category. When reached by phone, Alan Formanek, director of the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival, offered his confirmation as well. “We’ve wanted to build a special trail-running evening into our schedule for several years now. Between Rich’s new book and the accomplishments of a local athlete, ultra runner Adam Campbell, who is recognized as one of the best in the world, we’ve put together a live show with the two of them making presentations, plus a lineup of three films that profile different aspects of the sport both in Western Canada and globally.”
Grab a seat and leave the mud puddles and pain to others, at least for a winter’s evening.
Access: The Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival runs February 10 to 18 at various locations in Vancouver and North Vancouver. Trail Running Night is at the Pacific Cinémathèque. For a list of events, visit the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival website. Details on the 5 Peaks Trail Running Series are on their website.