Featured image: Glacier National Park, Montana, US. Photo by Hans Isaacson.
Running is nature’s version of psychotherapy, and there’s no better place to do it than in the wild. It’s where we find an expression of the unknown, a beauty that transcends human understanding. Towering mountains and tumbling rivers are what the Romantic poets, artists and philosophers referred to as “the sublime” and, when combined with the euphoric effects of a long-distance run, it has the power to make you feel truly alive and surprisingly lucid.
In his study of long-distance running, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Mr Haruki Murakami perfectly summed up the way that running can transform one’s life: “Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog.”
With that goal in mind, here are six of the most uplifting – not to mention challenging – routes in the world. So pull the emergency cord on the treadmill and head out to these prehistoric landscapes, tropical swamps and Alpine pathways.
Just remember to stretch.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota, US
One of America’s most otherworldy national parks, Badlands transports the runner into a realm of jagged pinnacles, steep chasms, isolated hills and spectral rock formations. You’ll find yourself running through one of the continent’s richest fossil beds on rugged paths that cut through the rocks. It’s a challenging environment, in large part because of the weather – summers get humid, while winters drop far below freezing. However, the longest marked route, Castle Trail, clocks in at just under 10 miles (16km) and the trail surface (clay and ash) is easy on your joints. Runners talk reverentially of a clear sense of being off grid, and feeling humbled by this majestic landscape.
What to eat: for post-run recovery, order kuchen, the Germanic sweet cake that has been the state’s official dessert since 2000.
Tapajós National Forest, Amazon Rainforest, Brazil
The Tapajós river, from which the forest takes its name, is one of the Amazon’s main tributaries, and running its surrounding trails presents a truly wild, varied challenge. The sustainably managed mix of dense rainforest and open tropical woodland offers everything from village trails and sandy shores to swamps and river crossings, while camouflaged spectators may include white-bellied spider monkeys, giant anteaters and jaguars. The environment makes this a serious challenge; runners suggest including hot yoga in your training regime to build up resistance to humidity, while the organisers of October’s annual Jungle Marathon, which follows the Tapajós trails, warn that “strong mental tenacity” is a must. The reward is ultimate disconnection from city life and undeniable bragging rights.
What to eat: get your protein levels back up post-run with the local speciality, pirarucu, one of the the world’s largest freshwater fish.
Stranda Fjord Trail, Stranda, Norway
In winter, this is one of Norway’s best skiing locations. But with the spring thaw, a prime running landscape is revealed – and there is no better way to explore it than by following sections of the Stranda Fjord Trail Race. You’ll be propelled up vast, verdant slopes (brace yourself for a head-clearing 1,000m climb), the greenery gradually giving way to frosted rock peaks, culminating in views over deep, crystal-clear water from the Roalden vantage point. This is classic fjord landscape – blissful silence, towering mountainsides, crashing waterfalls and a bird’s-eye view of the landscape before you. Mid to late summer is the ideal time to run, and with 20 hours of daylight, you can enjoy the odd thrill of being on the road at 11pm without a headtorch.
How to recover: the Roalden Pavilion restaurant is a popular spot for hikers. A glass-sided bolthole at the entrance to the World Heritage Site of Geirangerfjord, it offers views directly down to Storfjord. Save your legs on the descent by taking the cable car back down to sea level.
Cabrillo Highway, Big Sur, California, US
Even for serious runners, the coastal trails of this central Californian region are an unquestionable test of endurance. You need to be seriously fit to handle the hills and crosswinds as you run north up the coast, but the pay-off is immense. You’ll travel through a sparsely populated landscape, dwarfed by gently creaking, millennia-old redwood forests and flanked by green fields of cows before spectacular views of the ocean appear. There’s a reason why the annual Big Sur Marathon features high up on so many runners’ bucket lists. Unplug your headphones, soak up the sounds of nature, sink into your stride and watch California unfold around you.
How to pace it: if you are roughly following the north-bound route of the Big Sur Marathon, save your legs early on and take the peak at Hurricane Point nice and easy. There’s another serious climb waiting for you at mile 25, so you’ll need something left in the tank.
Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Dolomites, Italy
The area surrounding the triple peaks of Tre Cime di Lavaredo is one of Europe’s most rewarding yet least-known destinations for distance runners. Located in northern Italy’s Sexten Dolomites, the landscape of jagged rocks, dense woodland and man-made caves is interspersed with expanses of clean, glacial water. Early risers on the trails are rewarded by the sight of soft clouds of mist rising above the peaks and ponds as dawn breaks over the mountains, which once formed the border with Austria. Leading American cross-country runner Mr Anton Krupicka describes the region’s Lavaredo Ultra Trail route simply as “the most beautiful race I’ve ever run”.
Where to stay: you’ll need serious rest after running these trails, so retreat to the Miramonti, set in a sunny woodland spot in Hafling with an infinity pool, views down to South Tyrol and fresh deliveries of everything from mushrooms to honey from local suppliers.
Col des Montets, Chamonix, France
For a head-clearing, oxygen-rich run, the Col des Montets mountain pass is hard to beat. Located on the road between Chamonix and Martigny, the area has miles of trails (but the French count them in kilometres). While the main route is flat and fast – which means it’s good for both relative beginners and seasoned trail runners – things get harder as they get steeper, and you can extend to whatever distance your body can handle. For the truly hardcore, the 105-mile (170km) Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc covers this terrain every August, and the two months leading up to the event are the perfect time to explore the route.
What to listen to: complete the beatific Gallic vibe with M83’s “Midnight City”.