Ultrarunning can seem like a selfish pursuit – heading out onto the trails for hours on end, we often leave family at home or defer social engagements with friends because we need to get our long run in. And all for what? So we can turn up at a race and ask our family to stand around for hours (usually in unfavorable weather conditions) to cheer and feed us an assortment of foods, and then drive us home at the end. We’re not making money or contributing to the greater good of society – we’re simply running around in circles or over mountains “just because.”
Is it really that straight forward? Some may think so, but many of you have experienced the transformative effect of ultrarunning. Ultrarunning can make us better people – as parents, friends and employees – because we are empowered and believe in ourselves. Sure, we may spend hours in what seems like selfish training, but if those hours help us find our true self, then it’s hard to argue that ultrarunning is a selfish pursuit.
A few years ago, I was invited by coach and speedy ultrarunner Liza Howard to be a mentor at Band of Runners trail running camp. The camp is in Texas, a state I had yet to visit, but the thought of trying to help veterans and active military through trail running, intrigued and also scared me. What did I have to offer these folks? Liza made it clear – I have an ability as a runner and communicate easily with others. That was enough.
Band of Runners is a not-for-profit organization established by Liza, Joe Prusaitis, and Alison and Jason Bryant in 2017. The mission of Band of Runners is to empower veterans and their surviving family members by sharing the community of trail running and educating others about the physical and psychological benefits of running in nature. As Ryan Yedlinsky, Band of Runners board member and mentor says, “It’s incredible how I reduce my own PTSD symptoms whenever I share my story with the people at camp. It’s a great feeling knowing that every time I open up about what I have gone through, someone else feels more comfortable in voicing their own past traumas and asking for help. As long as the story of how trail running brought me to a place where I can get mentally healthier helps even one other person, I will continue to tell it.”
Band of Runners is a community that supports each other, be it at events across the USA (look out for the t-shirts at your next ultra), within the Facebook group or at the annual November camp. Camp is the banner event where registration fees are fully covered for veterans, but anyone can attend – after all, inclusiveness and breaking down barriers is what ultrarunning and camp is about. There’s normally about a 2:1 ratio of campers to mentors. Mentors include long-time ultra and trail runners, race directors and coaches from across the country such as Dominic and Katie Grossman, Scotty Mills, Pam Smith and Joe Uhan.
Camp takes a multi-dimensional approach. Some campers have completed multiple 100-milers, and others are very new to trail running. There is something for everyone. Camp is also a great educational experience on all things trail running –
there are classes on wilderness first aid, training plans, running form and pacing and crewing. Everyone leaves camp having acquired new skills and knowledge, and it really emphasizes the community and healing aspect of trail and long-distance running. We’re realistic that running is not a miracle cure but as Stephen Tiek, a regular camp attendee with 20 years of military service says, “Camp gives just what is needed for bonding with others that have been through the same stuff, or family members that have lost loved ones. By tying us together through trail running, it has helped some who may not feel comfortable sharing their stories, to open up.”
If you would like to learn more or support Band of Runners, please check out bandofrunners.org. Remember that camp is free for vets and Gold Star family members, so if you or someone you know might benefit from attending, visit the website for more information.