Back to News

Five Years a Trail Runner

An unlikely athlete finds his way to ultrarunning.

Matt Abbott

May 5th, 2023

7 min read


April 15, 2023, marked five years for me as a trail runner. I was certain I wouldn’t make it this far.

So many runner origin stories seem to start out prompted by, “So what sports did you do growing up?” That wasn’t me. I didn’t “play sports” (actually, I did play little league baseball for a minute, but frankly, I sucked). Instead, I read fantasy books. I played video games. I smoked blunts and played Pink Floyd songs on the guitar. I didn’t run cross country or track. I can count on one hand the number of times I went out intentionally to run before turning 30.

I did wander in the woods though. I grew up in the Boston suburbs and rode my bike to whatever trails we had to walk and dream. It wasn’t much. Trails in central Massachusetts are mostly byways through people’s backyards or to private reservoirs. Some of them were probably real cow-paths in people’s backyards, not marked trails. It cleared my head. It served a purpose; one I didn’t fully understand at age 10.

I associated athleticism with bullying. I was a short, scrawny kid who couldn’t throw a ball straight, who couldn’t make a net shot or catch a football. The teasing was relentless. They made sure I knew my deficiencies. In high school I failed PE class repeatedly because attendance felt like punishment. I’ll never forget being called “frail” once in ninth grade.

Years later, my distaste for exercise caught up with me. By 28 I was 50 pounds overweight and couldn’t walk up the stairs without getting winded. I didn’t like the person I had become. I got into cycling briefly in my early 20s, but after getting hit by a car (and somehow walking away unscathed) I had mostly lost interest and the bike gathered dust.

After moving to Washington state, I was enthralled by the pictures my friends took on hikes. I didn’t realize I had moved to such a magical fairy tale land. I wanted to see it with my own eyes. However, it seemed there was a large gap between what they were doing and my current capabilities. So, I started off doing short local hikes before work—mostly a six-mile hike called Poo Poo Point, east of Seattle and close to my house. That felt pretty good, and I worked my way up to longer hikes up and down the Cascades and to the alpine lakes. I progressed to overnight backpacking and then to mountaineering. I developed a long list of multi-day routes.

The pounds fell off. I gained confidence in myself.

That all fell apart as quickly as it arrived. The season of my life changed. I suddenly found myself solely responsible for my child. There was no time for multi-day hikes. The list would have to wait. I sunk low into depression.

I don’t remember exactly how it went, but one day I realized those long routes were still possible within the scope of a day if I could go two to three times faster. But I’d have to run. It seemed crazy. I’d never run more than a sustained mile before, let alone in the mountains.

Proof of Matt’s first trail run, boots, gaiters, pants, and all. April 2018. Photo by author.

I left my house in—yes—boots, pants, knee-high gaiters, a hard-shell jacket, and my North Face backpack from undergrad, and started running. I’m lucky. A trailhead up to Tiger Mountain, in the “Issaquah Alps,” is less than a mile from my front door. I wanted to take advantage of that. I didn’t exactly go fast, and I couldn’t run uphill at all. I was surprised that it didn’t suck. I didn’t hate it. I wanted to do it again.

From there I started running more consistently. I ditched the boots for trail runners. I bought a pair of shorts. I got every single overuse injury from shin splints to stress fractures to piriformis and IT band syndrome.

I eschewed words like “athlete” or “workout.” That wasn’t me. I didn’t like “feel the burn.” I didn’t do it “for the love of the grind.” I was just moving through nature—albeit quickly—exploring the world and within myself.

Something about road running always piqued my anxiety. It was so public. It’s like you’re on full display with all your awkwardness. Trail running felt like something private. Out there in your own world. You might come across another person, but they’re in their own headspace too.

Everyone is on their own trail.

Trail running is so pure it’s like tapping into a deeper, primal state of consciousness. After I get going everything seems to fade away. The more I’m out there, the more it seems I become a feature of the landscape, a figment of imagination, one with the undulations of the earth beneath my feet. It’s so much more than movement. That movement is a vehicle. To other places, both physical and metaphysical. A vehicle for transcendence.

You could say I run a lot now. Typically, six days a week, almost entirely on local trails. I’ve done a few races. Last September, I did a 100K on a whim in the North Cascades with a trail-running collective called Cowgill. I’ve proven to myself that I’m capable, that I can take that big crazy dream of mine of immersing myself in these epic places on short time scales.

Matt joins Cowgill Trail Collective for a 100K fun run in the North Cascades, September 2022.
Photo by Aaron Long.

In 2021, I finally crossed off one of my bucket list routes, a 24-mile excursion culminating in a short glacier ascent to a turquoise lake nestled within the cirque that is Mount Daniel, the highest summit in King County and the heart of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Tears streamed down my face when I crested the last bit of the climb and gazed into the basin. It was every bit as beautiful as I’d imagined (though the flies weren’t a part of my daydreams).

I’ve come to accept that maybe there’s a little bit of “athlete” in me. Perhaps I’m a late bloomer of sorts (though I still hate the word “workout”). I’ve reestablished my connection with trails that I started way back when I was 10.

In the trail community I’ve learned my story isn’t unique. Many of us come to love trail running because that time in nature allows us to escape who we used to be, from the pain others have caused us. We all have something to run away from. We don’t all identify as “athletes.”

What unifies us is a mutual love for moving quickly outdoors. We love the feeling of proving to ourselves what we’re capable of. We celebrate each other and our achievements.

Come as you are. The trail doesn’t care.

13 thoughts on "Five Years a Trail Runner"

  1. Anthony says:

    Thank you for sharing, Matt. I am fifty-three years old, and started running when I was forty-six. Never had heard the “ball vs. non-ball” description, but I certainly know the reality of it. I was the kid in the little league in the outfield picking dandelions. My first time at bat, I scored a single, and the coach told me, “You’re batting 1000!” I struck out every other time that season. Fast-forward to the present…From December 2021 to September 2022, I completed a 50 mile, 100k, and 100 miler. I still don’t feel like an athlete, but frankly, I don’t really care any more. I do it for the health aspect, and I’d like to think, “With God, all things are possible!” Best to you, and keep doing what you’re doing.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for sharing! I loved your story. I just started trail running in my mid 40s as I no longer have time for decent hikes. Getting rid of all the health problems is an added bonus, but it’s so fun and freeing. I never thought I’d be doing the mileage in doing now since I could barely run a mile on pavement. Congrats on 100k that’s incredible!

  3. Kristen C says:

    Thank you for sharing this. Having just gone through a painful season of unexpected change in my own life, this really resonated with me. Your last sentences especially hit home.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.