Combining the power of running and community, Erik Stanley believes that true happiness lies in unplugging from digital culture, reconnecting with nature, and running in a pack. With 100 members and growing, he may be on to something.
It’s 5:30 am at the Barton Creek Greenbelt in Austin, Texas. It’s about as dark as any urban neighborhood can be with just a few headlamps cutting through the blackness like small stars in the humid pre-dawn.
If you’re an outsider, you might think you’ve stumbled upon a search and rescue crew heading out to save a life. Instead, this is a running group called Trail Roots. But all things considered, maybe it’s the same thing.
In many parts of our modern world, meeting to get a run in before the sun rises is about efficiency. Running success can be measured by calorie burn and heart rate; vert and steps per minute. But Trail Roots is not that kind of running group. Instead, this is a community that reminds you why humans began running in the first place.
Every morning, in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle—when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.
As the slam of car doors and the crunch of gravel begin to break up the night, you realize that maybe this isn’t even a running group at all. Maybe this is what a modern tribe looks like.
No one decides to take up trail running because they want to be comfortable.
First of all, there’s rain and snow and heat and darkness. There’s also a bit of fear, especially if you are getting your mileage in before the sun comes up or after 5 pm in the winter, when no headlamp is ever bright enough. And then there’s the scary part of getting beaten, getting slower, and getting older. Or experiencing that moment just after your toe catches when you’re airborne and you know it’s going to hurt and probably you’re going to bleed. Or even just getting lost, especially when you’re out of water, your phone is mostly dead, and you’ve already promised someone you’d be there in less than an hour.
But this has always been what lies behind the power of trail running. The things we discover within ourselves when we step out of our comfort zone.
"There was something fun about just running fast. It was almost a spiritual experience, like I was born to do this."
Erik Stanley, founder and head coach of Trail Roots knows how easy it is to veer off even the most well-marked path. Growing up, he played every sport he could and was raised as a Christian Scientist. Both the discipline of being an athlete and the philosophical idealism of his faith kept him on a narrow track, where right and wrong were crystal clear.
Then at 14, he moved in with his mom after his parents’ divorce and began his freshman year of high school at a brand new school. He tried out for the football team, but instantly knew it wasn’t for him. Instead, Erik went out for cross-country, where he quickly established himself as the team’s fastest runner as a freshman.
“I loved pushing myself. There was something fun about just running fast. It was almost a spiritual experience, like I was born to do this. While I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I think I recognized that running was how I experienced love and joy and what God was to me.”
Cross-country running evolved into trail running, which Erik experienced at altitude in the mountains of Colorado, where he steadily gathered breath, heart, and pounding feet into a quiet rhythm that carried him forward. As all trail runners know, our stride includes a moment when our heavy bodies defy gravity, which is about as close as any of us comes to flight.
What happens next is we have to choose how to land, which isn’t always as lovely. So much has been written about technique on the trails: quick steps down, gaze just a bit ahead, and then the hard effort on the way back up, the ache of it, and the pitiful ragged breaths that make you feel as if you have never known one true thing about anything ever.
Trail running is dirty.
Amy Willis, marketing manager for Trail Roots, landed in Austin in 2018 after a gap year of traveling. After three courageous years in recovery for alcoholism, she realized that everyone was battling something and that the trail was a place where people could open up about their wounds.
“It was a hard battle to wage,” she says. “What you learn is that everyone is struggling with something and most of us do it in secret. And in the digital age, where we think our community is our followers and our worth is based on how many ‘likes’ we get, it can be debilitatingly lonely.”
What Amy didn’t know at the time was that while Erik Stanley seemed to sail through college as a NCAA Division I All-American, a Big XII champion, three-time Penn Relays champ, and sub-30-minute 10K runner, he also landed hard.
After high school, life became a bit less black and white as Erik felt the weight of other people’s expectations. He had been such a stand-out, he earned a scholarship to the University of Texas and dreamed of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team. But in college, he struggled with mono and wasn’t performing as well as he wanted. Adding to the stress, his roommate was future Olympian Leo Manzano, who broke four minutes in the mile his freshman year—still one of the most coveted accomplishments for any middle-distance runner.
“College for me was all about leaving behind who I was as a kid,” remembers Erik. “I had a lot of pressure because of the scholarship and other people’s expectations. I felt like I was failing all the time and soon became fixated on what I was doing wrong rather than following my heart.”
“What you learn is that everyone is struggling with something and most of us do it in secret."
It happens to all of us at some point. We hit the dirt. Sometimes we land so hard we taste rocks in our teeth and have to scrub sand from our palms. But given that we are at the mercy of a planet’s gravity, maybe we shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much about that.
They say that the thing to do when you’re lost on the trails is to stay in one place so other people can find you.
After college, Erik began looking for a job in line with his degree in communications. It wasn’t long before he began to feel relieved that no one would hire him for a career he wasn’t interested in anyway.
Instead, he decided to put down roots, which might be another way of saying that he let go of what the outside world wanted him to be and committed to whom he had always been, all along.
“With Trail Roots, I started to get curious about how I can take the things I value and share them,” he says. “I think we’ve gotten away from the basics in life and that can be really isolating. If I live in a city, I can get into a car and go right to another building. We have people who cut our grass and grow our food and give it to us in plastic containers. Trail running is the opposite. You’re out in the wild. Maybe it’s dark, and you know there are animals out there. I’m a grown man, and when I hear something on the trails before sunrise, I run a little faster. You can just count on trail running to bring you out of your comfort zone.”
Another thing that can bring anyone out of their comfort zone is a pandemic. Amy, who had been gracefully slaying personal demons and planting her own roots, was sent home from her job in March of 2020.
“I was definitely freaking out after I got furloughed,” she remembers. “I was like, what am I going to do? I’m basically unemployed.”
Erik suggested that Amy put her graphic design and marketing skills to work on the Trail Roots website and restart the group’s Discovery Trail Group, which is specifically intended for new trail runners. With over 100 members in Trail Roots, Amy knows that showing up to a group run where everyone looks fast and fit can be intimidating for someone just getting started.
As a Discovery Trail Group run leader, Amy doesn’t just run at a more friendly pace but also teaches about what to put in a pack, how to carry water, and which trail races are optimal for new runners. Each new runner also gets a follow-up call from Erik or Amy after a group run. At first, Amy wasn’t sure if that would be sustainable at the pace the group is growing, but Erik is adamant about making time to connect and make sure new runners have a positive experience.
“As a fellow back-of-the-pack runner, I love leading the Discovery Group,” says Amy.
“Everyone is allowed to show up as they are and you always have someone willing to suffer alongside you. And that’s the thing about running with someone. Maybe it’s that you aren’t making eye contact or you're getting all this serotonin, but it’s easier to open up on the trail. And usually if someone is a little vulnerable, it feels like it’s okay to do that in return. Before you know it, you have all these people who genuinely care about what happens to you.”
This is the central mystery at the heart of trail running. We seem to say more true things on the dirt. Show up at any Trail Roots workout and you’ll see for yourself. The regulars have an ease about them that extends outward towards anyone new as a way of telling them that there is no initiation here, no dues to pay. There is a pervading sense that this is community first, workout second. After some runs, the group heads to a local taco place, where eggs and tortillas are devoured family-style, everyone packed in close.
Or maybe there’s no mystery at all. No scientific explanation needed. Maybe it’s that before the day begins, we are still the best version of ourselves, untarnished and willing to try again. Or perhaps it’s the ritual of running itself, as old as the brittle fossils of early hominids who chased breakfast because they had to.
Even with all of our modern comforts, plush buildings, and stealth automobiles, running together before coffee and sunlight satisfies a collective instinct and feeds our souls. It fulfills us more deeply than anything we can purchase or post on social media.
“I can’t believe this is how I’m making a living,” says Erik. “If I had a ton of money I’d still be doing the same thing, which is to keep learning more about community - our community - and what it needs. And connection? That’s key. I believe all people are born good. We just need a whole lot more time together.”
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