Going The Distance
I first stumbled onto a music festival-sponsored 5K race by accident. On a humid June morning in 2013 at Manchester, Tenn.'s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, I went out for a run, rounded a corner and came upon a group of festival goers safety-pinning paper race numbers to their clothes, very possibly hungover or sleep-deprived , but nonetheless motivated enough to rouse themselves from sleep and run 3.1 miles at 9 am, several hours before the day's first performances were scheduled to start. Glad to have found company, I slipped into the herd just before someone shouted, "Go!"
This was the inaugural Roo Run, a ramble around dirt roads that bisect the festival grounds. As we cut through the campgrounds, sneakers kicking up dust, we drew bewildered looks from people yawning and rubbing their eyes in the Porta-Pottie lines. One guy poked his head out of his tent and groaned, "If you stop running, I'll give you beer." I didn't see anyone take him up on the offer.
Here was a significant divide, between those craving exertion and those who preferred a more leisurely experience. The runners had seized the opportunity to push themselves physically at a festival that wasn't really designed for that. Energized by the group's impetuousness, I surged to the finish line, pausing to down a paper cup's worth of water before I trotted away.
In the nearly half-century since Woodstock established a muddy, chaotically utopian prototype for rock and roll gatherings, the festival landscape has evolved in multiple directions. At this point, it's taken for granted that industry behemoths like Bonnaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza, Governors Ball and Sasquatch will pack their lineups with so many varieties of nostalgia-stoking vintage superstars, current hitmakers, buzz acts and indie curiosities that there will be something for everyone, every year. That one-size-fits-all model places reliably low demands on festival goers, who can graze their ways across the musical menu, consuming whatever they wish. Flexible expectations translate to generalized satisfaction. But people with the means to shell out for VIP packages can expect to be able to insulate themselves from the inconveniences of being outdoors altogether. With luxuries like hot tubs, cabanas and air conditioning at their disposal, they can to avoid the crowds, beat the heat and party in considerable comfort.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the last couple of decades have seen an explosion in the number of festivals that cater to narrower niches, starting with Afropunk's celebration of idiosyncratic black artistry, Warped Tour's mall punk appeal, Stagecoach's exclusively countrified lineup, Pickathon's focus on environmental sustainability and countless others. Attending these more targeted events requires buying into their specialized programming. It can be much more of a commitment.
We've now reached the place where the festival landscape supports niches within niches. For people who want to feel like they're as far from passive consumption as possible, there is an array of festivals that take active participation to extremes, their schedules packed not only with live music but strenuous outdoor activities like trail running, mountain biking, climbing, paddling, yoga and more. These festivals can feel less like they're catering to crowd tastes than encouraging the willful embrace of discomfort. To take part is to surrender any expectations of being pampered and, beyond that, to sacrifice a significant amount of relaxation in the name of a more intense, immersive experience, not unlike the one I had when I crammed an ultra trail marathon and a multi-day lineup of pickers and singer-songwriters into one weekend.
In this small, yet expanding sector of the industry, festivals seldom function as corporate moneymakers. They're more often fundraisers — for land conservation, park maintenance, outdoor programs or some other typically green cause — put on with the help of likeminded partners, like the craft beer brewer Oskar Blues, which was founded in the late '90s by avid mountain biker Dale Katechis and sponsors several events, in addition to operating the CAN'd Aid nonprofit and its own Burning Can festivals. Katechis told me on the phone, "We started our business kind of marketing our beer around music festivals and bike races. We've always been able to draw a parallel with people that enjoy craft beer, and specifically craft beer in a can, due to its portability."
The other thing these festivals tend to have in common is an emphasis on music with earthy, hand-hewn qualities. Much like pop-punk and skateboarding are a match made in Warped Tour heaven, outdoorsy sports seem to pair well with the spectrum of roots-leaning music, be it newgrass standard-setters, folk singer-songwriters, roots-rockers or acts associated with the indie Americana, jam band or world music scenes.
I've been to my share of roots music festivals, and I've also spent entire days running in the woods, scaling mountain ridges, plunging into hollows, wading through rocky creeks. But I'd never seriously considered combining the two experiences, each all-consuming on their own, until I decided to head to the Steep Canyon 50K Ultramarathon & Relay Hullabaloo in September of 2016.
I'd heard about it from co-founder, Charles Humphrey III, an indefatigable evangelist for long distance trail running who also plays upright bass for the Steep Canyon Rangers, one of the all-around sharpest units in contemporary bluegrass. The band anchors an annual Brevard, N.C. festival called Mountain Song, and in 2015 Humphrey decided to launch a Thursday trail run and mini-music fest, the Hullabaloo, as a kickoff to the weekend.
During one of Humphrey's visits to Nashville, we went for an early morning run on the greenway. A mile or so in, I put my iPhone in record mode and quizzed him about what I should expect from the second iteration of his event. "I think it'll be fun for the music goers to see what an ultra marathon looks like," he enthused. "Just people out there suffering with tears of joy. It's really impressive. To have those people finish and be able to hang out and talk about their experience as trail runners while enjoying great music and to be able to camp and stuff, I think it's a nice mesh of two worlds."
The paradox in what he was saying wasn't lost on me. Though his attitude toward the proceedings seemed supremely laid back, he was voicing great faith in participants' drive and self-discipline. "The music goes from one to 11, so every time they come through on a loop, they'll be able to hear the music and be around all the people and it's kind of uplifting," he went on. "It's a little bit of a lure to come in and stop running and join the party, but I think most of our runners will be focused."
I picked up a similarly irrepressible idealism from organizers of other festivals. The proggy, thrillingly virtuosic bluegrass band Infamous Stringdusters started its own activity-packed event, The Festy Experience, in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains eight years ago and, due to its continued growth, recently expanded to a second location. Stringdusters bassist Travis Book shared with me his theory about why the model's worked: "There's a whole bunch of us out there that like to really bite off more than we can chew, you know? That's the great thing about having a big party in the evening after you've gone out and run too far, ridden too far, spent a little too much time out there — it gives you the opportunity to kinda take it all the way. ...The buzz is actually better when you're already totally exhausted."
Some organizers have treated live music as a way to hook casual festival goers into trying physically demanding activities. Last year at the inaugural Bob Marshall Music Fest, nestled in a remote Rocky Mountain valley northeast of Missoula, Mont., the few ultramarathoners on hand had signed up for their race ahead of time, but festival planner Chris Stout recruited unsuspecting yet game attendees for shorter 2k, 5k and 10k distances. "Those were more like people [who] showed up, thought they were coming to a music festival on Thursday night, and then they find out Saturday there's this little community fun run thing going on," he observed. "So people lined up for that that didn't even plan on it."
At Tuck Fest 2016, held at the U.S. National Whitewater Center outside of Charlotte, N.C., there was, by design, no charge to see the shows by Dawes, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Langhorne Slim or any of the other acts on the bill. The hope was that the music fans might want to get in on some of the other action happening on the premises; for a small, flat fee, attendees could register to participate in as many climbing, biking, running, swimming and paddling competitions as their hearts' desired. The festival's marketing director Jesse Hyde explained, "People have different levels of comfort and different levels of interest about how they wanna engage those outdoor activities — and when I say outdoor activities, that can mean listening to music; it can mean sampling craft beer; it can mean running a half-marathon trail race. We've found that ultimately [the concerts] serve as bread crumbs, meaning that coming out to see a band may expose you to the fact that there is a trail race going on; there's a triathlon; there's an open water swim. ... And hopefully [that] will in turn inspire them to get out there and do it themselves."
But as my Bonnaroo experience taught me, those gaps don't always seem bridgeable. At 2016's Rockyfest, a gathering held at a former rock quarry in western North Carolina, organizer Chad Ritchie watched trail runners complete their races and leave before other folks arrived to watch the string bands. "It's kinda two different crowds," he said. "The people who like to come and play music are not really into trail running maybe, and maybe the ones that run don't really play music." The sole participant in both parts of the festival was teenaged, mandolin-playing, cross country standout Luke Morris, who won the 5K, then iced his ankle until his band Shadowgrass was scheduled to perform. "I actually rolled my ankle in the last mile of the race," Morris told me. "So I was kinda hobbling on stage, but it was a lot of fun."
Getting banged up is always a possibility when you're barreling through the woods — a far greater possibility than when you're simply watching the action. An injury can profoundly alter your experience of a festival, but that can also be part of the adventure. Travis Book clearly relished telling me the tale of "the year we stirred up a hornets' nest" at the Festy. "I was doing the maintenance on the trails and setting it up," he recalled, "but had never had enough people on this particular section of trail to stir up the hornets. When we had a wave of 150 runners coming through, they stirred up the hornet's nest and everybody got stung. One woman had to be given shots and taken to the hospital. She was fine, but it added this real drama to the event."
I wasn't particularly worried about unseen dangers the morning of the Hullabaloo, held the day before Mountain Song. I arrived at REEB Ranch, a farm transformed by Oskar Blues into a mountain biking hub, sporting a neon orange trucker hat that I'd had airbrushed with the words "NPR Race Team" and surveyed the steep slopes of the Dupont Forest rising into the distance. Parts of the scene were familiar to me from other trail races — the registration table staffed by volunteers, the booths showcasing runner-aimed merchandise like specialty, sweat-absorbing socks and organic energy bars. But there were unusual touches, like the small stage set up in the barn for regional 'grassy, folk-rock, boogie-woogie and reggae bands to play that afternoon, and the fact that Peter Ripmaster, who shares race director responsibilities with Humphrey, was walking around greeting people with golf clubs cradled in his arms. I stopped him to ask why he was toting gear from a different sport. "I run some races up north, in Alaska and stuff, where they actually bring out a shotgun and they'll shotgun start," he explained. "I wasn't gonna do that, because we'd scare everybody around here, but I needed to do something that was unique." He went with a more playful option; for the second year in a row, he'd send off the runners by whacking a golf ball into the field. "We're not catered to the elite athletes at this race," he took care to point out. "They're not treated special in any regard. They're welcome, like anybody else. But we care just as much about the person that it's their first ultra or they never thought they'd be able to do it. ...Once people understand that about us, then it's more fun and everyone's on a level playing field and it's just a festival atmosphere after the race."
It quickly became clear to me that of the couple hundred runners signed up to race, the majority milling about had chosen the relay version, meaning that they and two teammates would each tackle a single loop of 11-plus mountainous miles, as opposed to slogging around the course the full three times like my running buddy Donica Elliot and I had signed up to do. That gave me an inkling that we long-haulers were eventually going to get a little lonely out there.
I introduced myself to a runner named Kara Castle, who volunteered that this would be her very first trail race. Her teammate, Semia Beck, was there thanks to a last-minute Facebook invitation. "Typically this is the kind of scene I love — good music, good vibes, good times," Beck offered. She planned to stick around and enjoy the festivities until it was time to pick her kid up from a martial arts class late that afternoon. Another runner, Leigh Hilliard, said that she'd set up a booth promoting nutritional supplements at last year's race, only to be drafted at the eleventh hour to join a team that was one runner short. She and many others there were avid Steep Canyon fans. "Even if I wasn't a runner," she insisted, "I would still want to come out here for the music and even camp, just for the atmosphere."
The race wasn't scheduled to start until 10 a.m., which I recognized as an uncharacteristically late time for such hot weather. By the time we convened at the starting line, the morning's cool fog had burned off. Within a couple of hours, the temperature would reach the mid-'90s. When Ripmaster swung his club, we tore off through the grass, crossed a creek on a makeshift bridge and began clawing our way up an ascent full of switchbacks, roots and loose rocks. The climbs were plentiful and long, but I ran hard, probably too hard, caught up in the collective enthusiasm and trying to knock out my first loop as quickly as possible. Several miles in, we came hurtling out of the woods onto a country road that wound around horse pastures and up a gradual incline. Someone in a Rastafarian banana costume stood on the road shoulder, cheering us on, and I whooped back at them in appreciation. Then we disappeared back into the trees and followed the trails for several more miles.
When I made my return trip down the road, the banana impersonator was gone and, due to the relay's staggered start times, a fresh crop of runners passed in the opposite direction, looking energetic. I ran with my arm outstretched, high-fiving several of the new arrivals. It was only when I reached the near-vertical obstacle dubbed "Curse Word Hill " that I slowed to a walk. In the home stretch, the trail repeatedly doubled back on itself. I passed a cave in which some pranksters, presumably Humphrey and Ripmaster, had positioned a fake human skeleton in athletic clothes. Long before the farm returned to view, I could hear the festivities in the distance.
The barnyard was bustling with activity. People watched the race from camp chairs, loading up on beer and food truck fare and escaping to the shade of the wood-frame structure to hear live music. I refilled my water bottles next to a sweaty, smiling Travis Book, who'd just completed his leg of the relay. Then I charged back into the field, marveling at how much more effort it took to scale the trail's seemingly endless initial incline, and each hill that came after it, the second time around.
By the time I got to the barn again, the heat was really getting to me, and I felt like I was living an entirely different reality than the festival revelers. Another band was playing, but I definitely couldn't make out which one it was. My friend Marie Winget, lounging in a chair after her relay leg, could see that I was suffering, so she sprang into action as if on a pit crew, helping me replenish my water and shoving a bag of jelly beans into my pack. She offered to join me for a mile or two, reminding me that I was in second place among the ultramarathoning women and had just one loop to go. As I turned to follow her and her dog T-Bone toward the trail, my husband pointed his camera at me and asked for commentary. All that I could muster was a wry, "I forgot how much these things suck."
It only got worse from there. Winget called encouragement over her shoulder, and I straggled behind, muttering expletives. My calf muscles started to cramp, and the water I drank just seemed to slosh around in my stomach. There was more and more walking, more and more stopping to double over and gather my strength. My stubborn desire to finish what I'd started, especially knowing that I'd have to write about it, make me keep going. We made it to mile 32, just before "Curse Word Hill," then I laid down in the grass, never to get up.
Friends drove me back to the farmyard, where I sank to the ground again. It was a relief to be back at the festival grounds, but I was really in no condition to appreciate a band, drink a beer or eat even a bite of the wood fired pizza my husband bought me on a paper plate. I couldn't keep any fluid down, and joked that I could see fleas jumping on the sky above us. Every muscle in my legs started to spasm. Humphrey came running over with an armful of banana bunches — a potassium-packed remedy for cramps — and piled them around me in an impish display of concern. Ripmaster knelt down next to me and offered Zen-like words of encouragement: "It's all part of it. It's all learning." (He'd greeted my friend Donica Elliot with no less enthusiasm when she'd decided to drop out of the race earlier, telling her, "I love your spirit!") Lacking any medical supplies, the attentive nurse on hand was limited to taking my pulse. After a couple of hours, she convinced me that there was nothing else to be done but call an ambulance.
No sooner had the EMTs strapped me to a stretcher when there was a knock at the side door of the ambulance. A voice called in urgently, hopefully, "Can you take one more?" Then Stephen Whatley, an ultramarathoner whom I hadn't yet met, was heaved through the doorway by a couple of helpful bystanders. During the ride to the emergency room, he and I snapped photos of each other flashing weakly upbeat weak thumbs-up signs that we could text to our loved ones. That seemed like an appropriate way to affirm that our Hullabaloo experience, though it handed ended the way we'd hoped, hadn't been a misspent day — that we didn't regret having gone for it.
After a night of being pumped with IV fluid in the hospital, I was nearly myself again and starting feeling the festival goer's aversion to missing out on the fun. By Saturday I was itching to get to Mountain Song.
A fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Club of Transylvania County, N.C., a nonprofit launched by the late mother of Steep Canyon Rangers' front man Woody Platt, the festival drew multiple generations of roots music fans. Grey heads populated the open-air auditorium, while college students and families with kids staked out spots on the lawn with their blankets and folding chairs. Toting both of our chairs, my husband plunked them down in the grass. I wanted to roam around a bit and pay a visit back stage before I was ready to anchor myself to one spot. Some of the acts that took the venue's lone stage struck an intimate tone. The singing duo of Shannon Whitworth and Barrett Smith teased out folk and pop subtleties with the lightness of their harmonies. Others gave more animated performances, like the Dom Flemons Band's dapper, old-time showmanship, the SteelDrivers' acoustic southern rock energy and Front Country's expansive string band-pop chops. Steep Canyon, the hometown heroes, spent their set strolling between rhythmically nimble contemporary folk and jazzy improvisational interplay, swapping hot licks with dobro master Jerry Douglas and summoning sometime-boss Steve Martin to the stage. Platt, Humphrey and their band mates sported a put-together look of sport coats and tailored slacks, and Humphrey added his own touch: a large rectangular belt buckle he'd earned by completing a 100-mile race.
I ran into Front Country's big-voiced, pink-haired front woman Melody Walker backstage and asked if she'd heard about the trail running experience Humphrey had helped organize. She confessed that she hadn't. "That's not surprising, though," she said. "I've literally seen that guy come off stage at, like, midnight and then go for a crazy 10-mile run. Probably actually longer than that."
I couldn't help but be conscious of, and amused by, the difference between my festival experience and those of more traditional festival attendees around me. As I struck up conversations with folks lounging and listening on the lawn, I found that the only ones aware of the Hullabaloo race had either run it themselves or knew someone who had.
A runner named Angie Collins, pointed out to me in the crowd by Ripmaster, was quick to clarify that she "wasn't one of those 50K people." She was used to being active outdoors with her family on the weekends, she told me, so for her, participating in the festivities from start to finish was "not a hard sell at all." "I mean, it was tough," she added, "but it was great. It's supposed to be tough."
I could identify with the sentiment. I, too, love a challenge, and often opt to join in on the most demanding version on offer out of a desire to maximize my experience. In my ideal scenario, the levels of punishment and pleasure balance out. Of course, in my unwavering commitment to tackling the max running distance that particular weekend — on that rangy terrain, under those sweltering conditions — I'd cut into my ability to kick back and enjoy the rest of the scene. While I convalesced, the bands played on. But Collins and other participants I encountered served as reminders that others were experiencing this pair of gatherings very differently. As targeted as the Hullabaloo and Mountain Song combo was in its appeal, there was a certain amount of inclusivity built in; the fact that the organizers offered options meant that people with varied preferences along a spectrum of intensities were drawn in.
Walking by the farm-to-table food trucks, I spotted a camouflage trucker hat earned by Hullabaloo participants lying next to a semi-circle of people. I tapped the nearest woman on the shoulder. "It's my husband's," she explained, motioning over an easygoing guy named Joe Dunlap. It turned out that he'd grown up with some of the members of Steep Canyon, and kept up with the band after he moved out of state. "My brother and I have been doing running events for a while," he said. "We haven't done anything recently. So he thought this would be a good excuse for us to get in shape and do an event together. We were gonna plan a four-day weekend here, and we thought, 'Why not go ahead and run an event while we're here enjoying this great music?'"
He beckoned for his brother and brother-and-law, who'd rounded out the relay team, to join us. "He's the one that talked us into running the race," he said, jabbing his thumb toward Chuck Dunlop with feigned resentment.
After suffering through their miles, they'd savored their reward — cold beer and bands. "Then we just sat up on the hill and watched everybody coming down to the finish line," Chuck recalled. "It felt good to sit down."
I asked if they saw the ambulance arrive to haul me away. "No!" they shook their heads with a mixture of sympathy and awe. They'd evidently left just before it arrived.
The question that Joe asked me next captured the venturesome irrationality of the entire weekend: "So, are you gonna do it again next year?"
"I won't rule out the possibility," I told them. "It's been an experience, for sure."
Six weeks later, I was back in the trail ultra game, though it felt comparatively anticlimactic to arrive at the finish line of a race whose only source of music was a small PA blaring Top 40 pop hits. Within six months, I found myself reunited with Stephen Whatley, my ambulance buddy, at a 50k race in a state park in Alabama. We discussed some of our favorite new music as we wound through the trees, but there was no live entertainment awaiting us at the picnic pavilion at the end of the course — just volunteers grilling burgers. My participatory instinct kicked in again when a post popped up on Facebook promoting the 2017 edition of the Steep Canyon 50k Ultramarathon & Relay Hullabaloo. I checked my calendar. If it weren't for a scheduling conflict, I might have signed up for round two. The relay this time.
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