This post is written in partnership with REI

As runners we spend months training for a big race. We put everything we’ve got into crossing the finish line. Then, after a short post-race celebration – maybe a fancy dinner or beers with friends – it’s back to work and normal life with little more than a medal to remind us of the adventure, never truly processing the journey or what we learned from the entire experience.

After the recent Thunder Rock 100, I was determined not to let that happen. Instead, I wanted to spend time reflecting on the experience and pull lessons from the challenges of the race, like letting go and accepting the things I can’t control.

The best way I know how to do that is to head out into the woods. A simple camping trip – just the essentials, the great outdoors and me.

Bringing Simplicity Back To Camping

Recently it seems that camping has become overly complicated. We scramble to get the right gear for every worst-case scenario and over-plan every mile and meal. All that fuss can feel too overwhelming for last minute trips.

Making a good home is about simplicity and flexibility. Embracing whatever gets thrown at you – rain or shine, hot or cold, bugs or not. That’s what my adventure was to be all about. A bare-bones approach to camping with enough time for spontaneous outings and reflection, no matter what the weather had in store.

Passion-Packed & Ready To Explore

Just 5 days after returning home from Thunder Rock, I packed my gear to head back out on the trail.

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My mission was simple:

  • Pack light to eliminate the fuss
  • Get out of my comfort zone to run and hike new trail
  • Spend time alone to think back on the race experience and soak in all that the wise old Appalachian mountains have to offer

Thursday morning I got an early start to the day, loading up the car before my wife was even out of bed, and headed straight to the Black Mountain Campground at the base of Mount Mitchell – the highest peak in the Eastern United States.

Even though it was leading up to the Memorial Day holiday weekend, this beautiful campground in Pisgah National Forest still made for a quiet retreat and home base along the South Toe River.

Making Home

I quickly set up camp, pitching my tent, rolling out my sleeping bag and pad, and pulling out the trail map. My Fly Creek tent has become my go-to for quick adventures, since it’s easy to pack down and set up – perfect for this trip.

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After months of training for a 100-mile race (where I attempted to plan every single detail), this day was all about spontaneity. I chose a few trails and summits that looked interesting, threw snacks and water in my fastpack, and hit the Parkway to chase them down.

First, I ran up to the fire tower at the summit of Green Knob along Lost Cove Ridge. Next, I headed over to Pinnacle Mountain where I trail ran my way to the rocky 360-degree overlook. The views completely blew me away, and I ended up sitting here for nearly 45 minutes without realizing it.

By now it was getting warm and I remembered a sign for Crabtree Falls a few miles back. “Should I? Sure! Why not?” I caught myself asking out loud.  After a quick 1.5-mile trip down the trail to the falls, I was greeted with water crashing down on the rocks below. It was pure bliss.

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I ditched my shoes and dipped my still blistered and swollen feet at the base of the falls before heading back to the campground to prepare dinner and settle in for the evening.

Recharging & Reflecting

The soup I brought along for dinner felt great for the soul and the warming fire tickled my feet. No TVs, no pressure to work, clean, or take care of a to-do list. Just me, memories from the past week, and the quiet night. Oh, and the few beers I threw in the pack at the last minute.

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The next morning I woke up to the sun’s glow lighting up the tent. I relit my campfire and started on breakfast. Coffee, oatmeal, and then back to the trail map.

The Black Mountain Crest Trail was calling my name that morning, so I ventured back to the Parkway, up to the summit of Mount Mitchell and along the Crest.

No lie, I could feel my soul relaxing as I wandered down the trail. I didn’t care about how fast I was going, or even the number of miles I covered. It was just about letting go, being present, and moving through the woods. Transporting me back to the race, and the strength I needed to keep going.

Ditching Structure

As runners, we rely so much on structure: Our training plan acts as a guide, nutrition strategy keeps us energized and moving forward, and our race plan keeps us on track. But are we processing the experience along the way? There’s nothing holding us back from escaping outdoors for a night or two other than ourselves, and it requires incredibly little effort to put together. But the benefits – the time to relax, process, and de-structure – can be massive.

So the next time a racing chapter comes to a close, why not continue the adventure and wrap it up with a camping trip and time of reflection? I know I will.

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Gear List

For those that are curious, here’s my gear list from this trip:

Camp Gear:

Food and Cooking:

Clothing and Running Gear:

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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One thought on “The Post-Race Running and Camping Getaway

  1. Thanks for this post – I took the advice but went camping the weekend before my race. As I was getting ready for my first ultra, I could feel my anxiety growing daily. A quick overnight in the mountains “relaxed my soul” and let me enjoy the trails with no agenda. It was exactly what I needed before the race and mentally, I was ready to go.Thanks again for the idea.

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