Runners Breaking the Mold – The Dirtbag Runners
Is there anything better than a warm shower, followed by climbing into bed and pulling clean sheets over your head after a long, dirty day on the trails? If you’re a dirtbag runner, your answer will be a resounding “Yes, there is!” Believe it or not, climbing into your make-shift bed in a pickup truck after showering at a campsite (or skipping the shower entirely) is better. And ultramarathon runner Tyler Clemens can prove it!
Tyler is the co-founder of an online community of adventurers who’s motto is “Run Free and Get Dirty.” Known as the Dirtbag Runners, this community consists of trail and ultrarunners from more than 50 countries across the globe. They may come from all corners of the world, but they share a common mindset.
A runner with a dirtbag mindset values minimalism, exploring, unplugging, story-telling around a campfire, and celebrating life on the trail. By applying a dirtbag mindset to their running, they live life to the fullest, and inspire others to do the same.
Some trail runners can only dirtbag it on the weekends, while other ultra runners go all-in and live on the road full-time. Your mindset determines whether you are a Dirtbag Runner, not the period of time you’ve spent living out of your vehicle!
So just how did this whole Dirtbag Runner movement begin? Tyler can explain!
I was working in Santa Barbara at my first full-time job out of college in 2008. When the summer rolled around, my friend and current coach, Cat Bradley announced that she was going to run Bryce 100. A group of us decided to accompany her, including fellow Dirtbag Runners’ founder Crista Tappan. We loaded up my Chevy Siverado and headed off to Bryce Canyon.
That weekend in Bryce Canyon was fun and exciting, and it was the catalyst! Every other weekend we were traveling to a different ultra in a truck full of runners, crew, volunteers, and pacers. We had met Luis Escobar through his races, and ended up at one of them, helping him do the course markings. There was beer involved! Before the ultramarathon, Luis was giving his pre-race talk to the runners.
“Follow the yellow ribbons, not the blue. Also, my Dirtbag Runner friends marked the course and they were a little drunk so if you get lost, it’s their fault!”
So blame the course markings on us, but blame our label on Luis. He coined that!
Running has gotten a little distorted by all the tracking and data and gadgets and training plans. How have the Dirtbag Runners managed to retain a focus on minimalism and the simple life?
“Born to Run” legend Barefoot Ted is a true minimalist. We are not necessarily minimalists. At the same time, we aren’t consumed with thinking about all the things we can purchase. We care a lot more about investing in an experience!
My brother, Chris “Tarzan” Clemens, and I just went to Canyonlands National Park in Utah to camp and explore. That’s what dirtbag running’s version of minimalism looks like. It’s about what you are doing with your time and money and life. It isn’t always about downsizing to the point of living in a truck. You don’t necessarily have to go to that extreme to realize that you don’t need much to live a good life!
Dirtbag running isn’t about crushing our goals. I’ve been there and done that already!
I was a marathoner and road runner before I was a trail runner. I qualified for the Boston marathon and ran it in 2013 (yes THAT Boston). And that 18 weeks of training crushed me! After my qualifier over the summer, I only ran about a dozen times before Boston… the following year.
I didn’t want to be a slave to my watch anymore, so after Boston I asked myself “What’s next?”
I knew I enjoyed trail running, so I went to the Grand Canyon with Luis to run rim to rim to rim. I also ran ultras in Malibu and Santa Barbara in 2013. Back then, we didn’t know a thing about shoes with rock plates. At Cat’s first trail run, she didn’t even have a water bottle. While she was standing on the start line, someone mentioned hydration, so she ran to her car and grabbed a plastic water bottle. Since then, Cat went on to win Western States in 2017, so I guess we’ve learned a thing or two! But this was never about training plans, and that’s why I like it!
Our focus is simple: The Dirtbag Runners just run and camp and enjoy our weekends. It’s all about the experience!
Do I need to be a full-time Dirtbag Runner to reap the benefits of living on the road?
Some trail runners dirtbag it full-time. But as of October, I have a full-time job and an apartment in Denver, Colorado. I have a home base, and dirtbag part-time out of my truck when I want to go on adventures. But I did live on the road for a time!
I worked at a software company straight out of college. I quit to live out of my truck, and traveled around, racing and going to breweries. After 4.5 months, I returned to Denver and did sales consulting, which definitely lends itself to the Dirtbag Runner-lifestyle. I did that for a year and a half, and was lucky enough to work from home often. Software sales is a job you can typically do from anywhere, which really helps out when you want to dirtbag.
The most amount of time I’ve spent living on the road is that 4.5 months. I went up and down the West Coast, staying with family or friends or just sleeping in my truck. I was sleeping on the shelf bed I built. That was interesting!
I thought “I have a lot of stuff at home and I guess I don’t need all of it, because I’ve survived sleeping on this shelf bed!” I came back and purged my home. The experience taught me that I can really live on less than I actually have! I still have an apartment and a nice truck, but I don’t live beyond my means.
My brother Chris “Tarzan” Clemens, on the other hand, has lived out of his van or a backpack for the past 5 years. That’s awesome! I could do that, but I enjoy having a home base to return to, so I don’t live on the road full time. And that doesn’t make me less of a Dirtbag Runner!
Being a Dirtbag Runner doesn’t mean being a gypsy. I would say that 95% of us are runners who have homes. We aren’t intentionally homeless, but we are the folks that will go on a two-week trip with no WiFi. You don’t have to go to Florida for spring break, or check into a hotel in some city and eat out every night, spending 5 grand on a vacation. You can have the best time of your life for about 100 bucks by camping and running at a national park! I can take one pricey vacation this year, or I can visit several national parks a year. It’s more economical to dirtbag it, and it lets me see what the national parks have to offer!
Here’s my perspective: Immerse yourself in nature. Run on the trails. Sleep under the stars. You’ve never seen them like this, trust me! That’s why this is my happy place!
Rather than going on a cruise or vacationing at a resort, try that for a week! It will help you appreciate your home and what you do have when you return. After sleeping in your Toyota when it’s 28 degrees outside, you will never take a warm home or shower for granted.
Dirtbagging cultivates gratitude. After being disconnected for 3 or 4 days, you’ll come back feeling refreshed, recentered, and reconnected with nature, which is so valuable!
What if I can’t get out of town for the weekend? Or I don’t have a sweet truck to sleep in?
Sometimes you can’t spend the entire weekend camping. Sometimes you even have to run on the road or inside on the treadmill. But make time for finding another perspective! Drive the extra 10 or 20 minutes to a trail! Where I live in Denver, I can reach the Front Range in 10 minutes. Running there calms me and reminds me that there is more to life than work. There is adventure too! It’s the concept of yin and yang.
Get off the treadmill. Leave your watch at home. Break out of your routine and get outside, even if it’s for a few hours!
If you’re traveling overseas and you can’t take your vehicle with you, you can still have a Dirtbag Runners-style adventure. Instead of staying in a condo or hotel, consider renting an adventure van or camper van.
Ok, but the real question is this: Where do you shower?!
If you have lived nomadic in the past, you get to know people all over. Travel to places where you already know someone and invite them to go for a run with you. Chances are they will invite you (or beg you) to take a shower at their place! You can accept offers for a hot shower, and still sleep in your vehicle that night. If you’re visiting a new place, or are just in some obscure location, I recommend campgrounds like KOAs. That’s what I did for my 4.5 month trip! You will likely have to pay for a site, but it’s worth it because at most campgrounds you can take a shower, and even do laundry.
Most truck stops have showers too. Pull your truck up in between two semis, hang out with the truckers, and make some new friends. The best part about truck stops is that you can have a hot meal from the diner while you’re there!
What is dirtbag running really about at the end of the day?
The biggest thing I want to get across is that dirtbag running is not necessarily a lifestyle. When you call it a lifestyle, that makes it sound like you have to be a houseless nomad, working freelance jobs. But that’s really not it!
Maybe we’re not like the normal person, but we still have homes and jobs. Dirtbag running is really a mindset! It’s about deciding to spend even a weekend in nature, because although it may not be the most comfortable choice, it brings you the most joy! Just throw up a tent, enjoy the lack of cell service, and get back to what life is really about. You can see new things and meet new people. And you’ll see just how little you need to actually be happy!
Want to be a dirtbag runner?
You can! And you don’t even have to belong to an online community, although it will certainly dispel any myths you believe about being the only runner who senses that their relationship with running, or life for that matter, is in a rut that they need to break out of by hitting the open road!
Ultrarunner Sarah Keyes, holder of the women’s record for the 37-mile California Joshua Tree Traverse, spent 4 months in 2015 living out of her Toyota Tacoma while on the U.S. Skyrunning circuit. She put in 70 to 100 miles of training each week while living on the road as part of her preparation for the Western States 100.
To really make the most of the dirtbag running experience, Sarah suggests that you evaluate your necessities on a daily basis. Always have a few gallons of water with you. Stock up on dry foods that don’t spoil easily (and beer)! And above all, ask yourself “How do I feel today?”
Sarah concedes that you are doing this dirtbag thing right if you can answer that question with one of the following: Free. Alive. Fulfilled. Happy.
While many members of the dirtbag revolution return to an office, house, and normal life after a weekend, month, or summer of living on the road, they return forever transformed, because they realize how little is necessary to truly live the dream. It’s no wonder ultrarunners like Sarah, Tyler, Crista, and the global community of Dirtbag Runners are some of the happiest people around!
Get Sarah Keyes’ list of dirtbag trail runner essentials at www.sarahruns.com/so-you-want-to-be-a-dirtbag. Find Tyler Clemens on Instagram @allwedoisclemens. And check out the Dirtbag Runners’ latest adventures online at www.dirtbagrunners.com.
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