Running With Purpose: Running for Rivers Eve

Some of this content originally appeared on the Running For Rivers blog in the summer of 2017. On the eve of his 300-mile run across South Carolina, Keith “Wildman” Hanson reflects on what led him to this point.

I like to say that I run with purpose, but everyone does that in one way or another. However, when I say that, what I really mean is that I am running for something that is bigger and more important than I am. For me, I found very early in my running (and ultramarathon running) career that to deal with the day-to-day grind of training over many months and the opportunity costs of training versus spending time on other important things (and spending time with important people), I needed to focus on pretty bold and impactful goals. I also found very early that a singular race or the prospect of winning that race was not in and of itself enough to keep me motivated and grinding through all the months of miles and workouts.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy racing. Sometimes when I race and the gun goes off, I feel that my only purpose is to run as hard as possible to try to win. It’s also important to keep in mind that racing itself has many purposes, including: testing your fitness, endurance, strategy, and ability to suffer through pain; having fun competing with friends; exploring parts of the country and world you may have never visited; testing your limits; and getting caught up in the excitement and enthusiasm of the race atmosphere, which is impossible to replicate in training. However, for me, once that initial adrenaline wears off I remember that my main purpose for running is to try to do some good in the world.

Running certainly has many purposes. Some are obvious, like health and fitness or getting from Point A to B, while others are less intrinsic, such as “clearing your head.” Running can also appear utterly purposeless. Sometimes the urge to run can seem so instinctual; in times of extreme joy or sorrow you may just feel the urge to start running. However, it is important to keep in mind, just like a well-conceived and executed scientific study, purpose is critically important. Obviously, purposes are not set in stone. Much like hypotheses, a purpose can evolve or totally change directions (in the start-up world they call that a “pivot”). My purpose for running certainly changes, sometimes from day-to-day and other times from year-to-year.

My purpose most recently has been Running For Rivers. About 6 months ago (and after many years of rolling some sort of endurance adventure around in my head), I conceived what I thought was a cool idea: combine my biology/science background with my passion for running to raise awareness and money for an important issue, river and freshwater resource conservation. I have worked and run in South Carolina for many years, and have done extensive mapping of rivers, and the fishes that use them, throughout the state. I also spend a great deal of my time outdoors and love being in or near water for all sorts of activities. Looking at the rivers on maps for so many years, a lightbulb finally went off. There are rivers in the state that flow so beautifully and perfectly from the border to the ocean, mountains to sea. It was in that moment of realization that the idea was really born. I could run from border to ocean, a trans-South Carolina run, and I could do it for the rivers and freshwater resources that are so critical to the state, the country, and all people.

After much brainstorming and a whole lot of research, I boiled this gigantic adventure down into three goals. First, to run across South Carolina, from the upstate to the ocean – mountains to sea – border to Barrier Island – in the same direction the rivers flow - in the fastest recorded time. It will be 300 miles, all on foot, and I’m going to attempt to do it in 3 days (72 hours) or less. Though this is a personal goal, it is also a primary purpose of Running For Rivers. More specifically, my run will begin in the Blue Ridge Ecoregion, specifically the Southern Crystalline Ridges and Mountains region, and will end in the Southern Coastal Plain Ecoregion, specifically the Sea Islands/Coastal Marsh region. After copious amounts of mapping, I believe this route can be done in the most direct fashion in about 265 miles. However, I have decided to make my route 300 miles, to accommodate various routing issues and because I thought “300 miles in 3 days” was pretty catchy!

Second, my goal is to use this personal endurance challenge to bring awareness to the importance of rivers and the fish and wildlife they support while shining a light on the fact that so many rivers are in deep trouble. As a biologist and environmental scientist, I have spent years studying the relationship between the health of rivers and their ecosystems and how they directly influence human health and prosperity. I also know that rivers are a huge part of cultural identity and heritage in many parts of the US and other countries. As a runner, I know the joy of running through the wilderness, on the banks of rivers, and splashing through stream crossings. There is nothing quite like the sights and sounds of healthy, flowing rivers – vital pieces in the orchestra of nature. Bringing awareness to the importance of rivers will also mean bringing together seemingly disparate groups of people such as runners, hunters, hikers, cyclists, anglers, students, boaters, conservationists, and many others, who I hope will follow and participate in my journey and help spread the message of river conservation.

Third, I hope to raise awareness and funds for American Rivers and the vital work they are doing. American Rivers is a national non-profit committed to clean, healthy and wild rivers that sustain us. Their view is so pure and simple, but so powerful (and so true): “rivers connect us.” American Rivers does essential conservation, restoration, preservation, management, and policy work for rivers and the people who rely on them.   American Rivers puts a significant portion of their funds directly towards programs (74.9%), and was recently listed as one of six “best groups to donate to for a better world” by Outside Magazine.

Maybe this all seems lofty or starry-eyed and maybe none of it will go according to plan, but I am hopeful for success. Over the last few months, many folks have said that very few people would dream up something like this, and even fewer still would actually try to plan and execute it. I tend to agree with that, and believe that purpose, or lack thereof, is one of the main reasons for this disparity of endurance adventure “dreamers” and “doers.”  However, the lofty goals and purpose are nothing without adequate, focused training. At this point, the training is in the bag (hay is in the barn?). I’ve basically been training since March, throwing in a few races such as Badwater Cape Fear 50KM (March) and the KEYS50 (May), to name a few. I peaked at about 91.5 miles in late September, and had about 4 or 5 weeks in a row of 85+ mile weeks. That is certainly the most volume I’ve done training for anything, including the training I did for the Leadville 100. I’ve also done a bunch of strength training and mobility work. The training and preparation is behind me. I am ready.

One exciting aspect of all of this is that some of my goals are already being met. Through news pieces, interviews, and other activities, Running For Rivers has already reached people and raised awareness about the importance of clean rivers and freshwater resources. Additionally, we have already raised a bit of money for American Rivers on our CrowdRise page.

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