In competing in 160 ultras, David Horton has set records on the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and others.
David Horton’s running career is as long and accomplished as any ultra marathoner out there, but it all started with a joke; a joke that turned into an inspiration.
While pursuing his doctorate in physical education in the late 1970s, a professor teased his class for being out of shape and challenged the students to practice what they preached – how can you teach students about healthy living and physical fitness, while being overweight? The message took hold in Horton.
Over the next 30 years, Horton would compete in 160 ultras (winning nearly 40), set the Appalachian Trail speed record, the Pacific Crest Trail speed record, and place third in the 1995 Trans-America Footrace averaging over 46 miles a day from the California Coast to New York, N.Y.
Horton also founded several races, the first and most well-known being Lynchburg’s Mountain Masochist 50 miler, and has spent the last 20 years teaching running science at Liberty University. His enthusiasm for running, and running long distances, has not waned even though injury has slowed him recently. Bone on bone in his right knee prevents him from running these days, but he is still out on the trail riding his mountain bike and spreading the gospel of trail fitness.
“I love trails, I love ultras, I love exercise,” he says. “I think people just have a greater reward running on trails than on road. Trail running is just much more fun. Physically, it is easier on the body and mentally it’s easier on the mind.”
Running trail also gets you out into nature, great and small. This area is teeming with wildlife and racing down the trail on foot provides ample opportunities for close encounters with animals, one of Horton’s favorite aspects of the trails in Southwest Virginia.
“I love to see animals,” he says. “On a cool rainy day, I love to see orange salamanders, grouse, rattle snakes. But my favorite thing to see is bears. If you run on the trails around here long enough, you are going to see bears.”
But Horton is quick to point out that you need not be intimidated by the long distances, or even the appearance of wildlife, if you want to start running. He teaches his students to start slow, enjoy the experience, and don’t be afraid to walk uphill.
“If you mix in walking with running, you can go about three times what your average distance is,” he explains. “If you work your way up to five miles, if you mix in walking you can probably go 15 miles. It’s easier and a lot more enjoyable.”
Making running more enjoyable is the name of the game as far as Horton is concerned. His career started with a joke in a classroom, and now he is the one making the jokes and inspiring students to practice what they preach, get out on the trail, and enjoy the run.
Horton’s Favorite Trails
Horton’s Pick - Preist to Three Ridges
Although he has logged more trail time than almost anyone in the U.S., Horton returns to the Appalachian Trail when asked about his favorite trail run. One of his top sections of trail is the Priest to Three Ridges out-and-back near Crabtree Falls in George Washington National Forest. This 21-mile route features a 3,000-foot climb on either side of the Tye River and is not for the faint of heart. You may want to work your way up to this run if you are just starting out.
4 MORE GREAT Runs
Loop Trail – Lynchburg
This new trail on Liberty Mountain in Lynchburg is perfect for first timers or families. Loop Trial begins from the Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre Parking lot and makes an easy 1.2 mile loop. This trail is also a great gateway to the 50+ miles of trails on Liberty Mountain built by Liberty University.
Blackwater Creek Natural Area - Lynchburg
This urban trail system just outside Lynchburg contains both paved and dirt trails tracing Blackwater Creek. Warm up on the gravel rail trails, then test your skills on the five mile Creekside Trail.
Carvins Cove – Roanoke
Carvins Cove: not just for mountain bikes! Carvins features 40 miles of trail perfectly suited for distance trail running. Start with the Lower Loop for a moderate 11 mile loop that avoids the big climbs and big downhills of the upper trails.
Cold Mountain – Lexington
Horton loves this trail because running through the fields on the saddle of this bald mountain affords 360 degree views and makes him feel like he’s in “The Sound of Music.” This may not be Europe, but this mountain top trail east of Buena Vista can sure make it feel that way. Try the standard six-mile loop or combine with Mount Pleasant for a 11-mile figure eight.