Trail running in uncertain times with Justin Helvik

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GROWING UP IN THE SMALL TOWN OF WIBAUX, ON THE PLAINS OF EASTERN MONTANA, JUSTIN HELVIK SPENT MOST OF HIS FREE TIME OUTDOORS TRAIPSING AROUND WITH HIS THREE SIBLINGS. THAT WAS BECAUSE HIS PARENTS DEEMED THAT TIME OUTDOORS WAS MORE IMPORTANT THAN SPENDING TIME SITTING IN FRONT OF THE TELEVISION OR PLAYING VIDEO GAMES.

His love affair with the mountains started in his tenth year, when his father and he completed a multiday through-hike in the Bear Tooth Mountains, located in the craggy western part of his home state. Encouraged to pursue his love of nature, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a science teacher, and nowadays is the assistant principal at Bozeman High School.

When he is not walking the hallways of the school, he spends his time immersed in the outdoors. An avid hunter, he roams the mountains in search of game, has numerous summits of peaks in both North and South America under his belt, and has competed in the Cowboy Tough, a multi-day adventure race. To stay in shape, he can be found training with the guys at MTNTOUGH Fitness Lab and running the trails around Bozeman.

We reached out to him to find out how his time outdoors makes him a better teacher, what he looks for in gear, and how getting outside can help folks deal with the COVID-19 virus.

Eleanor Chittenden with a Steelhead trout on the Elwha River (1907) 6
An avid hunter, he roams the mountains in search of game, has numerous summits of peaks in both North and South America under his belt, and has competed in the Cowboy Tough, a multi-day adventure race. To stay in shape, he can be found at MTNTOUGH Fitness Lab and running the trails around Bozeman.

HOW HAVE YOUR EXPERIENCES IN THE OUTDOORS HELPED IN YOUR DAILY INTERACTIONS WITH YOUR STUDENTS?

Everyone is trying to make sense of this crazy world we live in, especially kids. They want to relate to something that’s real to them. I try to model to my students that there is more to life than spending all of your time wedded to technology, that you can go outdoors and do things, that there is a life outside the four walls that surround us all.

My students see someone like me, an authority figure who never grew up dreaming about climbing 20,000-foot mountains in South America or canyoneering in the Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks, out there chasing adventure, and it’s inspiring for them.

Nothing excites me more than teaching a young person that there is a lot out there in the world. It’s kind of like the Dr. Seuss book Oh, the Places You’ll Go!—all they have to do is open their minds and take the first step. My message to them is that anything is possible; there is nothing special about me, I just took that first step, and they can too.

WHAT HAS THE OUTDOORS TAUGHT YOU?

Going on adventures, however big or small, prepares you for adversity. When you are in the outdoors, you learn how to adapt and overcome obstacles. I have learned through trial and error not to let my emotions overtake me, and that’s important these days. The mountains have a way of shaping who you are. Just like the fire and ice that shaped them over time, it’s gradual and transformative. They have made me a better father, husband, teacher, and person. I tell my kids that you don’t have to succumb to the craziness out there, you get to choose your pathway.

“GOING ON ADVENTURES, HOWEVER BIG OR SMALL, PREPARES YOU FOR ADVERSITY. WHEN YOU ARE IN THE OUTDOORS, YOU LEARN HOW TO ADAPT AND OVERCOME OBSTACLES. I HAVE LEARNED THROUGH TRIAL AND ERROR NOT TO LET MY EMOTIONS OVERTAKE ME, THAT’S IMPORTANT THESE DAYS”

WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN TRAIL RUNNING GEAR?

It all starts with the shoes. If you screw up there nothing else matters. Bad shoes or a poor fit will ruin an outing in a heartbeat. I like a lighter shoe that balances great support with protection, plus it needs to dry out quickly. Running in Montana means you need to be prepared for anything. On one run I might have to deal with creeks, snow, mud, dirt, and gravel, so my shoe must be able to roll with that. Good traction is a must.

After the shoes, I recommend getting a good pair of shorts with a liner. Nothing is worse than chafing halfway through a run, trust me. A lightweight shell is also a must, so you are prepared if you get caught in snow or rain. For hydration I like to wear a good vest with a built-in system, but a CamelBak will do nicely too.

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HOW HAVE YOU TALKED TO YOUR STUDENTS ABOUT COVID-19?

At our school and across the district, we have emphasized the message that they are not alone, they are not on an island, people are there for them. I have encouraged them and others I know to use this time to go explore, to do something they’ve have been thinking about. There is more to life than just sitting in some classroom or office.

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