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Freedom on foot: Cashiers man shares trail running passion through guide company

Brendon Voelker stretches his legs on a run in Panthertown. L.J. Gay photo Brendon Voelker stretches his legs on a run in Panthertown. L.J. Gay photo

These days, Brendon Voelker’s life revolves around running, but eight years ago the Texas native was still struggling to complete his first mile.   

He was overweight and out of shape back then, and while he could happily spend a day riding around on his road bike, running a mile was out of the question. But after a weight loss journey that left him 80 pounds lighter, Voelker made it a personal goal to get that first mile under his belt. By the end of 2013, he’d completed a nonstop 5K for the first time, and the distances ballooned from there. 

“Next thing I knew, I went out for a run one day and I ran 26 miles, just on a Monday morning at my parents’ house in Dallas, Texas,” said Voelker, now a 28-year-old Cashiers resident.

Since then, running — and trail running in particular — has grown from a hobby to a full-fledged lifestyle. Most years, Voelker averages 1,500 to 2,000 miles on foot and has completed various 50-milers as well as the Pinhoti 100-mile race in Alabama. He often finds himself completing solo routes of 30 or more miles through the mountains of Western North Carolina. 

“For me, I always enjoy just being able to get out, and that’s why I enjoyed road biking so long,” he said. “You put your head down, you get into a zone, and it helps you relax. Then I discovered trail running.”

Bikes have limits. If the trail is too rough, or too steep, or peters out altogether, the trek has to stop, or at least hit pause long enough to move the bike past the troublesome spot. Feet, on the other hand, can go anywhere. There’s a lot of freedom in that, Voelker has found. 

Prior to his arrival in WNC, Voelker spent about three years touring the country as a traveling representative for a mountain bike company. He and the 40 bikes he was responsible for lived out of the van he drove from Florida to South Dakota and everywhere in between, but the job had a lifespan. Eventually, he knew, he’d want a permanent address.

 

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Voelker (right) takes in a view accompanied by some of his fellow trail running enthusiasts. L.J. Gay photo

 

Two years ago, he moved to Asheville with the intention of organizing WNC’s second 100-mile trail race. He’d already invested several months into the planning and permitting process when he decided to change course. 

“I just went out on a run one day and I said, ‘I don’t really enjoy racing as much as I’d like to. Why would I want to put a race on that I wouldn’t personally want to run?’” he said. 

Voelker loves to run, but he doesn’t love the single-minded focus on forward progress that accompanies racing. When he passes an overlook, he wants to be able to stop and take it in. When the trail veers near a waterfall, he wants to take the detour and check it out. 

That realization prompted him to pivot his focus from organizing a massive trail race to founding a trail running tour company instead. 

“I wanted to allow people the opportunity if you see a waterfall or you see an overlook, to stop and spend as much or as little time as you want to out there,” he said. 

Voelker launched White Dot Adventures in spring 2019, naming the business after the symbol that marks the 1,200-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail’s path from Clingmans Dome to the Outer Banks. Since then he’s led dozens of groups on excursions ranging from 3-mile trots through well-known places like the N.C. Arboretum to remote 30-mile runs through the heart of the national forest.

“One big thing for me that’s been tricky throughout the first year is I’ve not only created a brand, but I’ve created a concept,” he said. “Trail running tours are a new thing. Running tours in general are a new thing.”

“I can’t look at another guide company and say, ‘That’s how they handle it,” he added. 

Luckily for Voelker, he has experience in a variety of relevant skills outside of running itself. He’s done web design work, as well as consulting for other guide companies. And for the last several years he’s been a freelance guidebook writer for the online publication FATMAP.

Nevertheless, explaining to people just what they might expect from one of his excursions — and then matching prospective customers with the right route — can be challenging. 

“One thing that’s been difficult to navigate is people think, ‘Oh, trail running? I could never do that,’” he said. “It’s not about whether you can run it. It’s about going out and having that experience and pushing yourself. If you think you’re not capable, go ahead and give it a shot. If we have to hike, we have to hike.”

 

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Voelker (left) and Waynesville trail runner Andrew Shepherd pause by the water in Panthertown. Donated photo

 

Conversely, he works with customers who overestimate how far they can run and how quickly they can do it. Voelker recalls one customer who had two hours to spend on a tour and wanted to do 10 miles in that time. Voelker had to tell him that, around here, a 10-mile run takes about 3.5 hours given that on average every 15 or 20 miles will include about 3,000 feet of elevation gain. 

On the other hand, he’ll get people who surprise him in the other direction — people from flatter areas of the U.S. who don’t look exceptionally athletic but prove to be extremely fast and strong. 

“I get the full spectrum,” he said. 

Voelker had been operating his business for less than a year when the COVID-19 shutdowns hit, at first closing him down completely. However, once North Carolina entered Phase 1 of reopening, he found himself “slammed” — especially with folks who had been training for now-cancelled long-distance races — though things have slowed down again as case numbers have begun to climb. 

“It’s just been a roller coaster,” he said. 

Still, that roller coaster has had plenty of high points. 

There’s the time he ended a 5-mile run up at Black Balsam just in time to watch the sun set, and the one where he and the couple he was guiding enjoyed a post-run beer and conversation at the foot of a gorgeous waterfall. There’s the guy who hadn’t done anything longer than 15 miles in the past decade, but trusted Voelker to coach him through a challenging 20-mile excursion. 

Then there’s what is perhaps his favorite memory, which also happens to come from one of the very first tours he gave. It was a summer afternoon that turned foggy, cloudy and bleak. He and the woman he was guiding passed a couple waterfalls and then arrived at an overlook, unable to see any further than 10 or 20 feet of what would ordinarily be a miles-long view. Voelker said he just felt bad, wishing he could offer her a better experience than the pea soup vista ahead of them. They sat down at the overlook for a bit, chatting at first and then falling into silence. 

After the silence, Voelker received a new perspective on the experience. 

“She said, ‘I’m from Florida, from a big city where all I can hear is noise and people and cars and construction, planes, everything,’” he recalled. “She said, ‘I haven’t just sat in silence like this in a long time. I haven’t had this opportunity in a while.’” 

That single moment completely changed the way Voelker now remembers that day. 

“Sometimes you’re taking somebody on their first 5K,” he said. “Sometimes you’re taking them on their first 20-miler, and sometimes the day you think is going to turn out horrible because it’s rainy and cold turns out to be one of the best memories you have.”

 

Take a tour

White Dot Adventures offers trail running tours throughout the entire Western North Carolina region, ranging from 3-mile day trips to three-day “Runcations.”

Check out trip options, prices and more at www.whitedotadventures.com.

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