Duncan Ridge Trail

How to Be a Better Trail Running Parasite

Marc Peruzzi’s article attacking trail runners and hikers last month on Outside Online has understandably grated some nerves in trail running circles. A link to the article shows up in running-related Facebook groups on an almost hourly basis, and a plethora of “open-letter” style responses are popping up (much like this one). And despite Peruzzi’s claims to the contrary, that’s exactly the type of reaction that clickbait articles like his are designed to elicit. In the era of BuzzFeed and the highly unfortunate, yet ever impending death of print journalism, well, it’s easy to cave in to such tactics.

But–and bear with me here, runners–you shouldn’t be angry with Marc. Despite a litany of unsupported assertions, a healthy dose of elitist condescension, and a marked lack of offering any sort of constructive solution, the man has a point. His heart is in the right place. All trail users–including cyclists–could do a better job of working to preserve the places that we so dearly love. For me, my local trails are sacred, like a second home, and I feel invested in their care. And I care for them, even if it is on my own time. Could I do better? Absolutely I could. We all could, maybe even Marc himself. Does that make us parasites? I guess that depends on who you ask…

The real risk with such a sensationalist approach, is that it may serve only to further divide us. It’s easy to quarterback from the relative safety of your keyboard and not actually add anything valuable to the conversation. This is a big part of the reason that we, for example, don’t see more runners at IMBA trail work days, why trail associations sometimes vandalize trail running and bike races, and why many trail users are completely unaware there’s even an issue. We’re divided because, well, some people would simply have it that way.

Instead, we should all be acting as stewards of the outdoors first and of our individual sports second, working together towards positive change–whatever the immediate cause. Infighting ultimately gets us all nowhere together fast, like it or not.

So, instead of returning the favor and poking fun at cyclist’s buttery, shaved legs or shameful choice of spandex garments–which I won’t do because I am also a mountain biker–I’m instead going to attempt to offer some constructive, actionable advice:

  1. Join a trail work day on a trail system that you frequent. There are tons of these listed on websites like Facebook or Meetup.com, or you might reach out to your local IMBA chapter or park headquarters and ask for help. Show up, ask questions, learn. Identify yourself as a trail runner and be an active steward for our sport. If you get shit from other user groups, be nice anyways. Go back and keep being nice. Bring friends who are nice. Ask them to bring friends who are nice. Have fun, do good, and ignore the haters–or, better yet, turn them into friends.
  2. If you can’t find a work day, consider starting one. Depending on where you are, you may need to find a certified leader or get certified yourself–both a good idea regardless. The IMBA offers a multi-day trail maintenance course that is recognized by some states for “certification” purposes. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun–some of my best trail running friendships were made while taking this course. It’s also a great way to meet trail users that you might not otherwise interact with. At the very least, walk a busy trail and collect garbage, which typically won’t require any type of permitting–double check to be sure if you have any doubts. Invite a couple friends, family members, or make it a date. (Yup, I really just said that. Ladies, I’m single.)
  3. If you volunteer for a race that has a trail work requirement, actually do the work–don’t buy out or find ways to cheat (shame on you, enablers). If possible, choose races that have these types of requirements since this means you’re effectively voting with your wallet. Encourage local race directors you know to add a similar requirement their races and help them put a volunteer program in place if you can.
  4. Join the ATRA and lobby for a trail work program similar to what the IMBA has. This is one of trail running’s best opportunities for a cohesive, measurable impact on the trails. The ATRA is a highly respectable organization with very competent leadership and global reach. This is a slam dunk if we can get them on board.
  5. Participate in other sports (ahem, cross-train) that use the trails. Join a group hike, go for a ride with a cyclist friend. Invite a mountain biker for a run and beers and brats after (they apparently think we don’t do this?!). Talk to an equestrian rider and understand how they use the trails and what their views on trail use are. A little bit of perspective can go a very long way towards understanding, cooperation, and unity.
  6. Support civic initiatives that provide funding for public spaces and consider contributing to charitable organizations that work towards access and conservation (the climber’s Access Fund is a fantastic example of how well this can work). Conversely, adamantly reject those that seek to undermine environmental causes and humankind’s intrinsic right to nature. Take (legal, no crazy business here) direct action whenever possible.

It’s easy to become divided when we’re reduced to faceless numbers and clickstream data: 40 million mountain bikers, 9 million trail runners, 45 million hikers, blah, blah, blah. In the real world, we all live on a planet where the population is growing rapidly, commensurate with an increasing desire to experience its amazing outdoor spaces. Different as we may appear to be on the outside, we all ultimately want the same thing–to enjoy the wonders that mother nature has to offer, and to see those preserved for eternity.

And guess what–we have to share. So we had better had find a way to work together to protect those places before it’s too late. Me and you and Marc and the other 100 million parasites out there.

Now get out there and learn how to make a circle of death with some new, McCleod-wielding friends.

What advice do you have to foster unity and progress for our respective sports?

See y’all on the trails!
-k


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