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Scary Fast Trail Runners

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Editors’ Choice: December Blog Symposium on Competitive Emphasis in Trail Running

Photo by BigStockPhoto

Editors’ Note: The original version of this piece appeared at Sometimes I Run and is our top pick among entries into the December Trail Runner Blog Symposium: “Is too much emphasis being placed on competitive results in the sport?” You can also view other highlights from the December Symposium here.

It’s true that we probably have more coverage and recognition of competitive results in trail racing than ever before, but there’s a good reason for the emphasis. Today’s top trail runners are scary fast.

Some of these individuals are coming into the sport of trail running with already impressive track and road racing resumes. Former NCAA champions and 2:20 marathoners are now competing in trail races with increasing frequency, and are also finding a greater level of success. So of course there’s going to be some attention paid to what happens at the front of the pack. It would be a disservice to these athletes’ skills and dedication to completely ignore how fast some of them are able to run, or refuse to acknowledge their talent.

Still, how widespread is the perceived focus on race results? I believe that the emphasis on competitive results is coming from a relatively small segment of the trail running population; namely those who actually have a realistic shot at being competitive in (and possibly winning) these races, and those who have financial interests that are tied to those results; sponsors, race directors, and the like. It makes sense for these folks to focus on results. For many it’s their job or livelihood.

But those of us in the middle or back of the pack simply don’t pay all that much attention to what happens at the front. Don’t get me wrong – we enjoy reading front-runner accounts of their racing experiences, and it’s fun to imagine what it would be like to be able to race like one of the top men or women. But we’re more likely to be truly inspired by reading the race report of someone who struggled mightily and finished much further behind. These are the experiences we have, and these are the experiences we can relate to. (And if we’re looking for helpful information or tips on running a particular trail race for the first time, race reports from the middle- or back-of-the-pack runners are likely to be much more helpful than the winner’s report.)

So anyone who thinks that speed and competition has become overemphasized within the sport isn’t looking in the right place. Most of us who participate in trail races are looking for a great race day “experience” (which might be different for different participants) and whatever happens at the front of the pack is largely irrelevant to that experience.

I suspect that the typical trail runner talks about the performances of the best in the sport in the same way that amateur golfers or tennis players might talk about the performances of Tiger Woods or Serena Williams. Sure, we’re participating in the same sport as the top athletes, but we know that how the pros perform doesn’t really affect our performance within or enjoyment of that sport.

Our interest in competition and “competitive results” really only matters in how we measure up against our own expectations, and perhaps how we fare compared to our friends and training partners.

If we seem to spend too much time talking about the top trail runners and their performances, it’s only an acknowledgement of their talent and drive and dedication. We can celebrate their achievements while at the same time staying true to all of the personal reasons we have for participating in the same races.

Jake Wyatt is a recovering attorney currently studying to become a massage therapist. He resides with his family (and pug Charlie) in Longmont, Colorado. Find his blog, Sometimes I Run, here.