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Lessons from the Red Pine

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Editors’ Choice: November Blog Symposium on trail races and the environment

A majestic pinus resinosa (red pine) at Itasca State Park in Minnesota. Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service.

Editors’ Note: The original version of this piece appeared at and is our top pick among entries into the November Trail Runner Blog Symposium: “Do trail races results in unnecessary damage to the environment?” To read others’ ideas on the topic, check out our November 2013 Blog Symposium Highlights.

Two years ago, some friends and I traveled out west to tackle the Canadian Death Race, a 125-kilometer relay (or solo event if you desire) race through the Rocky Mountains. 1,700 feet of elevation change, three mountain summits and one wild river crossing throughout the course provided plenty of opportunity for taking in the mind-boggling, infinitesimal beauty of this part of North America.

We finished 18th that year, and two very important things took root in me. First, I wanted to become faster, better, and more competitive in these events. Secondly, I wanted to share the feelings that an experience like The Death Race has on one, with many other people.

I went home, and as my trail-running experiences evolved, so did my life. I joined, and then became vice-chair of my local community’s multi-use trail committee, I coerced non-running friends to enter local trail events with me, I became a vegetarian, and completed my master gardener program through the Agricultural College at Nova Scotia, I supported my young students in our school running clubs and helped them sign up for their first races, and as all these things were happening, I continued to grow as a runner, teacher, husband, father, and person. The trail had changed me.

Do trail races result in unnecessary damage to the environment? At first glance, the question seems like it has easy answers. Of course they do, some might say: litter, compacted-desolate trail scars, wild fields and trail shoulders cut back to accommodate runners and large numbers of support staff and spectators, emergency washroom breaks, damaged trees. The list goes on, and each of these examples provides valid arguments against the necessity of running through our previously undisturbed wild lands.

But, I think the existence of the majestic Red Pine (Pinus resinosa) provides us with a powerful, more meaningful answer to the question. The Red Pine grows in southern Canada and high on mountain ridges in the United States. It can live for up to 350 years and reach heights of 120 feet and diameters of up to three feet. The young pine seedlings need lots of direct sunlight in order to grow, and best germinate on bare, mineral soil. Because of these germination and seedling requirements, red pines are not able to grow well in undisturbed pure stands in which the forest floor is shaded and covered with thick layers of decomposing pine needles. It is only after forest fires or some other event causing tree loss that young red pines have a chance to germinate and grow.

Trail races do some damage to the environment; it’s hard to argue against that fact. But, for anyone who has their eyes and ears open to the world around them as they traipse along, these events instill in them a sense of appreciation that is absolutely necessary in the development of the human spirit. This experience far outweighs any relatively insignificant damage that happens to occur on the day of the actual event. We leave these events with our fingers more accurately aligned on the pulse of Mother Nature. We become more inspired and motivated to do right by her, and in my experience, we then do.

In general, most of our population still views forest fires as only a bad thing. For certain, they inflict unnecessary damage. But in nature’s timeline, that damage doesn’t last very long. As its memory fades away, groves of young red pines that were dependent on that forest fire for their beginnings emerge. Ultimately, what takes shape is an awe-inspiring portrait of nature.  When our appreciation of the earth grows, so too does our desire to care for it.


JS Esposito is a 32-year-old husband, father, teacher and endurer. He spends equal time caring for and racing through his wild surroundings. JS lives on the banks of the Grand River in Paris, Ontario, Canada with his wife Erin, son Noah and pet-cat Lois. The water level on the river changes in unison with his disposition, his garden grows annually and the birds in his back yard are well fed.