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Magnets for Insults

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“That’s a great way to break a leg!”

Mike Micucci and I were trotting down the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, on the side of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, when a hiker hurled that single sentence at us from across the wide, rocky trail. The lecturer was loaded down, plodding uphill with a female companion.

Stunned, we ran past silently—and spent the rest of the run formulating the perfect rejoinder.

We’d deftly slam the door on his expertise, alluding to our roles on a mountain-rescue team: “Guess who’d be called for the rescue—we would!” 

We agreed he was right, too:

“You know, it is a great way to break a leg,” I said.

Mike said, “Beats slipping off a curb.”

Somehow, this always happens. When trail running, I am a magnet for comments, and they run the gamut. I’ve been cheered and complimented, but much more often am reprimanded to slow down and enjoy the view.

It happened again last week. Passing through a trailhead a mile into a run, I rolled by an idling Cadillac, a passenger slumped over the AC vents. His window was open, so I got his observation loud and clear. “You’re nothing but a big showoff!”

Yes, he really did say that, and no, he really wasn’t kidding.

I must be a pretty clueless showoff. The ensuing 17 miles took me along my favorite remote, quiet trails. I didn’t see a soul.

I’m not alone, it seems, as a recipient.

Doing hill repeats, George Orozco from Seattle has gotten some free coaching. “Why don’t you try that with a real pack next time, and see if that doesn’t slow you down?”

Myles Chouinard and Hunter Cote, both of Berlin, New Hampshire, were running the classic Presidential Traverse in the White Mountain National Forest when they received a vituperative barrage:

“That’s a recipe for disaster!”

“Your knees are going to be shot!” 

“You shouldn’t be up here without 30 pounds of gear!”

Sean Meissner of Durango, Colorado, was running down South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon when he had to slide expertly around a backpacker blocking the narrow, exposed trail.

“I moved far right,” he says. “He moved far left to block. I moved left. He moved right. I hugged the cliff edge and ran past, and he yelled that trail runners had no right to be there.”

Sandy Stott of Brunswick, Maine, was trail running on New Hampshire’s Mount Cardigan when he got this inscrutable insult: “Who do you think you are?”

According to my unscientific poll, my female trail-running pals are sometimes spared, at least in casual situations.

The Seattle-based trail runner Yitka Winn calls that “a rare case of female privilege!”

“I’ve always found hikers to be the best cheerleaders ever, especially the dudes.”

Guys have given her high fives. They’ve yelled, “You’re my hero!” and chanted, “Beast mode! Beast mode!”

Privilege gets tossed aside during a race, however.

“Guys don’t deal well with being overtaken by a girl,” Georgina Fitzgerald of Argentière, France, told me. “They won’t step to the side, or they’ll speed up.”

Karen Murphy of Durham, North Carolina, says, “They’ll stave off the pass—then grunt in disgust when I do get by.”

What’s the deal with these cheap shots?

“Males doing sports brings out the little boy,” William Irvine, professor of philosophy at Wright State University and author of A Slap in the Face, said when I contacted him for any illumination. “Their normal inhibitions drop away.”

“That hiker who yelled at you? He’s trying to prove his prowess to his female hiking partner,” Irvine said. “You came along and undermined him.”

Envy and insecurity fuel it, he said, and advised laughing it off.

I had to be truthful about that possibility. “That’s no fun, and I suck at it,” I told Irvine.

Fortunately, he offered another solution: Insult yourself.

I discussed this alternative with Mike, who is now loaded and ready to reply to anyone who tells him he’s going to get himself injured. “Never,” he’ll say. “My gut will always be there to protect me.”

I’m trying to memorize Mike’s line. But I spent my childhood being locked out of treehouses, unable to recall a simple code phrase. I will remember the snappy retort only, of course, when I’m a quarter mile down the trail.

Doug Mayer lives in Chamonix, France, where he organizes trail-running trips for Run the Alps. He is considering getting a few comebacks tattooed on his forearms.

This article first appeared in the June 2018 issue of Trail Runner.