Culture

TRAIL STOKE: I Don’t Miss Racing On Trails, I Miss You.

I’m signed up for a trail race in August and I can’t wait to get to the starting line. But, honestly, it’s not the racing I am looking forward to the most. It’s the other stuff.

Last year was the first year in a long time I didn’t pin a bib to my shirt and run a trail race. That was just fine, as it turned out, because I enjoyed informal training, tackling multi-hour adventure runs, hammering up and down high peaks, cross training on bikes and doing a lot of workouts on the track for the first time in years.

There wound up being quite a few trail races that I could have entered while still following Covid-19 precautions, but I just wasn’t in the mood. For 2020, racing on the trails just wasn’t my jam. With all of the craziness of 2020, it was nice to take a break from preparing for specific events, the fatigue that comes with long training days and the expense of traveling to events.

Yes, I do miss going to events, but I didn’t really miss those aspects much last year. But what I did miss—and what I really miss now in the dead of winter—is the trail-running community and the touchy-feely intangibles that seem to linger on every race weekend.

What I did miss—and what I really miss now in the dead of winter—is the trail-running community and the touchy-feely intangibles that seem to linger on every race weekend.

When I first started trail running in the 1990s (and helped launch Trail Runner magazine in 1999), the sport was in its infancy and relatively small. Back then there were fewer than 10,000 annual trail race finishers in the U.S., the average age of ultrarunners was somewhere  around 40 and only a few shoe brands made specific trail-running shoes. Or at least models worthy of running on trails.

What I was quick to notice back then was the distinct sense of community present at races. It was a welcoming, friendly and familiar aura and it was palpable both at big-time 100-mile events with iconic names like Western States, Leadville, Hardrock and Massanutten but also at smaller, regional events like the Berry Picker 10K in Vail, Colorado, the Seven Sisters Trail Race in Amherst, Massachusetts, and The Dipsea in Mill Valley, California. (Yes, there was even a sense of community in Hell. At least there was at the Dances With Dirt races in Hell, Michigan.)

As the sport grew, those who had been part of that community in the 1980s and 1990s were worried that it would get diluted or start to disappear the way it did in road running as it got a lot bigger. But, so far, that hasn’t happened in trail running. In fact, while the community has gotten bigger, it’s also gotten much richer. More people from a variety of backgrounds. More people trail running, but also more people immersed in it for a variety of authentic reasons.

While the idea of community is easy to define and obvious to understand when you’re feeling it, it’s hard to explain specifically why you miss it. The trail-running community is the collection of people from a variety different places and backgrounds who are all immersed in the same activity even if for slightly different reasons.

When it comes to trail running, it’s about showing up to a race weekend and seeing familiar faces at the event check-in, during shakeout runs and at local restaurants. It’s about catching up with friends and acquaintances, sharing a meal with old buddies, fist bumping the elite runners and checking out the shoes they’re wearing and soaking in the sights, sounds and scene, plus interacting with the grizzled local legends who have seemingly been at those races longer than anyone.

And, yes, there’s that shared satisfaction, joy and congratulations after completing the race, no matter how long it took to get to the finish line, on the podium or near the back of the field.

But it’s even more than that. It’s the shared sense of commitment you feel with everyone else there because you signed up, made the effort to train and traveled to the mountains, desert or forest in what most likely is some remote outpost. It’s also about the mutual anticipation of what you’re about to endure, the notion that you’re consciously there like everyone else to push your physical, mental and emotional limits.

And, of course, it’s also about the genuine support and encouragement you give to and receive from just about every other runner in the race, no matter how fast or slow you’re running. It’s about having a genuine conversation for miles or hours on end with a random stranger you happened to be running with during the middle of a 100K or 100-miler. And, yes, there’s that shared satisfaction, joy and congratulations after completing the race, no matter how long it took to get to the finish line, on the podium or near the back of the field. And you feel that sense of community if you’re racing or pacing or crewing another runner.

Ultimately, the trail-running community is about the people and the experiences you share. And that’s what I miss. I can’t wait to see you on race weekend.

Brian Metzler was the founding editor of Trail Runner magazine and now serves as a contributing editor.