The majority of people that are “trailing” are competitive to a certain degree; of this there is no doubt. However, it has been well documented just how inclusive, supportive and non-competitive activities such as trail running are. Sure, there will always be your elite competitors that make the rest of us, even on our best day, look like turtles or sloths depending on your reptile or animal of choice. Yet, even after these elites have duelled back and forth to the finish, most often mingle after their race is done. They chat with other racers, support crews, race volunteers and in a lot of cases even hang around the finish line to cheer on other finishers that are coming in well behind them. Aside from some other endurance sports such as triathlon, most sporting activities are every man (or team) for themselves. So what makes the trail running community so special?
My first impression of the trail running community could be summed up in one word… relaxed. Upon arriving at my first 50km race I was somewhat surprised to see competitors sitting around campfires, greeting complete strangers and no one practicing their sprints or high knees prior to the race. The race start consisted of the race director dropping a sledgehammer to the ground. No start/finish line, no banner, and no kilometre markers on course. When you are transitioning from road racing to trails, these elements are somewhat surprising. A lot of people like how structured road races are and to some extent need to be. Myself, I was hooked on this relaxed environment in which everyone was just hanging out in nature with one another.
Over time, I found that this wasn’t just a one-off experience. And while larger races and race series were a little bit busier, the relaxed charm was still there. Sure there may be loud music at some of the finish lines and chip timing has become the norm at most trail races, but the mood is still one without stress or anxiety. Some participants are chasing time goals while others are simply looking to finish. Inside, every person has their own stress and anxiety at these events, but by keeping the mood of the event relaxed, it in turn, calms the participant.
The trail community is supportive of each other and each other’s achievements. I have been involved in team sports for a number of years, whether it be playing basketball in high school or coaching hockey and soccer in most recent years. While it is deemed to be sportsmanlike to help up another player off the court or to compliment another teammates actions in a game, this is never the norm in these sports. Now don’t get me wrong here, I love team sports and have been involved with them all my life. However, the goal is always similar. Develop a player’s skills so they can help their team compete, with the end goal to win. Many youth coaches highlight the importance of having fun, but as the kids get older, fun is often associated with winning. And if you are not winning, your coach and teammates likely aren’t having any fun and as a result neither are you. You can be the best player on a team, but if you look at that scoreboard and you have less than the other team, you are likely going to be disappointed. So why is trail running different? Sure, it is not generally a team sport, but most importantly, any endurance sport focuses on trying to be your best. For most of us, we are only competing against ourselves and perhaps the clock, not the other hundred or thousand people in an event with us.
So in trail running, everyone has their own goals but they are not going to step over others to get to it. There is often casual conversation and laughter at the start line and competitors joke around and keep the mood light. On course, when someone is passed, there is almost always a “good job”, “keep up the good work” or “you look good in those tights” comment to make the other runner smile. If someone falls or is injured during a race, other participants do not continue on. They stop and ensure the safety of that individual, because they know that could just as easily be them in that situation and they would want the help as well. If there is a race to the finish line there is often a laugh shared immediately after and high fives all around. I can honestly say that I don’t know of many trail runners that leave an event unhappy because of a lack of support from everyone else involved.
Let’s hear it for Race Directors and Local Running Stores that help keep this community grounded. A strong Race Director such as Brian (Sinister Sports), Gary and Amber (Blackfoot Ultra) and Sheryl and Todd (Canadian River Valley Revenge) will give participants a memorable event from start to finish. Keri from Sinister Sports keeps us all motivated with training tools and race day words of encouragement while also ensuring a hug is never too far away! Often, these folks have been a part of this community for years and know what makes their participants satisfied. These individuals want the runner that is returning for her tenth 100 miler to have just as satisfying experience as the new participant that is attempting his first 5km trail race. These individuals listen to feedback from participants, have one ear to the ground at all times, and are visionary to try new things that will be well received.
Local running stores and sales staff help bring your trail running experience to life. I mean, where else will you get expert advice on shoes, packs, nutrition and clothing? You need experienced people to help you get to the start time, and a knowledgeable store or salesperson will get you there. Locally, Jack and his crew at Fast Trax Run and Ski Shop as well as Beto from United Sport and Cycle have been those people. For a time, I worked way too close to Fast Trax and spent way too much money there I am sure. But the reason I kept going back wasn’t because it was convenient, it was, and still has been, that I know I will leave there satisfied and with the gear I need. The same could always be said for Beto, from his days with the Running Room and to United Sport and Cycle, you trusted what he told you. He would never sell you an inferior product and he truly wanted you to succeed so he made sure you had the right tools. On a recent note, I am sad to see both Beto and Jack leave this side of the trail running community, but I know they will both be involved in other ways and will still see them contributing in other ways. Thank you both for everything over the years.
Volunteers can make or break an event and most often they make you feel like the most important person on the planet when you are interacting with them! Volunteers do so much at these events and should not be taken for granted. They are there to give out high fives (who doesn’t like a high five?) re-fill your bladder or bottles when your hands no longer work and tell you how good you look, even though in reality you likely look nothing like that. Last year I had a great opportunity to work for Sinister Sports as a Site Coordinator at Sinister 7 and Canadian Death Race. A large part of my role, along with the other coordinators, was to ensure the volunteers knew their roles and had guidance if needed. Volunteers helped with setting up tents and signage, moving supplies, preparing food, recording runner’s times, assisting solo runners, and even ensuring runners didn’t take the wrong trail out of an aid station. These volunteers helped out in warm sunny weather, in a hail storm, in pouring rain, and overnight since the stations I was at were open through the night for runners. Most runners don’t see all the little things that volunteers do to contribute, but having been on this side of things this past year, it was easy to see that a lot of events just wouldn’t flow properly and be as successful without the help from these folks.
Now let’s not forget the fans and supporters of the trail running community. Not to say that they are quite of the “groupie” status, but it is safe to say that you will start recognizing a lot of the same faces in the crowds at events. Spouses, children, parents, aunts, uncles, friends, co-workers and of course pets. Who doesn’t love to give a friendly dog some attention between laps? A lot of fans will come out expecting it to be like a road race the first time, but then will also start to realize trail running has a different feel to it. They love to be there because usually despite poor parking, standing in mud and horrible swarms of mosquitos, they enjoy being in nature and seeing those they are there to see, be their best in the same environment. Support Crews are those people close to a runner, that attend an event with the main purpose of getting the runner what they need when they come into a checkpoint or aid station and getting them on their way. They need to have encouraging words and a smile on their face. Some will have a pre-planned speech for if their runner is struggling and a spreadsheet to work off of to keep track of if their runner is meeting their goals. A strong support crew can make or break a race. I can attest to that. My wife is a rock star of a support crew and got me through my Sinister 7 attempt. Words cannot express what that meant to me.
There is so much more too! I mean group runs, race clinics, volunteering to help with trail maintenance… I could go on and on. But ultimately, when I think of the trail running community, the word unselfish comes to mind. People give of their time to make events what they are, they take the extra time to properly outfit the runner and they ensure the safety of others during the event. Recently, as a lot of people have read, my son Eric had a hypothermic experience at a 50km race in January. We received so many nice messages from friends and family, as well as readers of the blog and other race participants. However, the one message that will forever stand out above all others was from the race directors Sheryl and Todd. The message basically indicated that whenever Eric was ready to attempt the course again, Todd would go out with him to complete it from start to finish and Sheryl would set up a pop up aid station on course to support them. Wow. This message was such a gracious gesture as Sheryl and Todd truly wanted Eric to succeed at the next possible opportunity. It didn’t matter if it was on race day or after, they knew the time and effort he went to in training and the struggle he went through on race day. So a few weeks after the original race day, Eric set out with Todd back on the course. They ended up only doing 30kms of the course, but it was memorable for all the right reasons including Todd’s willingness to be there, his great stories and his sharing tricks of the trade to help Eric in the moment, and in the future. This experience summed up everything that the trail running community brings to our lives and we are fortunate to have these moments to keep the motivation and enjoyment alive.