Is Trail Running Becoming Too Commercialized?

Who defines the essence of trail running?

Is it the race directors, many of whose events now resemble carnivals that draw entrants from all over the country? Is it the clothing companies, ready to sell us the latest wicking or compression technologies (with an inevitable upgrade or advancement to come next year)? Is it the shoe companies, trying to convince us that the latest minimalist (or maximalist) model will give us the true path to injury-free trail running nirvana? Or is it the race-vest, hydration system and GPS watch manufacturers? Perhaps it’s the trail running elite, trying to make a living at a growing sport?

Certainly many of these individuals and companies have strong ideas on what trail running is, or at least what trail running should be. We might disagree on whose opinion should carry the most weight, but there’s at least one inescapable truth in trying to define the essence of trail running — a lot of commerce is being transacted, and a great deal of money is changing hands. Just look around; there are plenty of people who want to sell you something.

And all this commercialization is ruining the purity of trail running, right?

No, I don’t think so.

It’s true that we might look down upon runners who embrace the commercialized side of trail running. We can probably even draw a mental picture of them quite readily — runners on the trail wearing the all the latest gear, in the brightest colors, with a monster hydration pack on their back (for a 5 mile run), wearing a tech-T from a trail race that probably cost $150 and getting lucky in a lottery to enter.

But guess what? This runner, the one who’s bought in to the “over-commercialization” of trail running, is probably having a great time doing what they’re doing. And if someone is running on a trail — regardless of how much they choose to spend on their gear or their races — then they’re a “trail runner.” The big spender is just as much a “trail runner” as the 30-year veteran who longs for the days when they personally knew every other local runner, and all of them held the same views on “proper” running.

Besides that, there are plenty of folks who actually enjoy the commercial aspects of trail running. So a race director that wants to put on a pricey event with a huge goodie bag and after-race party is probably going to find plenty of entrants. And the gear companies will always have something new to sell us, because there’s rarely a shortage of new buyers.

The thing is… none of this has to “ruin” things for those of us who might approach trail running differently. We can choose to enter those overblown carnival races… or not. In fact, the “fat ass” run movement (low-key events coordinated by individuals and running clubs) seems to gain in popularity every year. And you can always hit the same course on the weekend before or after just about any race and have the trails all to yourself.

And we can choose to buy the newest gear … or not. There are plenty of companies that still sell less expensive shorts and shoes that still work perfectly well for trail running. Don’t complain about how much the shiny new toys cost – just buy last year’s models on closeout sale.

If we don’t like the way others are framing our sport, or if we think they’re over-commercializing it, then we don’t have to join them. The trails are ready to welcome all sorts of runners. We’re always free to choose our own paths, and to go our own ways.

Isn’t THAT what trail running is all about?

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The 2014 Run Through Time Marathon – Mission Accomplished (Mostly…)

So I made it down to the Run Through Time Marathon in Salida. My goal was to run within myself and finish without feeling completely spent (to basically do a supported training run with a little company), and I’m happy to say that for the most part I accomplished that goal.

The Pluses of the Run:

  • Mental State. On the drive back to the Front Range, I remarked to my wife that I felt mentally consistent and steady throughout the race. I was able to stay in tune with my body for the duration, and it seemed like I was doing so not though deliberate or focused concentration, but just by letting the distractions and potential energy-sucking thoughts and behaviors flow through me. For example, when someone came up behind me, I stepped off the trail and let them pass, with absolutely no urge to speed up to stick with them. I came upon another runner taking selfies and panorama shots of the high peaks, so I offered to stop and a picture for him so he could have one with both the view and himself in frame. It cost some time, but I was happy to help another runner.
  • Pacing by Feel. More specifically, by my breath. Whenever I felt like I might be starting to breathe a little bit too hard, I’d slow down. If that meant walking, then I’d walk. I never once felt out of breath, or even in danger of getting near that state. Was I running a little too easily? Maybe. But it was awesome.
  • Self-Care and Thinking Ahead. I stopped somewhere around mile 19 or 20 to empty the debris out of my shoes, thinking that losing a few minutes didn’t matter so much, and that I really didn’t want to develop any hotspots or blisters (which I could sense could potentially become an issue soon). In past races, I’ve sometimes made bad decisions in terms of self-care, and avoided taking a minute or two to fix something, and had it cost me a LOT more time later in the run.
  • Ignoring the In-Run Data. I never looked at my GPS watch once during the race, which means I didn’t have any in-race data about how I was running. I never knew how far it was to the next aid station, I never knew what my current or cumulative pace was. And I never knew how much time I had spent running. Not having the numbers let me really focus on how I was feeling. [So why did I bother to wear the watch? Just to have the data to look at afterwards. I like being able to see how much time I spent at the aid stations, and what my pace was in certain sections of the course (like the long uphill dirt road grind here), so that I have some baseline data if I ever try to run the course hard in the future.
  • The Orange Mud HydraQuiver. This was the longest I’ve run using this hydration solution, and I have to say I really loved it. There was good and stable tension around the shoulders (nothing across the chest), but it never felt tight. Filling my bottle at the aid station took literally just a few seconds. I never had to interrupt my breathing by having to suck fluid through a tube. Even when the bottle is half full and I was running downhill, I never felt a bounce. I might write something more detailed in the future about this line of gear (I’ve purchased both the single and double-bottle versions of the HydraQuiver), but so far I’ve found it to be a great match for my preferences and needs.

Another reason I wasn’t running hard in this race is that I really wanted to use it as kind of a test run for the Tahoe Rim Trail Run 50 Miler this summer. (My 2012 TRT 50 was kind of a failure – I ran a decent first half of the race, kind of blew up on the Diamond Peak climb, and never really recovered. I finished within the time limit, but I felt like the course had beaten me.)

In my mind, I was pretending to do the Run Through Time as the first part of a 50 miler. So if I ran the 26.2 too hard then I’d be in bad shape for running an additional 23.8. But if I slowed down for that 26.2, and completed it with some energy left and my legs in decent shape, then doing an additional 23.8 would be hard, but doable. So while I consider this run to have been a success, there were some areas where I didn’t do so well.

The Minuses of the Run:

  • Nutrition. After 5 1/2 hours of sugar (Stinger gels and Acli-Mate), my stomach was starting to feel like it REALLY wanted something different. Since it seems like there’s usually a delayed response in some of our sensory awareness (e.g.,  “if you get thirsty, then you’re already way behind in your hydration”), I probably would have paid the price in terms of energy levels if I had kept running. I need to make more of an effort to eat something other than sugar earlier in the race.
  • Perceived vs. Real Effort. I kinda wish I had worn my heart rate monitor during the race, because I’d like to know how my subjective impressions of my physical state corresponded to objective heart rate data. I’m happy to go off my feelings, but having confirmation that I wasn’t overdoing it out there would be helpful.
  • The Weak Link. I’m still working through the issues with my plantar fascia. While my feet held up pretty well to the time and distance, I think that’s because my hip was working to somehow compensate for the foot dysfunction. I felt a little tweaky in the hip near the end of an 11 mile run a few days before the race, and that same area was kinda sore for about 24 hours after finishing the race.
  • The Last Two Miles. When I reached the last aid station, the volunteer told me it was just a couple downhill miles into the finish. I should have continued to mellow out for the duration, but I let myself flow down the hill a little faster than necessary. I guess I just wanted to feel a little bit of speed go through my legs, and I rationalized that even I pushed things a bit, the extra effort wouldn’t do much to change the fact that the race as a whole was pretty mellow. Still, I wasn’t trying to catch up to or stay ahead of any of the other runners, so there really wasn’t any reason for me to speed up. And in Tahoe, I need to take care not to push things unnecessarily.

In truth, if my foot had been 100% I might have taken a different approach to this race. But as it is, what I got from running a slow race (and learning that “hey, if I take care of myself and hold back a bit, I could do the first half of a 50 mile run without blowing up”) has a lot of value.

The course was interesting and fun (and the entry fees were comparatively low), so I’d love to go back to Salida and do it again.

The Race Workout

I’ll be in Salida tomorrow participating in the Run Through Time Marathon. I can’t really say I’m going to “run a race” because my mindset isn’t one of racing. Instead I’m just planning to use this event as a training run. Given my foot concerns and really low mileage over the past two months, I don’t want to do any damage to myself by putting too much stress on a body that can’t bear it.

Of course, the notion of using a race as a “training run” is probably one of the biggest lies we tell ourselves as runners. There are times when, for any number of good reasons (near-future races that are more important , a low level of fitness, coming off an injury, feeling like there’s some type of illness or burnout coming on, etc.), we WANT to do the right thing and hold back our effort while running in an organized event…. But then we huddle together at the start line and the gun goes off and all those plans go out the window. And then we might have to face the consequences of that inappropriately hard effort, and beat ourselves up a bit because we didn’t stick to the plan of just “running” instead of “racing.”

Maybe the problem arises because it can be difficult to know what exactly the differences are between “racing” an event and merely using it as a training run.

Some people might draw the line at how the presence of other participants affects their own running pace. Perhaps if a person is competing against or trying to finish ahead of fellow runners, then they’re in more of a “racing” mindset. But plenty of us compete against others on group training runs, too (whether we admit it to ourselves or not), so maybe that distinction isn’t particularly helpful. (For me, even if I’m in a “racing” mindset I usually don’t key off other runners – I don’t know their pacing strategy, their level of fitness, or how mentally strong they are – their speed as motivation when I don’t know if doing so is going to help me get a better time, or is going to lead to me crashing and burning.)

Another way I could try to figure out if I’m truly using a race as a training run is whether I set a specific goal time. For example, I might try to “race” a 10 mile distance in under 85 minutes, but my “workout” goal on the same course might be 95 or 100 minutes (or even no time goal at all).

The problem with that is I usually try to “race” without having a time goal. I’ve slowly realized that I don’t have a good set of data about my fitness level, or the expertise to translate that data into information, so trying to set a time goal often feels too much like guesswork. Sure, if I’ve raced the course before I could try to beat that prior time, but is that goal reasonable? Doing that doesn’t take into account my current level of fitness, whether I’m fighting off a cold, whether I’m tired from the past couple weeks’ workouts (whether I notice it or not), how the weather and other conditions at the race this year might be different from last, any differences between my diet in a few days leading up to the race, the fact that I’m another year older, and countless other things I might not even be able to identify. As a result, I often come to the conclusion that setting an unreasonable (whether too fast or too slow) time goal for a race might be worse (in performance terms) than having no time goal at all.

So since my real goal is to run this as a workout, I’m going to set a “feel” goal of getting to the finish line with something left in the tank.

And maybe that’s the best way for me to consider the difference between racing the race and using it for a workout. When I “race” I anticipate getting to the finish line feeling completely spent, being relieved I’m done, and thinking that it would be difficult to run even a single mile more. I know after a “race” that there will be some true recovery time needed, and I might not want to run the next day.

So in trying to do the Run Through Time as a “workout” I want to finish the marathon still feeling like going a couple extra miles wouldn’t be much of a problem. After all, isn’t this how we want to do long workouts anyway? That is, tired from the time spent on the feet, but not so tired that we couldn’t keep running, and not so tired that we wouldn’t want to go out for a couple easy miles the next day…

I’m going to try really hard not to get caught up in the spirit of racing moment when the gun goes off tomorrow morning. I’m going to run within myself, and let everyone else blaze past me if their pace feels too hot. I’m going to ignore my watch and try to get to the finish line with plenty of energy left. But no promises.

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