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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?