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“Should the trail-running community do more to encourage diversity among its participants?”

 

Why do we choose to run on trails? Sure, we all love nature, we enjoy getting away from the auto exhaust and noise, and we cherish the time we have on the trails with our thoughts.

But I think the biggest reason some of us choose trail running over the roads (and the track and the treadmill) is that the trails give us more of the unknown. There’s a lot more unpredictability when we head off road, and that makes the running more interesting.

For example, when I do a 10 mile run in town, I pretty much always know what’s in store. I know when and where the traffic is going to be the heaviest, I know the timing of the stop lights, and if I check the weather forecast before I head out then I know how to dress and whether to bring along a water bottle.

But if I drive 20 minutes to my favorite trailhead and do a 10 mile run in the foothills, I can never be sure of what my experience will be. What wildlife am I going to see? How are my legs going to feel on some of the longer climbs? What condition will the trail be in? How much colder or windier is it going to be once I climb to  the high point of the trail loop? What do I need to do to keep myself prepared for those uncertainties?

Trail running is really all about the unknown; about potentially being faced with something you’ve never considered before. Day to day life seems to be lacking in unpredictability, so running on trails give us the rare opportunity to learn more about ourselves and how we respond to the unknowns.

That’s why encouraging diversity among trail runners is important.

When we run with different people, we’re giving ourselves more opportunities to experience something new and something unknown. Everyone brings something unique about themselves to the trail.

Different ages, genders and ethnicities are certainly elements of diversity that the sport probably lacks a bit of right now. But those aren’t the only types of diversity that we’re lacking. What trail running also seems to be missing is diversity in terms of attitude and outlook.

Check out the people standing next to you on your next group trail run or at your next trail race. Aren’t we all kind of the same? Sure, there might be a range of ages, ethnicities, and body types in the group….. but don’t we all kind of seem pretty similar?

The vast majority of us are wearing expensive shoes, hi-tech clothing, and triple-polarized sunglasses. If it’s a long run then most of us are carrying a fancy hydration solution. (Heck…. even if it’s a short run a lot of folks are probably still using that fancy back.) And that chorus of “beeps” when we all start our running watches with the step down the path demonstrates that we’re all following the same basic script and taking the same view of the run.

I suppose there’s comfort to be found in that near uniformity, because it makes us feel like we’re with people who understand us, and can relate to the reasons we love to run. It’s a nice change from the confused looks we often get from family members, co-workers, and even spouses (basically most of the rest of the world) when we talk about trail running.

But what about trail runners who have little interest in racing, or who aren’t “training” for anything at all? What about folks who just want to be outside, and maybe power hike or jog up the trail without regard to their foot strike or their average pace? I can’t help but feel like we could use more of these attitudes to help balance things out a bit.

For that matter, what about people who have no interest in running with a watch? There are still runners out there who don’t keep a training log, or who otherwise don’t really know what their weekly or monthly mileage is, right? What about folks for whom the names Kilian or Anton don’t ring a bell? What about folks who bought their running shoes at a big box sporting goods store, or simply have a single pair of shoes they use to run regardless of terrain? What about the runners who’ll leave the hydration pack at home and just drink from a stream? What about folks who haven’t yet formed an idea of what trail running means to them?

Shouldn’t we be doing more to welcome these runners? I think spending time with other types of runners open us up to the possibility of getting more out of our own experience than just being able to comparing race histories and PRs with someone who’s closer to our own temperament.

And maybe sharing the trails with different types of runners might help reduce our growing obsession with times and numbers and course records and FKTs and Strava segments — all of which seem to be taking a bit of the mystery and a bit of the “crazy” out of trail running. I think we could benefit from seeing a wider variety of people, and a wider variety of attitudes and viewpoints, on the trails. It certainly couldn’t hurt.

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