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Trail runners attempting technical mountaineering routes with minimal gear—inspiring or reckless?

On its face, the term “trail running” is just the act of running on trails. But in practice there are a lot of different ways that we choose to get out there and run.

For example, some of us head out to run trail 10ks or marathons, or ultras, or team relays, or vertical mile/kilometer challenges. And some of us will never race at all. Others put their efforts into fastest known times (FKTs) or personal bests in the Grand Canyon or the Colorado Trail or some other noteworthy stretch of dirt and rock. Still others choose to take their trail running onto routes that most of us wouldn’t even call trails; these folks attempt technical mountaineering routes with minimal gear, and the practice seems to be growing (or at least becoming more publicized).

This is a natural outgrowth of the desire to test oneself… Soon after we start running on trails, most of us will get anxious to try to go longer, to go faster, to go steeper, or to throw other variables (like obstacles or team elements) into the mix.

Testing oneself is the 5k recreational runner stepping up to his first trail 10k or half marathon.

It’s the marathon roadster deciding to challenge herself with a 50k trail race.

And it’s the trail runner who decides to focus on the vertical and use more than just their feet to carry themselves forward and upward.

Our first exposure to any other type of trail running that’s different from what we do ourselves is often met with one of two seemingly opposite reactions; being inspired, or feeling that what the others are doing is reckless.

“Reckless” can mean a lot of different things. To some it might be some other person doing something they’re not entirely prepared for. In fact, there’s certainly a lot of that in just about every trail running pursuit mentioned above. For example, pay attention to some of the other participants at your next trail race, for example, and see if you don’t say to yourself at least once or twice; “that person probably isn’t ready to be running in this event.”

Are they being reckless? Maybe a bit, setting a high bar is what we do as trail runners.We challenge ourselves, and sometimes we push things a little too far. Now take another look at those same in-over-their-heads runners again, isn’t their audacity also kind of inspiring?

Inspiration and recklessness are really just two sides of the same coin. They’re both present in the person who perhaps isn’t well enough prepared for her first 50k but still decides to give it a go and see what she can do, and they’re both present for the runner who decides to attempt mountaineering routes with a “fast and light” approach.

The thing that really matters is what I do with that coin. Do I allow myself to be inspired, or do I choose to make bad running decisions?

If I use someone else’s performance on the trails (or in the mountains) as a catalyst for reexamining my own training and my own goals, and doing so motivates me to set my sights a little higher, and train a little harder, then that’s inspiration.

On the other side of the coin, if I simply try to mimic or duplicate someone’s accomplishment because I think they’re cool or awesome (based on what I’ve read about them online or in the magazines), and I want to be like them or feel cool or awesome about myself, then that’s reckless. But let’s be absolutely clear – it would be recklessness on my part.

However a trail runner chooses to enjoy the hills and mountains is their choice, even if it’s getting on technical mountaineering routes, and that choice alone is neither inspiring nor reckless. It’s the way I choose to use that other person’s adventure to influence my behavior that makes their actions inspiring or reckless.