I've been listening to these podcasts for the past few months during my shorter road runs. I've gained a tremendous amount of trail knowledge from the hosts and the guests, whether it's about nutrition, blisters, or pacing on a long run. Almost every episode features a different trail runner or two, who are usually well-known ultrarunners.
As stated earlier, this week's topic was "trail running culture." Specifically, the podcast examined whether or not the welcoming, laid-back and non-commercial culture can survive the recent trail/ultra boom of the 2000's. As a recent trail running convert, I found this to be quite an interesting topic. Basically, they explored the notion that runners entering the trail/ultra running community from a road running background could potentially change the culture of trail running into something it was never meant to be.
This got me thinking about my own reasons for running trails. I was ultimately drawn to trail and ultra running last fall after becoming somewhat jaded with racing road marathons. Granted, as of last November I had only completed 4 road marathons, but I found myself becoming less and less enamoured with the simple goal of beating my own personal record. Although I knew I could keep PR'ing if I worked hard enough, it wasn't as satisfying as it once was. It almost felt like something was "missing" every time I crossed that finish line, even though I was ecstatic to do it. Of course I could run these races for fun, but something about pounding 26.2 miles on pavement without a specific goal seemed a bit empty to me.
After reading tons of literature about trail and ultra running, I decided to take a shot at my first ultra this year. So I strapped on my Cascadias and headed back to the trails where I first started running 5 years ago, prior to becoming a road racer. I instantly knew this was where I belonged. I realized once again in this post that I was destined to be a trail runner.
I think trail running culture is unique because it relates back to the trail runner's instinctive love for nature and disdain for those who abuse it. One of the hosts on the podcast said he simply felt "at home" in the woods, and I immediately recognized that same feeling in myself. You don't often see trail runners littering because the woods are their "home". The concept of "leave no trace" is well-known and expected among trail runners. Those who love the trails will hold on to sticky GU wrappers or put a banana peel in their pocket for numerous miles until they reach a trash can. I am by no means saying that non-trail runners are innately litter bugs, but I can't say everyone necessarily has these same protective instincts for the trail, and would go out of their way to pick up trash when they see it.
Besides the natural preservation component of trail culture, another part I've quickly grown to appreciate is the family-like community of trail running. One of my first runs in my recent trail renaissance was with the Wissahickon Wanderers, a club that runs on Saturday mornings. Granted, they start a bit too early for me to make most group runs, but I immediately felt welcomed and inspired by them. During the first run, I ran about 5-6 miles with a man who had just completed the Pinhoti 100 miler in Alabama a couple of weeks earlier. I could not believe that I was actually running next to a 100 mile finisher. It felt like I was running along side a celebrity, albeit a very humble one. I think I may have shocked him with the sheer number of questions I asked him, but he was kind and responsive to all of my queries. At that moment, it didn't seem impossible for me to complete an ultramarathon, because I was running right next to an accomplished, 100 mile finisher.
I can't truly say if the trail running culture is changing, since I've only been a part of it for less than a year. What I can say is that I've had nothing but positive experiences in my short time in this community. The welcoming, kind, and humble attitudes of the runners and their love and profound respect for nature are qualities of the culture that I believe will outlast any potential influx of negativity. Though trail running may become diluted with newer runners for a few years to come, I think the core values of the sport are strong enough to eliminate those who disrespect it. After all, I can't imagine why someone would want to run around in the woods for half a day or longer unless they had a true love for the trails.