Too Many Runners on the Trails?
Editors' Choice: September Blog Symposium on overcrowding at trail races
Too many runners on the trails? Photo by BigStockPhoto
Editor’s Note: The original version of this piece appeared at Sometimes I Run and is our top pick among entries into the September Trail Runner Blog Symposium: "As trail running grows in popularity, how should races adapt to prevent overcrowding on the trails?”
The popularity of trail running has exploded over the past few years, and along with the increased popularity has come a larger number of overcrowding complaints. (Ironically, some of these complaints are about races that, by virtue of their storied positions in trail-running history, have themselves contributed significantly to the larger number of trail runners who want to race.)
Overcrowding is a Real Issue
It’s important to understand that these overcrowding complaints aren’t just coming from runners who are frustrated that they’re shut out of a particular race, or who are angry that they aren’t having the same types of racing experiences that they did 10 or 20 years ago.
The bigger overcrowding issue arises because complaints are also coming from other trail users, and from local residents of the areas in which these races are held.
Sure, a number of these complaints can probably be discounted as the sourpuss sentiments of folks who don’t want to share “their” trails with anyone else. But a lot of the complaints are valid. All it takes for friendly land managers to become unfriendly are too many racers who aren’t mindful of their empty gel packs, who don’t go far enough off the trail before taking a “natural break,” or who simply aren’t willing to keep up good trail etiquette simply because they happen to be racing (remember … most trail races aren’t “closed course”).
The fact that we’re talking about “our trails” doesn’t change the fact that they’re other people’s trails, too. Like it or not, there are rules we have to follow, which means we don’t always get to do whatever we want, whenever we want, however we want, with however many other people we want.
Only when we frame the issue properly can we work towards a solution.
Overcrowding Matters Because Race Permits Matter
Remember that the issue is overcrowding during races. We can run on nearly all of the same trails alone or with a small group of friends any time that suits us. We can even put on unofficial “Fat Ass” events from time to time. But if we also want to be able to race in organized races, then we need to pay more attention to overcrowding and its external impacts. Simply put, running may be a well established trail use, but organized racing isn’t.
In fact, the continued existence of organized trail racing doesn’t depend on big money flowing in, having high-profile sponsors, or even the participation of the fastest runners. The singular thing that’s absolutely, 100% required for a trail race to happen is having the proper permits.
And we’d be wrong to assume that the race organizers are always going to be able to get those permits. Increasingly frequent rejections have been happening over the past few years in other trail sports (mountain biking, most notably), and even for some regional trail running event organizers. Think it wouldn’t happen for one of our marquee running events?
Do we really want to push it and find out?