Do trail races result in unnecessary damage to the environment?

November 12, 2013 in Uncategorized by Eric Eagan

Each month I participate in the TrailRunnerMagazine “Blogger Symposium”. We handle somewhat controversial topics and clearly reader engaging topics. This month, we have been asked to write about the impact trail racing has on the environment and specifically does it cause unnecessary damage to the environment.

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As a trail advocate and someone who has been involved in the actual building and maintaing of our trails I believe the answer has a 3 fold design -Yes, No, and Maybe.

No: The trail being used is already designed and users are already on it. Races can, and indeed some are starting to act in much more sustainable ways. We at #TrailsRoc mark our courses with biodegradable materials. We have trail clean up and maintenance days before and after each of our races assessing what the trail was like both before and after.

We offer no cups at our water stops, and our aid stations are natural foods with as little packaging as possible. Our  fruits -veggies  come from local growers if possible. We sweep the course immediately following the final runner and clean as we go. There trail is left in better shape after one of our events than it ever was before.

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In each of our races we take the opportunity of an engaged audience to talk about proper trail use – We advocate for through mud not around. We explain proper passing (on trail not off). We discuss trash options and aid station options. We even put 2 of our races on a bus line – The bottom line though is that the trails here are already built and being used by people and I see far more beer cans, burned out fires in poor locations, and regular user trash than I ever do from our racers. Trail runners love the trails, the chances that they are causing further damage when properly advocated to is slim. So in short – No races are not causing unnecessary damage to the environment.

Maybe: I write about “maybe” here because not everyone seems to actually care about the environment like we do. Not every organization makes it a point to clean the trails and maintain the damage caused like we do. We also cannnot control what runners are doing once they are on the trails regardless of how much we advocate to them.  I say “maybe” only because not all races are bad for the environment, and much the same way that we advocate for Zoos to teach us about conservation we can utilize trail racing to teach about  the environment. The maybe in this post makes me a bit sad, because it rolls clearly in to the next answer which is “yes”.

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Yes - There are many trail races and race directors that do not choose to limit the impact and footprint they cause. They do not cap races, they do not repair trail damage after sending too many runners through a sloppy wet trail, and they do not advocate for a lower footprint through aid stations and water stops.

If a park does not limit their race numbers, it is still the RD’s responsibility to think about their footprint. Getting folks out and moving is never a bad thing….. until it is. Some trails cannot handle the number of runners that are participating in our events, race directors and trail advocates need to know what the limit is regardless of what the parks departments are putting in place.

There were multiple reports this year from Leadville and other high status races that gu packets, cups, and other trash were all over the trail – If this is not a negative impact on the environment I am not sure what is. Without the race – there surely would not have been trash everywhere those days.

At #TrailsRoc aid stations we have gone cup-less. Runners are required to carry their own containers. They can fill, but we refuse to purchase paper cups, have them thrown all over the trail and end up in a landfill when there is a clear, and useful alternative.

Runners damage trails – more runners do more damage. The larger your race, the more likely runners will be passing off trail to get around slower runners. The more runners you have the more that will “go around” instead of through mud and slick spots creating a wider trail and increased erosion which will become permanent.

The larger your race, the longer the impact even if minimal on animal life in the area as well. This of course is not taking into account that very few if any trail races are ever on public transportation lines so the more trail races we have and the larger they become the more people we will have driving to the trail heads creating un-needed environmental impacts.

I have even seen posts on social media sites from race organizations showing the mud they went through. They are bragging about the knee deep, shoe sucking mud and bragging about the damage they caused without any mention of when they would be going back out to help repair those sections that they ravaged.

The short answer here is yes, trail races are causing damage. It may be unintended, but the damage is real, and it is not necessary.

So what is the answer? The issue then becomes what can we do. The sport is in a boom right now – Our races are filling up faster and they are expanding race caps. It is as always going to come down to policing ourselves. Trail races need to embrace sustainability. Race Directors need to put the trail itself above all else, especially profit. Runners need to be taught about proper use, and we need to show it through our own examples.

Right now some races are causing loads of unneccesary damage and that should be unacceptable to us.

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Eric Eagan Eric Eagan (52 Posts)

Eric Eagan is is an avid and passionate runner living in Greece, NY. Eric tells his stories about the Western NY running scene in a unique way while sprinkling in his goals of motivating others to start running, keep running, and love running.When Eric is not running or writing about running, he is hiking the Adirondak Mountains, the Finger Lakes Trail, snowshoeing the trails and hills of Western NY, or canoeing the waterways of New York State.