This is the time of year when I would like to transition my long runs to the trails. I’ve got two trail races I’m eyeing over the next couple of months, and it makes sense to put those big miles on the dirt tracks of the woods.
But there is a problem. As it turns out, 2015 was the wettest year in Oklahoma history, capped off by an extraordinarily heavy weekend of rain over the Christmas holiday. Adding to that was some rain and snow over the past couple of days.
My local trail running haunt, the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area, is saturated. The last time I ran there, only the highest trail atop a ridge crest was halfway dry. Everything else was anything from muddy to flooded.
Mud and standing water is a de facto badge of pride for trail runners. Trail running is tougher than road running, mostly because the paths trail runners take don’t avoid elevation gains, traverse sketchy terrain and force runners to tackle the elements on their terms. Part of that includes mud.
I’m OK with that. Especially when it comes to races, rotten route conditions add a little spice to the event.
But there comes a time when you have to think bigger. The places where I run are pretty busy, and not just with runners. Cyclists, hikers and other trail users frequent my local trails by the hundreds every day, at a minimum. All that use has an impact on trails under the best of conditions. Add enough rain to the mix and trail erosion and degradation is greatly accelerated.
So when Saturday’s programmed long run came up, I stayed off the dirt and hit the pavement.
I know one person won’t cause much damage. Neither will 10. But hundreds will when the trails are in such poor condition, as they are now. And with so much rain behind us, it may be a bit before they dry out to the point where erosion and other damage is slowed.
As a trail runner, I care about the places I run. I care enough to get active in protecting the places those trails cross. I want to make sure the trail system is cleaned of trash, protected from urbanization and maintained in a sustainable way. I’ve even learned a little bit about trail restoration along the way.
But I also know that part of protecting those trails can be more passive. In their current state, my presence will likely add to deeper ruts and other associated harm that comes from my weight digging into the mud via my feet.
It’s also key to understand how many runners, hikers and even some cyclists react when confronted with a big pool of water in middle of the trail. Most try to sidestep it, to avoid getting their feet wet and to preserve those pristine kicks from the dingy stains of muddy water. Never mind that the edges of the trail are also likely to be very muddy, and that going around mud puddles causes even more damage, which is why we are told to run through the middle of the mess in the first place. But human nature is what it is.
So while I take a little pride in coming home from a trail run with mud splattered all over me, I also understand that maybe now it’s a little too muddy, a little too wet, and a bit too fragile for me. Not everyone will share this conviction, and I understand that. But it is something we should consider.
Maybe next weekend it will be different. But for now, I’ll grudgingly pound pavement and give my trails a break.