Leave it to Outside magazine to cause a stir in the outdoor community. In a piece posted online Wednesday, writer Marc Peruzzi posited that trail runners aren’t pulling their load when it comes to performing trail work.
The thrust of his op-ed is that trail running is exploding in popularity, with millions of runners hitting the dirt every year. The problem is, he says, is that they’re basically no-shows on organized volunteer work days, at least when it compared to mountain bikers.
I can find a few faults with the piece. He takes a few swipes at trail runners’ gear, deriding their “short shorts” and running vests. I’ll admit, seeing a runner in that ultramarathoner getup, topped with a trucker hat, can be a little funny. But it ain’t any more hilarious than seeing someone in full cycling kit. Eighties hair metal bands wore less spandex. Just sayin’.
He also maximizes the damage cause by runners (widening trails by running around muddy/watery parts of the trail) while glossing over the wear and tear caused by bikes. He’s not wrong about the trail widening problem, one that is primarily caused by runners and hikers. But go to any multi-use trail and you can tell where the cyclists have been by that distinct U-shape from bike usage. It’s not fair to lay all the blame on runners for trail damage and erosion. We’re all part of it.
And he admits his observations are based on anecdotal evidence. It’s hard to make solid conclusions without data, but from what he’s seen and heard, it’s the cyclists and not the runners who show up on work days to repair worn-down trail sections.
I don’t want to dwell on superficially nitpicking at his piece. I’ll move past the snark and at-times inflammatory language to get to the heart of it: Is he right?
As you can imagine, the comments section was overwhelmingly negative. Outside and the writer took a few on the chin. But some of the responses were interesting.
“Trail runners are some of the most environmentally conscious people round.”
“I give to conservation causes.”
“A lot of races give to environmental causes.”
“I volunteer to clean up the course after a race.”
“Don’t care. We just want to be out in nature.”
“I pay taxes, and if the trails are on public lands, it’s not my job.”
And so forth, repeatedly, ad nauseum. Good rebuttals, right? Well, not really. Here’s why.
It’s fine to give to causes. But those groups might not do anything to help maintain your trails. Being environmentally conscious is great, but it doesn’t mean anything to the trails you use unless you go out and put your ideals into action on the trails you use. It’s great to enjoy nature. But you and millions like you have an impact on your trails. Cleaning up a race day mess is not the same as trail work. And pulling the taxpayer card is just weak sauce.
Still, hundreds of commenters’ thoughts don’t create solid data points for or against the author’s premise. And because of a lack of data to which he admits, it’s a premise that cannot be proven. At least not yet.
So the best I can do here is offer my own anecdotal observations. Here’s what I’ve seen:
Here in Tulsa, we have an active group that advocates for trail users, organizes work days and promotes conservation. The group is made up of nearly every trail user you can imagine. We do quarterly cleanup days and quarterly trail work/maintenance days, and all of it is done by volunteers.
We’ve done studies on who uses our trails. Hikers, bikers, runners, birders and equestrians are the main users, and to varying degrees, they show up on the work days.
But here’s the thing: Over the past couple of years, it’s the cyclists who are punching above their weight. Although they make up a relatively small percentage of overall users, they routinely are at least half or more of the volunteers who show up on those work days, usually armed with their own tools and trail-building skills learned from groups like the International Mountain Bicycling Association. IMBA is fantastic at this, and I’ve learned a lot just working beside these folks.
It’s not like the runners don’t show up. Some do. I’m one of them. But we’re usually outnumbered by the cyclists by two-to-one or more.
What we have going on here in Tulsa is just one place. I’m sure there are other places where it’s the trail runners who are pulling the bulk of the load. And you can bet that it’s the hikers who are the biggest contributors to volunteer efforts with the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative’s summer trail work projects in that state’s popular alpine trail network. But the existence of groups like IMBA (and local affiliates, like our own Oklahoma Earthbike Fellowship) means that the cyclists already have systems in place to do the work and teach people how. They even have grant programs. I’m not sure that sort of organization is duplicated in the trail running world, at least not to the extent as it is in the cycling community.
So here’s the deal: Does the Outside article make you mad? Did you furiously type your response in the comments section? Threaten to cancel your subscription? Bemoan the writer’s divisiveness? OK. But now what?
Prove him wrong. Find a local group that does trail work and volunteer. Show up in boots and work gloves and turn a shovel for a few hours. Help make your trails more durable and sustainable. Be there for the trash cleanup days. Sacrifice a weekend training run or race and get behind a wheelbarrow. Put some sweat equity in your trails.
So many things about Outside’s piece are wrong. (Trail runners aren’t into brats and beer? Are you kidding me? Has he seen an aid station at a trail race?) But I wonder if some of the indignation is caused by folks getting dinged for what they don’t do and don’t like being called on it.