They're exploding in numbers and having a massive impact on our favorite trails, yet the short-shorts crowd almost never pitches in when it comes to trail work
Editors’ note: This column generated an enormous reaction, with many readers writing in to contest the central premise and others letting us know they were offended by the tone. We have since published a response by writer Stephanie Case that you can read here.
No, that headline isn’t just for clicks. Trail runners really are lazy parasites. Deadbeats, even.
Allow me to explain.
Nationally, nobody keeps a good tab on exactly who turns out on volunteer trail-work days to install water bars, build steps, reroute switchbacks, and replant vegetation. But here’s what we do know: trail running is booming—its number of participants more than doubled from 2007 to 2017. According to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2018 report, there are now more trail runners—nine million and counting—than there are off-road bikers. A million more. We also know that in Colorado, where a whopping 92 percent of residents recreate outdoors, as many as 40,000 hikers and runners can be found on the trails of the more popular fourteeners each month of the summer.
Based on this sheer volume alone, trail advocates know that trail runners are having a major impact. Every time one steps around a puddle to keep their shoesies clean (mountain bikers tend to ride through puddles), they’re widening the trail. This happens a step at a time, multiplied by tens of thousands of steps, until it turns singletrack into a six-foot-wide sidewalk. With every edging action around a curve or skid on a steep descent, trail runners are moving dirt and extruding roots and rocks. Hell, every time they take a leak—again, when multiplied by thousands—they’re killing native plants. Solo trail runners—like solo cyclists, hikers, and even the occasional horse—are low impact. Nine million trail runners are a different story.
In other words, trail runners are now just like the rest of us. But anecdotally at least, when compared to mountain bikers and hikers, trail runners are the least likely to volunteer to build and maintain trails. Anna Zawisza, director of community relations and strategic partnership with Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC), the state’s oldest and largest organizer of trail crews, ranks trail-runner turnout right down there with public-trail-riding equestrians, which, to be fair to the horse people, constitute a niche group compared to the scrawny Forrest Gump set. Even in the few communities where trail runners are active with trail work, they routinely show up less than other groups. You can see this if you ever work on a trail. I’m no star volunteer, but in the half dozen or so times I’ve gotten out and swung a McLeod or a Pulaski, I haven’t met a single trail runner. But among the throngs of mountain bikers, I have met hikers, horse folk, dog walkers, and bird watchers on Colorado’s multi-use trails. Even the trail-running boosters I talked to bemoaned the lack of turnout of their own kind.
Part of the reason for this is that trail runners don’t have a national trail-advocacy group. There’s no equivalent of the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) organizing chapters and funneling resources and bodies—700,000 volunteer hours in 2016—at projects. Well, to be precise, there was one. A mysterious outfit called Run Wild launched in 2017 with lofty goals, but now it’s a dead site and its Instagram page hasn’t been updated in two years. That’s too bad, because the trails need it. Though three out of four Coloradans identify as conservationists, only 1 percent of Coloradans volunteer with stewardship organizations (another study claims 3 percent, but that’s dubious). In a typical year, VOC counts 5,000 volunteer work days. That might sound like a lot, but even if that number portrayed 5,000 individuals (and it doesn’t; lots of folks volunteer for multiple days), it would represent less than a thousand people for every million Coloradans that recreate outdoors. It’s not enough. “We have 39,000 miles of trail in Colorado,” says Zawisza, “and we’re adding to that total every year. On a good year, VOC touches 30 miles.”
As a former Coloradan, I’m not picking on the state. Colorado’s volunteer turnout is likely better than the national average. Nor, despite my ribbing, am I hating on the blister-adverse trail-running crew, with its weird little utility belts and tank tops. I may have to revise my calculations after this column comes out, but I count a number of trail runners as friends. I’ll admit, though, that I am a bit mystified by trail runners. And I’m not alone. IMBA executive director Dave Wiens, who founded the nondenominational Gunnison Trails group long before taking the helm of the association, says that for mountain bikers, trail work “is a social experience that ends with brats and beers. But from what I can tell, trail runners aren’t into the beers-and-brats part.” It’s also true that one maniac trail runner allegedly attacked a mountain biker in Golden, Colorado, in 2017, and more recently, another choked out a mountain lion. But I won’t paint them all with the crazy brush.
To really understand why mountain bikers are gung ho volunteers and trail runners are lazy parasites, it helps to look at the origins of the two sports.
Mountain bikers came on the scene in force in the 1980s. Castigated and labeled as outlaws, they were banned from many existing trail networks. Only later did research prove that bike tires don’t destroy trails any more than shoes do (and that both shoes and tires are way less destructive than horse hooves). Still, it took decades of advocacy and trail work to change the public’s opinion and prove that mountain bikes belong on our public lands. This effort remains a work in progress.
If we’re speaking openly here, mountain bikers would be OK with fewer hikers, runners, and horses walking up the downhills, which is why mountain bikers want to build more trails—to spread out the crowds. For these reasons, and also bratwurst and beer, trail work is part of mountain-bike culture. Minus the beer, pretty much every high school mountain-bike race team in the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) does trail work. Freeriders do it. Cross-country racers do it. Trail riders do it. Downhillers do it. Old guys that get fat in winter also throw down. “Trail work is part community outreach for us,” says Wiens. “It’s also true that the trail itself is essential to our experience. We say things like, ‘That was a good trail’ or ‘That was a bad trail.’”
Trail runners, on the other hand, don’t have much of a birth story. No counterculture kooks in Marin County, California, monkeying around with old Schwinns. No access problems, no vigilantes laying booby traps for them. People were running on trails long before trail shoes were a thing. Nobody told them they couldn’t do it then, and nobody is telling them they can’t do it now. And while, like mountain bikers, runners can inadvertently sneak up behind hikers and spook them, they rarely get the same dirty looks. Even the social dynamics of trail running are different than those of mountain biking. “Historically, ultrarunners and most trail runners were a little more self-sustained,” says Brett Sublett, owner of the Durango Running Company, in Colorado. “People got into that solo mindset and kind of assumed they were the only people out there running. And that’s still a big part of what attracts people initially. But with the popularity of trail running, that’s changing. We used to get ten people to a group run, now we get 30 to 40. There’s a much stronger trail-running community.”
Which gets us to today. Nine million trail runners and counting, yet a widely held belief—if an unproven one, as most trail crews don’t ask too many questions—that they have the lowest turnout among the core user groups when it comes to trail maintenance. But here’s some good news: that’s changing. The most storied ultrarunning events have long required that racers complete volunteer trail days. Today, dozens of smaller events are following that lead, with many offering more lottery-style entry chances to volunteers. In Colorado, VOC is actively trying to recruit such folk by posting flyers at the Cheyenne Mountain Trail Race. Meanwhile, Nancy Hobbs, founder and executive director of the American Trail Running Association, is promoting trail work on her organization’s site and actively directing runners to volunteer opportunities. (The association also plugs an activity called “plogging,” which involves stopping to pick up trash from trails as you jog. Not sure why it needs a name.) Sublett, of the Durango Running Company, requires that the Fort Lewis College kids he helps coach perform at least one day of trail work a year. These types of initiatives, especially with the race entries, seem to be gaining traction.
Durango is also home to Trails 2000, a trail-maintenance nonprofit founded 30 years ago on the idea of engaging with all nonmotorized users. Its numbers suggest that it’s working. According to Mary Monroe Brown, the group’s executive director, Trail 2000’s volunteers break down as follows: 40 percent mountain bikers, 35 percent hikers, and 25 percent trail runners. “People who mountain bike here also trail run and dog walk,” says Monroe Brown. “And the Durango Running Club and the Durango Running Company have helped create a culture where there’s a direct correlation between running and trail work. People that are driven enough to live in Durango have an outdoor ethic and tend not to develop that protectionist attitude, that this is my trail and I need to protect my experience. We should be taking the high road and working together.”
Still more promising? Little Missoula, Montana, is home to what is (as near as I can tell) the nation’s only dedicated advocacy group organized to get trail runners out doing trail work. It’s called the Montana Trail Crew (MTC), and to date it has adopted trails, purchased land, moved trailheads, and performed all manner of maintenance with hundreds of volunteers, some of whom get out for at least three trail days each summer. Sometimes the MTC works on pedestrian-only trails. Sometimes it sends volunteers to MTB Missoula to help with multi-use paths. It doesn’t matter much to them. “A lot of people get into trail running from a fitness or a road-running background,” says MTC cofounder Jimmy Grant. “They don’t all have that mountain ethic. We wanted to serve as a model for other groups. You get more personally invested in your running and your town when you get your hands dirty.”
So there you have it. Signs of progress. But will trail runners outside of chill towns like Durango and Missoula get the message? Tough to say. They might not want to get their arms all swole doing manual labor. But I hope so, if only because, if that happens, then the trail-running and mountain-biking communities can shame the hikers into stepping up as well. Call me snitty, but there are 45 million of those lazy parasites.