One of the true privileges I’ve enjoyed during my dozen years as a trail-runner has been the opportunity to share the trails with so many wonderful people. It began with my earliest runs on the dirt in Kansas City, a know-nothing newbie weaving through the trees and hopping over rocks and roots alongside far more experienced runners who chatted away about the 50-mile and 100-mile races at Rocky Raccoon that they were training for. In the weeks and months that followed, they educated me on all sorts of things, from hydration systems to consider, to which week it would grow dark enough that I should start bringing a headlamp, to other trails in the area I should explore.
As the years went by, I was fortunate to log many miles alongside seasoned trail- and ultra-runners, some with more than a quarter-century of experience. Despite our differences in age and sometimes differing views on a wide range of issues, they welcomed me in and showed me the way. They had so much wisdom to share about life and about running, and were happy to pass it along. On the days that we ran together, I typically ran better. I learned by mimicking what I saw them do so effectively; I learned by listening to their stories; I learned by asking questions and taking their hard-earned knowledge to heart.
All of these lessons took place on the trail through the sharing of miles and time – together, in person. I’ve had plenty of similar experiences in the six-plus years that I’ve lived in Massachusetts, and I’m sure I’ll have many more in the years and decades ahead. I certainly hope so.
I’ve been thinking about these experiences a lot during the past few months as we near the end of Year Two of the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare to begin a third. I think back to a conversation I had with Race Director Michael Barrett at the TARC Summer Classic in August. His was the first official race the Trail Animals Running Club held in-person since February 2020 when the pandemic started forcing cancellations nationwide.
“People have just been running solo, so the important thing is you get people out there seeing each other,” he told me. “Everybody’s just been doing everything alone and you just assume everyone’s all right, but everyone’s not all right, you know? It’s like we’re pretending everything’s OK, but everything kind of sucks but we’re doing it because we should. People need this kind of stuff to measure their goals for bigger races.”
Barrett’s assessment was spot-on, and it has lingered in my mind ever since. No matter who we are or our personal situation, we’ve all lost something during this pandemic. One of those things has been the personal connection with each other at group runs and trail races, sharing long miles and hours on the trail chatting with friends and new acquaintances, telling stories and imparting wisdom on new members of the community and connecting with folks in a meaningful way that can’t be replicated anywhere else.
That truth was captured masterfully in filmmaker Lindsey Topham’s 2017 documentary, “The Trails are Free,” about the Trail Animals Running Club and its culture of inclusion and accessibility. I was fortunate to attend the film’s premiere, and have watched it several more times since. I encourage you to watch it and see what resonates with you. If you’ve seen it before, watch it again. It will be time well spent.
My greatest takeaway from the film has always been how important it is to connect with the community, to give more than I take. The most meaningful connections must take place in person; they certainly can’t be replicated in the same way online, which has been the primary outlet for many of us during the pandemic. Social networks can serve a meaningful purpose such as sharing information and inspiration, but they also can be the source of negativity and division. There are few things more sad than a middle-aged man trolling or rage-posting on the internet, most likely in pursuit of attention or personal amusement. Having occasionally been that sad middle-aged man, I know this from experience. It’s selfish behavior that is harmful to the community, and it’s easier to engage in when hidden behind a screen and a keyboard rather than 15 miles into a long run.
Fortunately, in-person racing became more prevalent during the second half of 2021. We can anticipate a closer return to normalcy for trail- and ultra-running in 2022. Racing has returned, and group runs are back, too. We’ve all been through a lot these past two years. We’re not all OK, but we once again have opportunities to gather as a community, lift each other up, and have moments where we are.
In Volume 1, Issue 7, of the TARC “Animal Droppings” newsletter in Spring 1996, TARC founder Chris Haley wrote in his “Trail Ramblings” column:
“A random thought based on a discussion with a fellow Animal on a recent trail run – there’s too much technology invading the trails. Those of us who have been blessed with less than extraordinary talent took up trail running to get away from the telephone, fax machine and computer, not to figure out how we can cut two seconds from our 10K time. I’m all for technology, in its place, which is not on the trails.”
Haley was writing about technology such as smart watches, heart rate monitors, and perhaps even headphones, encouraging people to ditch their watch once in a while or at least stop looking at it and enjoy the nature and fellow trail-runners around them. Applying that 1996 scenario to 2021/2022, I’d argue that means spending less time on the internet and social media and more time reconnecting in-person with the trail community and rebuilding relationships that were interrupted by the pandemic.
As we close out 2021 and begin 2022, I encourage you to commit to spending less time online and dedicate more time to reconnecting with the community on the trails. Join a group run or start one of your own if you can! Volunteer for a race. Find out who maintains your favorite local trails and attend a work day – and bring a friend! Complain less and give more. Think about what you value most about being in the trail and ultra community and commit to rekindling that spirit.
I look forward to seeing all of you on the trails in 2022.
Top 10 Most Viewed Stories of 2021 (93 pieces of new content in 2021)
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7 ‘Don’t Run Boston’ 50K is TARC’s First In-Person Event Since Pandemic Began – 343 views
8 Results: Chesterfield Gorge Ultra – 314 views
9 TARC’s ‘Don’t Run Boston’ Trail Ultras Tentatively Approved – 304 views
10 TARC to Resume In-Person Races – 296 views