This weeks blog is going to be a little bit different...instead of a health related topic I'm going to explore the impact that trail races have on the environment, both good and bad.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of serving as medical and recovery staff for the Xterra trail race at Oak Mountain State Park. Oak Mountain state park is located in Pelham, AL and it is an expansive and beautiful area that houses over 50 miles of trails, two accessible lakes, a wildlife education conservancy and a great golf course. This type of park is rare and is a great asset to the local community.
While working the race I quickly became annoyed at how many Gatorade cups, Biofreeze packets and bandaids I was finding on the ground, and then I had to stop and think "how much have I cared where my cup landed after running an extensive distance trail race?". This was a race of just 400 competitors, but between the vendors, support staff and runners, an immense amount of refuge was produced and all of it was left to the park crew to deal with. Now to think that a state funded park, with government employees and sometimes volunteers, is eager to accept this increase in trash and more importantly work is something that never even crosses the mind of most runners. Yeah, we might say, "well that's their job". Yes, yes it is, but isn't it our responsibility to protect the areas where we train and race?
Thinking back to another race at Castlewood State Park in Missouri, I was working as assistant medical director of the Castlewood Cup and was put in charge of bringing a group of my grad school colleagues to help out with the race. The night before the race it absolutely poured, and as most trail runners, who are sometimes more beast than human, we relish in a muddy frolic through the woods. Well, on this day the trail took the brunt of all 600 runners, as did the grounds where the vendors and timing crew were located. When I returned to the park two days later, the park staff was laying straw down throughout the open field and once I hit the trail it was clearly evident how much damage had been done. A group of spandex-sporting puddle jumpers had caused as much erosion and washout as natural wear and tear would have done in 10 years. This effects everything from the root systems, to ground animal habitats and even the watershed area at the basin of the Meramec river.
Situations like the aforementioned are obviously combated by grounds crews, trail preservation groups and clean up efforts. I was fortunate enough during my 4 years in chiropractic school in St. Louis to hold a Castlewood Clean-Up for the park that I loved so much. Much of the trail would be inundated with litter and trash, mostly from refuge carried in by flood waters after the spring thaw, but about 25-30% of what my group cleaned up came from hikers and runners leaving gel packets, water bottles and the occasional celebratory beverage container. Each year we collected around a half ton of trash among the few volunteers (as you can see by our sweat soaked clothing, this group was dedicated helping with clean-up efforts in 100 degree weather) and this was just the tip of the ice berg for this park.
As trail runners, we face an interesting dilemma, but still a situation that is presented to each outdoor enthusiast, how do we make sure that our enjoyment of nature is not trumped by the footprint we leave on it.
I truly believe that as nature enthusiasts we bring far more to the table in terms of preservation and maintenance of our trail systems, rather than deterioration and littering. Some of these areas are going to be facing human induced issues even if we were not running there, so through our awareness and more importantly action, we can help change the way these areas are used, maintained and enjoyed.
If you call yourself a trail runner, you probably like to think that you are fast, persevering and tenacious. All of these qualities are key to being a competitor, and these same traits are crucial to ensure that our beloved trails remain something to behold and enjoy. I challenge each runner to be an example of pristine nature conservancy, for both your own conscience and the next person coming down the trail.
"The tendency nowadays to wander in wilderness is delightful to see. Thousands of tired,
nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains
is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are
useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life."
—JOHN MUIR, Our National Parks, 1901
Beau Beard, D.C.