“The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other… but to be with each other.”
– Christopher McDougall, Born To Run
Despite an explosion in popularity in the last decade, trail running remains something of a fringe activity. Similarly, the trail running community remains something of a counter-cultural anti-establishment underground bunch. Picture California surfing in the ‘60s or the London punk rock scene in the ‘80s. Breaking the mould. No rules, no uniforms, no adults…
OK we might be overstating that a bit, but there can be no doubt trail running attracts athletes and characters who like to do things differently. Just look at the insane Barkley Marathons’ legendary Lazarus Lake, or the mysterious late Caballo Blanco aka Micah True aka Michael Randall Hickman aka The White Horse of Copper Canyon, Mexico fame. Or Dirt Diva and tattoo junkie Catra Corbett, or the irrepressible baggie-shorted multi-hundred mile queen Courtney Dauwalter, or the smiling Catalonian mountain goat Kilian Jornet. There’s no shortage of characters in trail running.
But what else do these running hippies have in common besides huge talent and an underdeveloped understanding of “impossible”? A love for what they do and a love for the people that do it. They are all proudly part of the wonderful trail community.
Make no mistake, the competitiveness is strong in these guys, and they come to race! But it’s quite obvious that behind the blood, sweat and medals, there’s almost a spiritual connection to the trail, to nature, and to the other strange runners who love this stuff as much as they do. No back-of-the-field runner has to think too hard about that time they limped in just before (or long after) Cut-Off, and one or more of the podium finishers was waiting at the Finish in the dark and the cold with a beer or hot chocolate to cheer them home.
Obviously a strong sense of community is not exclusive to trail running. Sport by definition attracts and brings out a lot of humanity’s best features. But there really is something unique about the bearded, tattooed, beer-loving, sometimes barefoot community of runners out there on the trails, challenging themselves, each other and often the toughest conditions nature can throw at them. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that you can die? No, trail running, even at its most extreme, is not like wing-suit diving. But we’ve all heard the stories of those fatal falls in the mountains, or the tragedy of the sudden freezing weather front hitting a group of runners with inadequate kit. As a Race Director we are sometimes asked to explain the rationale behind our Compulsory Kit Lists. I always say that you are carrying that Space Blanket as much for you as for somebody else who may need it out there. There is a definitely a camaraderie that develops between individuals heading out to face the elements knowing that they might be hours away from any real help should something go wrong, and knowing they may have to rely on, or be relied on by each other.
This Community bond extends beyond just the runners themselves, driven perhaps by the sheer remoteness of it all. All race volunteers are very special folk, from city marathons to Parkruns, and must be cherished and valued. But the water table guys who lugged the fruit and coke up the mountain at 2am so the runners can have the best experience possible, or the shivering Checkpoint Marshall manning the mountain peak in the freezing rain so that the Race Directors can keep control of the field and not lose anybody, or the Racing Snakes who volunteer to sweep a race and keep the back-markers safe and in good spirits…. these really are the backbone of the sport. Whether you’re a medal chaser or a cut-off dodger, this is our community.
Finally, the true essence of Community as a trail runner is brought home by the real communities out there that we would usually otherwise never see. Trail running is not a sport that happens in a stadium or arena, but more often than not far away from any recogniseable urban civilisation. This exposure to farming communities in the Kalahari desert or rural mountain villages in the KZN Drakensberg or clusters of fishermen on the Wild Coast is as impactful as the spectacular and wildly different natural landscapes and environments themselves. There is a fundamental humility that comes with the horizon-expanding experience of finding oneself far out of one’s comfort zone and meeting and mixing with, and often relying upon, people that one would never otherwise come across, that lessens the modern sense of self-importance that we’ve all become so used to, reminding us that we are nothing without the community.
This is what we love.