As we all know, the best trail races are well-marked and have great aid stations.
So why would anyone offer a race with neither?
Last year, my friend Todd Jennings and I organized a race to celebrate the Shawangunk Ridge Trail (SRT), a magical footpath that traverses the entire 74-mile length of the Shawangunk Mountains in New York’s Hudson Valley. For those not familiar, the trail starts at High Point State Park in New Jersey at a junction with the Appalachian Trail, follows the western edge of the Great Appalachian Valley, passes rare pitch pine barrens and glacier-polished cliffs and talus fields, and ends just beyond a restored railway trestle high above the town of Rosendale, NY.
I had discovered the SRT by thru-running it, and the idea was – rightly or wrongly – to provide a format where other runners could experience the adventure of following the SRT through the wilderness, unassisted.
That meant no aid stations and no supplemental course markings.
Frankly, I was happy to do away with aid stations. I don’t feel good providing people with highly processed sugary foods. This stuff is increasingly linked with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and dementia. At the same time, the kind of food I personally favor isn’t necessarily the right answer for others. If my goal was to lay out a smorgasbord of high-quality tasty foodstuffs, I would have opened a restaurant instead or organizing a race.
There’s an easy solution: Let each runners take responsibility for managing his or her nutrition. After all, that’s what people do when they head out on the trails on their own.
I don’t have a problem providing water. But why would people who love nature want their water collected in plastic bottles? Here’s a lower-impact answer: Let runners bring water filters. After all, the SRT passes streams, ponds, rivers, lakes, and the incredible Bashakill, which is southern New York’s largest wetlands. This isn’t Death Valley.
Just because we don’t have aid stations for the SRT, doesn’t mean we have a casual attitude towards safety. We have checkpoints to ensure accountability of all participants, and we work with highly-trained search & rescue teams should it be necessary to extract someone from the course. As race director for SRT, I wasn’t hanging out at the finish line; rather, I was out on the course for 36 hours straight just to make sure everyone was OK.
What about course markings?
The SRT is blazed with paint splashes and plastic disks from start to finish. I verified this by thru-running the course two times, taking detailed notes along the way, and then working with volunteers from the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference to clean up certain portions of the course.
Even so, running a blazed course is surprisingly difficult. We runners tend to look down, so we don’t trip. That makes it easy to miss a blaze at a key intersection and head off in the wrong direction. Trust me, I’ve done it plenty of times.
To help runners stay on course, we provided paper maps and a free smartphone app which shows where you are relative to the SRT at the push of a button.
The goal of the SRT event is not to lure unsuspecting participants into an orienteering challenge or a bushwhacking adventure for which they are not prepared. After all, if someone gets lost, the race director bears the responsibility for finding them.
What’s required is that you pay attention. Call it being “mindful.” And, yes, it’s an added mental challenge on top of the physical.
But we feel good asking runners to step up to this extra challenge, because being mindful is a critical component of moving through the wilderness safely. So why not practice it in races?
Another reason not to like supplemental markings: I can name races where the volunteers put up the markings in the wrong spots, course marshals steered people in the wrong direction, or vandals even took down the markings and put them up heading the wrong way.
Plus I happen to think trees look nicer without orange tape.
In the future, racing might be an altogether different experience. Maybe there won’t be blazes or markings. Maybe you’ll just see turn signals flashing on your Apple Watch or in your Google Glasses. That’s OK. However technology may evolve, the principles of Minimalist Racing should remain the same:
- respect for the wilderness in as close to its natural state as possible
- an expectation that runners will be responsible and mindful