Thursday, June 19, 2014

Diversity in Trail Running: If You Build It, They Will Run

When I saw this month's Trail Runner Magazine blog symposium topic, my thought process was initially thus:

1) I don't know how diverse the trail running community currently is.
2) I don't really know how to go about finding that out. Do races even track demographics? I don't think I have ever been asked my ethnicity on a race entry form.
3) Like running in general, there are probably more men than women participating, but not drastically so.
4) I'm not sure I have anything interesting to say about diversity in trail running.

But I realize diversity is about more than just race and gender. It can be related to geography, and it struck me that access to trails is probably the biggest obstacle to a more diverse trail running community. So maybe I can comment on it after all.

I grew up in a running family, but in a small south Texas town where running was not extremely popular and trail running not at all. Why? Because we had no trails.

When I was in fourth grade, my parents became the resident caretakers of a brand-new local outdoor education center. And suddenly, I had trails to run on: several miles through trees, fields, and alongside a creek. It was great. I had a better place to run than anyone else in town, and to this day I'm grateful for that.

But trail running in my community and wider region didn't suddenly explode because we got a few trails. Our high school cross country meets ran through our town's scenic riverside park, but it was not uncommon for us to travel to urban meets at which the course wound through a parking lot or around a soccer field and golf course.

Cross country meets in other places = amazing.

When I ran cross country in college and traveled to meets run on actual trails, I was awed. When I moved to College Station and met runners who spent their Saturdays on the trails at nearby Lick Creek Park, I was inspired, and soon did the same myself.

My first non-cross country trail race was an Oktoberfest 10K at Fort Benning, Georgia. It was a blast, and I was hooked. But almost immediately, I learned trail races were much, much harder to come by than road races. Even here in El Paso, home of the largest urban park in the nation, there is not a wide offering of trail races.

El Paso Puzzler Trail Marathon 2013 at Franklin Mountains State Park

The point: people without access to trails have a very hard time becoming trail runners, and people without access to trail races are missing out on (in my opinion) the best kind of racing. And the trail running community is missing out on them.

Efforts to increase diversity in trail running can be two-fold:
1) To push for the development of trails in all kinds of places--urban areas, suburbs, small towns, rural areas without many recreation options. Trails are a given in scenic areas and in cities with high densities of outdoor enthusiasts. But by developing trails everywhere, people in all cities have the chance to become enthusiasts themselves.

2) To encourage running on those trails. More trail races would help, as well as training groups, educational events at running stores, and placing user-friendly maps and information online and on location.

Increasing the number of trails, trail races, and as a result, increasing diversity, will look different in different places. It can start with each of us. Have trails in your area but no races? At your next road race, compliment the director on a well-executed event and then express your interest in races on your local trails. Or start a race yourself. Have no trails in your area? Get involved in local politics, civic organizations, and conservation groups (or start your own) and share your trail vision with anyone who will listen!

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