Trail Etiquette 101 for the Courteous Competitor
Most of us love our time on the trails because we enjoy spending time by ourselves in nature. If you are lucky you rarely run into another human and you are mostly free to do whatever you please. Then one day you find yourself at the start trail race along with 2000 other runners and you are unaware or unsure of the proper do’s and don’ts. The following lowdown on trail etiquette will help you find your way around with confidence.
At the start
Trail races each have a unique approach to the organisation of the run, adopted according to the challenges of the terrain and the number of participants. Be sure to be in the know of the race’s specific rules and don’t miss the race briefing.
Know your place. Line up at the start according to your ability. If you are a middle-of-the-packer, find yourself a cozy spot in the middle of the field and start there. If you know you are slower, don’t stand at the front next the the bolting elite runners. Just as it is frustrating to have to pass a gazillion slower runners, it is equally horrifying to fear trampling by the sprinting horde.
Listen up. The trails are best experienced with all your senses. The beautiful scenery are perfectly complemented by nature’s smells, the forgiving feel of soft earth beneath your feet and the sounds of the wildlife. By forgoing the headphones and mindfully tuning in to your environment, you will also be more aware of other users of the trail coming up behind you, or instructions from marshals along the route. Most often the use of earphones are prohibited on a trail race for runners’ safety, and you run the risk of a penalty or even disqualification should you ignore it.
On the trail
All trails have different rules, but knowing these few universal ones should guard you safe from incurring the wrath of the long-timers.
Don’t be a trail hog. Remain to the side on which you would drive on the the road and pass on the other. For example, in the US where you drive on the right, stay on the right side of the trail to let others pass on your left. In the UK where they drive on the left, run on the left and pass on the right side.
Nothing is more frustrating than being trapped behind a pair of chatting runners on a narrow trail. Preferably run in single file and never run more than two abreast even where wider trails allow it.
Communicate. Trail runners sometimes have a way of drifting off in their own thoughts. This may be induced either by the serenity of the environment or by their efforts to manage severe pain and fatigue levels. Either way, they are easily spooked if you suddenly appear next to them and you may both end up in an entangled puddle of sweat and dirt. When you want to pass another trail user from behind, make you intentions known by calling “to your left” (in the US) or “to your right” (in the UK). Passive aggressive behaviour like excessive foot stomping or melodramatic breathing may be effective initially, but exhausted runners don’t yield unless they are asked to do so.
Many trails are fully autonomous, implying that runners carry all of their own food and water. Semi-autonomous trails will have limited aid stations and runners are still required to carry some of their own fuel and hydration. In these races you can expect a whole lot of commotion at aid stations. Some runners are in a hurry to make up time, while others are just too happy to finally see another living being after many a hard hour rocking it out solo. They just want to hang out and eat and chill. Volunteers will do their darnedest to please both groups, but a well-prepped runner will make life much easier for everyone.
Carrying a gazillion 250 ml hydration flasks will have you hogging the water supply for hours and you may find yourself grunted (or pushed) to the side before you are done refilling. Plan your water use and refill in such a way that you will need the minimum time at aid stations to top them up. Trails such as Marathon du Mont-Blanc require runners to carry their own cups. This is an excellent way to quickly receive a few gulps of water or electrolytes with none of the garbage like the usual paper or Styrofoam types.
A practical tip for runners that use gels is to consume the gel when an aid station comes into sight. Swallow it down with the water provided and dispose of the packet (as well as the pull tab) at the provided rubbish facilities.
Keep it Green
John and Mark Collins, race directors of the Otter African Trail Run in South Africa, loves to tell how their mother took them hiking from when they were little. She encouraged them to pick up litter as far as they went, and told them that “the trails should be better off because they were there”. With this basic mindset it will be easy to remember to ‘carry out what you carry in’ (including used toilet paper). We have all accidentally lost something on a trail, so be kind and pick up trash if you see it.
Also try to preserve the integrity of the trail by running through mud puddles and not around them, and thereby widening the trail. The same goes for passing other runners or yielding for oncoming traffic. Step as far as possible to the side of the trail but not off it.
Many of the best trail runs are in ecologically sensitive areas. The Otter African Trail Run have adopted a practice of sponging runners’ shoes with biodegradable disinfectant during the pre-race gear check to eliminate the possibility of introduction of alien invasive species.
Kindness is key
Be friendly to volunteers and remember to say thank you. You will be surprised how showing appreciation for a volunteer can energize you as you turn your mind from your own pain onto gratitude. Similarly if you encourage a fellow runner that is taking strain. Just a simple ‘you’ve got this’ or ‘good job’ may mean the world to that person and will also put a renewed spring in your step.