By HPRS Race Director “Sherpa” John Lacroix
Those miles of trail that we train on, and ultimately race on, didn’t get there on their own. Sure, some of them appeared over time either by the persistent movement of humans across the same tract, or thanks to the persistent movement of animals across the same tract more commonly referred to as a “herd path.” Even though that’s how some trails came to be, there still was a place in time when humans got to work turning that tract into a sustainable trail. With that in mind, we should all be able to agree that trails don’t just appear.
I would find it safe to say that 95% (or more) of the trails we run and hike on are the result of countless man-hours of construction, love, care, and attention. Therefore I find it to be both stunning and disappointing, by how few trail and ultra runners give back to the trails they enjoy. We have two choices as trail users: We can love them to death, or we can love them to life. Considering how few of us actually give back, we can surmise that we are for the most part loving our trails to death.
When I lived back in New Hampshire, before I ever became an ultra runner, I was a peak bagger. My weekends were spent in the White Mountains hiking countless trails along my quest to bag every peak on the list I was working to “check-off.” Every now and then I’d cross paths with a trail crew, excitedly offering my appreciation for the work they were doing to improve a trail, or to save it from destruction. I decided that simply hiking those trails wasn’t enough, and it was selfish of me to only use them without ever giving back. Volunteering for at least one trail workday would have been plenty, but considering the number of miles I hiked in a given year (and knowing my personality), that was hardly enough. I got to work.
I attended a weekend long trail adopter workshop with the Appalachian Mountain Club and worked towards my certification as a trail adopter. Once completing the course, I could lead trail work trips on my own adopted trail. The trail that I adopted was Jefferson Link, high above tree line on Mount Jefferson in New Hampshire’s Northern Presidential Range. Being above tree line in one of the harshest environments in North America, a place where the plants that are present only grow in one other place on earth (and that’s the arctic), came with it’s own unique set of challenges. I spent a few days a year amongst the rock piles, trying desperately to create some kind of stone tread way, and building 2-3 foot high cairns so hikers could safely pass in the fog. The work was knuckle crunching and back breaking, yet also some of the most rewarding volunteer work I’d ever done in my life.
After a few years on Jefferson, I heard that a segment of trail “across the street” had opened. So I moved my trail adoption off of Mount Jefferson and instead over to the Carter Range. I was now the adopter of 4 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail, on the Carter-Moriah trail from the 19-Mile Brook Trail, over Carter Dome and Mount Hight to the Zeta Pass Junction. I can’t even begin to tell you how incredibly humbling, and rewarding, it was knowing that I was caring for a section of trail with those famous white blazes. I now had a trail in the trees, complete with countless water bars that needed cleaning twice a year, and a wet ecosystem that required hours of brushing (trimming krumholz and evergreens so users can pass through without it being a “bush whack”).
Want to know how much that trail work meant to me? My oldest son, Carter, was named after the mountain where his mom and I spent countless hours caring for the land. I hope this fact alone relays to you just how important trail work is, and how incredibly rewarding, fulfilling, and metaphorical it can be. So why don’t more of us do it?
Six years ago, one 100-mile race put over 900 runners on their high mountain course and lead them up and over (and back with pacers in tow) what many would consider to be a ecologically sensitive area. I stood up and made the point that in their 30-year history, organizers had never done any trail work, nor do they require volunteerism as requirement for entry into their race. I implored this community, and the United States Forest Service, that trail work should become a requirement of their permit considering that they were directly responsible for literally tens of thousands of heartbeats travelling up and over that area, an area that truly cannot sustain that kind of use. (More on this suggested requirement later)
How do we know what kind of use a trail can handle?
Before a race can acquire a permit, the USFS conducts a NEPA study. NEPA stands for National Environmental Policy Act. This act was signed into law on January 1, 1970. Yes kids.. before ultrarunning was even “a thing.” The EPA plays a unique role in the NEPA Process. The EPA is charged under Section 309 of the Clean Air Act to review the environmental impact statements (EIS) of other federal agencies and to comment on the adequacy and the acceptability of the environmental impacts of the proposed action.(https://www.epa.gov/nepa)
Something that NEPA studies indicate, is how many “heartbeats” an area can adequately support in a given year, month, etc. A “heartbeat” is defined as one person, each use time. In the example of the 100-miler above, that year they started 943 runners and congratulated 497 finishers (their most ever on both counts). That means that at least 497 heartbeats went up and over the ecologically sensitive area, twice, accounting for 994 heartbeats on that given day. This does not include the number of pacers who went over 1x from their turn-around, volunteers, spectators, or those who dropped out at the aid stations before or after, etc. Though ALL heartbeats would be counted in a NEPA study.
Now lets’ say that the NEPA study conducted for the trails associated with the race in that ecologically sensitive area, dictates that the resource can only handle 2000 heartbeats a year. That race has just taken at least 1000 heartbeats from that number leaving only 1000 left for those training on the area, on every weekend of the summer, and other trail users who will hike the area for their own enjoyment. Once this area exceeds the number of heartbeats, the NEPA study indicates that damage is now being done to the resource. This, is in essence, how a race gets its magic number.. the number of runners who are allowed to start. This is why the runner cap is so disparate between races in any geographical area. (It should be noted that in that given year, the race in question was near 100-runners over their permitted cap of 850, which indicates an abuse of the resource.)
But I really want you think about that again. If that ecologically sensitive area can responsibly accommodate 2000 heartbeats a year, and the race takes more than half of those heartbeats, then why wouldn’t theydo trail work to help the resource? Why wouldn’t they give back to the resource by doing trail work, especially to repair the effects of their overuse?
A NEPA study isn’t conducted just one time; it’s conducted again and again over time and usually every 5 years (the maximum number of years a race can acquire a permit from the USFS as a multi-year permitee). The more trail work that is done to help a trail segment, to repair damage, to ensure that the trail can be loved to life in a sustainable way, the more that the number of heartbeats for an area can remain the same, or even increase, from NEPA study to NEPA study.. instead of that number going down.
So I’ll ask again, Why wouldn’t YOU give back to the resource by doing trail work?
That’s my best example of loving trails to death. What if we don’t love them to life?
I mentioned how trail work can do wonders for adding heartbeats to an area’s sustainability. It can also work to increase runner caps at races (think about it.. that race you love that sells out so quickly, could be later awarded more space and a higher probability of you getting in!). Here’s the reality of trails as far as the USFS goes. If a trail becomes so overgrown that it disappears, or a NEPA study indicates that it can no longer accommodate ANY heartbeats.. the trail is then removed from the USFS system of trails. Race directors can only obtain permits for routes that remain on system trails. So if a trail is no longer in the USFS system, it’s gone.. and it will take a literalact of congress to get it to come back.
There are some examples in our sport where a race’s route traverses a trail that is no longer a part of system trails. Hardrock comes to mind. There is a leg or two at Hardrock where a trail used is no longer a system trail, but Hardrock has been grandfathered in; that distinction didn’t come without a veritable mountain of work. This year’s Jemez 50-mile in New Mexico just announced a re-route due to re-designation of system trails and their inability to obtain permits without re-routes. This is one of a race directors worst nightmares… and it happens more than you think.
When the Human Potential Running Series applied for permits from the USFS for our first year of racing in Fairplay, CO (2015); we put into our permit application that volunteer trail work would be a requirement of our permits. That’s right, a self-mandated requirement of trail work. At that time, we also officially adopted 11 miles of trail within the South Park Ranger District becoming the first race/series in the state to officially adopt trails from the USFS (to our knowledge). We typically hold at least 3 trail work days a year on our trails, and should no work need to be done on the trails we’ve adopted, we branch out to others.
As a race director, I have also made it a requirement of all runners registered for the Silverheels 100 that they must complete 8-hours of volunteer trail work, or service to an ultra race, to be welcomed at the starting line. Every year I receive a handful of angry emails from runners explaining how they “already give so much time and attention to their training and actually running the race that they simply don’t have the time to give back to the trails as well.” FOR A DAY! So, I added a “buy-out” option where runners can instead make a $100 donation to a local non-profit we support. On average, a quarter of our runners would rather write the check.
I once spoke to another RD about adding a volunteer requirement to their highly populated 100-mile race, and how a “volunteer buy-out” option would be an easy way to raise more funds for their non-profit. His response? “If you require volunteerism, than it isn’t technically volunteering now is it?” Obviously the importance of giving back to the resource that is a privilege to use.. A PRIVILEDGE, NOT A RIGHT.. is not viewed with the same importance in all places. While I appreciate the perspective of other RDs, I still feel that giving back is a no brainer and a lack of doing so shows an incredible amount of disrespect to the resource.
There have been many times over the years where I have engaged in online debates with runners who are pissed that 100-milers require runners to complete volunteer trail work as a qualifying requirement to run. I can’t believe that those debates still even happen., or that they happened at all. Do people not hear how selfish they are? If you have the time to train, the time to race, and the resources for both of those.. then you have the time and resources for just ONE DAY of volunteer trail work.
Back to that trail work mandate for permits..
I received an email from one of my permitting rangers this morning, here is what it read:
“The U.S. Forest Service has been severely impacted by budget cuts the last several years, but 2018 has seen even more dramatics cuts that are going to have a very real impact on the recreation areas where you operate your events. In order to maintain the trails in a condition that can sustain events, we will need your help.
Starting in 2019, we will be requiring a volunteer component for all events held on the [Not Tellin’] District. And although there is no requirement in 2018, we HIGHLY encourage your organization and event participants to participate in a volunteer trail project this year as well. Many of you are already active in volunteer trail maintenance, which will make this an easy requirement. If you are already contributing, please be sure to log your hours, participants, and areas worked and turn that information in with your actual use reports.“
It’s time we as a sport start getting used to the idea of volunteer trail work being a requirement for more and more races. This is just one district of the USFS, but in my conversations with the two other districts we work with and two others I have communicated with over the last few months, this requirement is going to become a mandate across the board. As races will be required to perform volunteer work as a condition of their permit, runners will be required to do trail work in order to run.
Pay special attention to that one italicized, underlined, bold and RED line: In order to maintain the trails in a condition that can sustain events In other words kids.. if we don’t do the work of giving back, and maintaining the trails we use, the many races we know and love will no longer be able to take place. YES! I’M SOUNDING THE ALARM!
I applaud the races who have mandated trail work as a part of entry. I applaud the races who do their part to love our trails to life. I encourage more of you to do the same. They didn’t just appear, but they sure can just disappear, as can our races. If you can afford the privilege of running the countless miles of trail your feet will hit this year, then you can afford the privilege of giving back to those same trails.
To learn how you can volunteer for Trail Work with HPRS, and the benefits you receive for doing so (discounted and comp race entries, a leg up in contests, etc) please visit: http://humanpotentialrunning.com/trail-work/