I’m going to start this post by affirming how much I enjoy racing. I’ve been competing since middle school, and there has not been a race that, at least in part, I did not enjoy for the simple competitive rush that each one provides. I like going. I like going fast.
But I came to trail running from a different direction. And, as I have gotten older and subsequently slower, the excitement of racing has become such a minor concern compared to that part which I really love. The part that keeps me coming back.
When I was a kid we ran along dirt tracks and canals in my home town. If my parents took us hiking we were likely to hear the words “Stay where I can see you” as much as anything because my brothers and I were often trotting ahead down the trail.
As a young man I worked as a ranger on the White River National Forest. I showed up for my first summer with a mountaineering ruck that could haul two complete bodies if you stuffed them well. I learned, the hard way, that weight was in and of itself a distraction from the beauty of the trail. And so I began trimming pounds and leaving crap at home. Soon enough, I was trotting across the Flat Tops with little more than repurposed, light-weight backcountry ski pack and a pair of cheap running shoes.
Had I not run through the night under the foot of Triangle mountain pausing to bivouac on a tundra plain, for instance, I would never have awoken to a herd of one-hundred and fifty elk stepping around my camp. A race would have spoiled that moment or simply made it impossible in the first place.
Of those days, the ones I remember most clearly are the ones where I moved across the land “light, easy and smooth.” And I’ve got a long list of memories — running with a pack of coyotes, seeing the sun rise from atop many fourteeners, trotting along under a meteor shower completely feeling my way through twisted roots and random stones, or just that simple, contemplative quiet you can only find somewhere after the wilderness sign — these are way more important to me than a stack of numbers pinned to a peg board on a wall.
There is a trail aesthetic that you cannot appreciate when you are focused on a finish line or your personal best. I cannot at any rate. These arbitrary, internal goals are also distractions from my mindful trail meditations.
Every time I glance down at my GPS to check my average pace I am also closing down my ability to appreciate my surroundings. When I pay more attention to the footfalls of the guy catching me up, I am also paying less attention to the summer blossoms or fall colors that line both sides of my trail.
Emphasis is an individual thing, a single person can chose to enter a trail race, yet still focus on the trail. That person is not, however, likely to place. In fact, it’s a whole lot more difficult to be surrounded by those distractions, race distractions, and still be able to acknowledge the reasons we come to the backcountry, to lonely places in the wind and rain, to the trail in the first place.
I will not say that “too much emphasis” is placed on the competitive aspects of this sport because ultimately that’s each individual runner’s decision. I’m never going to take home prize money and I would not know what to do with a trophy if I earned one, so those will never be motivating factors for me. But I also know that I’m watching what really matters, what will get me out on the trail, and keep me there.