In light of the heated discourse that's been raging in the Colorado trail-running community about a certain 100-mile race that I won't name... but it's name contains the element Pb... I think it's very appropriate that Trail Runner Magazine posed this question for it's blog symposium: As trail running grows in popularity, how should races adapt to prevent overcrowding on the trails?
Taking a stab at this question is difficult because people like to pick a fight no matter what race directors decide to do. Races that cap it's entries to a limited number are faced with a dilemma when the race becomes popular. Every year there are a bunch of whiners who complain about various race lottery systems. On the other hand, races that allow too many entrants leave a wasteland of destruction as their legacy.
When races allow more entrants past the "carrying capacity" of the environment, dealing with the needs of those people becomes a logistical nightmare. What it comes down to is being able to identify what those needs are going to be and coming up with solutions that protect our beloved trails.
The first need is for lodging for runners and their crews. A lot of races have a lodging sponsor, but let's face it, a lot of us trail-running vagabonds can't afford to stay in a nice "discounted" hotel or we just don't want to. An alternative would be for the race-director to reserve a number of nearby campsites for runners and crew. I admit that camping is not for everyone. The race director could enlist runners in the community to put up racers and crew in their homes and in exchange offer reduced entry fees or, if it's a popular race, they could offer preferred entry for the next year. The major win in both of these situations is that out-of-town racers will develop a connection to the community and will probably respect the environment better on race day. Local economies will still be buffered by the race because inevitably many people will still choose to stay in a hotel.
Another major need is for transportation. Parking is literally a nightmare for many race directors. I ran a race this year where the RD posted a carpool board for runners to link up on race morning. We were only allowed to park in the lot near the starting line if we had three or more runners in the car. She sent out frequent emails saying that she was having bad dreams at night because she was so worried that people weren't going to carpool. But it worked beautifully! Obviously it is more convenient for everyone to wake up, hop in their cars, and only worry about their own needs, but when there are incentives to getting to a race in a manner that is better for the environment, people will act accordingly.
For trail races 50 miles and over, transportation can become even more of a headache because crews are trying to move between aid stations. Let's take that race I was alluding to earlier; there were 944 starters this year with 497 finishers. Some runners tough it out with a crew of zero while others might have five or more people helping them. If we average that out to three crew members per runner, then there were initially over 2,800 crew members driving around the course. So what happened was that there were long lines of traffic on the dirt-roads leading to the aid stations with panicked crew members almost hitting runners as they tried to find parking. With big races, it's hard to get around this. Of course, if there were fewer runners to begin with, there would be less of a problem. If a race insists on being big, then they probably have the funding to offer shuttles that go between aid stations. Everyone is going to the same places, after all.
Let's move on to the need for disposing of nutrition/hydration waste. More and more races are becoming cup-free races, meaning that they require you to bring your own bottle to refill at aid stations. Often they will still have cups for soda and sports drinks, but most races choose recyclable cups and some are even using real cups and doing post-race dishes! The biggest problem, though, is that races aren't adamant enough about runners only throwing away trash at aid stations in designated receptacles. It's a familiar scene at big races with gel packets strewn all over the course. This is something that the nutrition industry could start to combat as well. Companies like Hammer and EFS produce flasks in which you can carry multiple servings of nutrition and then you can re-use the flasks for your next run. If we, as consumers, started looking for alternatives to single-serving energy products then companies would start making more environmentally friendly options.
There's also the essential need of disposing of human waste. Hey, we all have got to do it and since it is uncomfortable to talk about race organizers ignore it and send hordes of un-educated people who are about to experience exercise-induced IBS into the pristine wilderness. What can races do to combat this? Brief people before the race and tell people that they need to go a certain distance off trail and that they need to either pack out TP or bury it depending on how sensitive the environment is. Once it is talked about, people feel less awkward about it. Races can provide port-a-potties at aid stations and where that is not possible they can provide trowels for people to run off and do their business. Another wild idea: I've been on group backpacking trips where we dig a big hole for the entire group to use and in some national parks they will have these designated areas as well. You go in the hole, you deposit your TP and sprinkle it with some dirt, and then it's ready for the next person. Races could dig these holes periodically alongside the course and mark them with signage. Then at the end of the race, send someone to go fill them in.
Finally, there's a need for basic education of trail preservation. Trails get muddy all of the time. What do uneducated runners do? They run alongside the trail to avoid the mud, therefore widening the trail. It's best for the environment not to run on muddy trails, but race directors can't exactly control the weather. The same great race that I mentioned early that encouraged carpooling also was adamant about runners not going off trail during the race. This race siphoned runners onto single-track after less than a half mile causing a huge back up. When runners tried to cut the line and go off trail, there were plenty of people to yell at them. When you think about it, during races longer than a marathon you're going to be out there long enough that cutting the trail to pass people in the beginning isn't worth it.
It's really all about having a basic respect for a place. If you lived near a wilderness area and a bunch of people came and pooped everywhere, widened the trail, and trashed the place would you be happy? A lot of races hosted by locals do a good job of encouraging responsible trail use. If you hear of a race organization that isn't conducting itself in an environmentally-friendly way then there is one very powerful thing you can do. Don't run it. If it's a smaller organization then you could always send the RD a friendly note with some suggestions. You could even start your own race using some of these suggestions! The more races there are, the more options people have, and the less crowded each individual race will be.