Why Trail Races Matter

How events like the recent Salomon x Public Lands Trail Fest gather communities and provide the experiences that fuel trail runners.

For the uninitiated, trail running is just what it sounds like: running over rough, uneven terrain (often singletrack trails) for fitness, for pleasure and, sometimes, for sport. While similar in spirit to the road-going variety of running in terms of movement, trail running has a draw that’s all its own. It often attracts a breed who delight in the scruffiness of the endeavor, throwing themselves into the elements of thicket-riddled parks and forests to have a good romp in mixed terrain—soaked shoes and muddy legs be damned.

Or, at least outsiders to the sport might think it’s some crazed and wildly different subculture of running, sharing some mechanics and fashions, but predominated by different athlete types with different goals. But like any sport designed to test yourself against a distance to complete—where times, mileage, and pacing are important to some—most trail runners derive the pleasure from the doing, rather than the attaining. So, for some run-curious types, making the leap to something new requires the right encounter. 

That’s where the right event matters. It can provide the structure for that chance to do, to try and to experience what fuels the passion in so many trail runners. Enter the Salomon x Public Lands Trail Fest. The inaugural race gathering, which launched this October 1, offered participants both 5K and 10K route options, utilizing the single- and double-track, multi-use trails (including a small segment of the Rachel Carson Trail) of the greater Pittsburgh area’s North Park, not far from the Public Lands store in Cranberry Township.

Here are the reasons why you should put this and other community-oriented trail running events on your calendar to keep that spark of doing alive. 

Open to All 

Of the 140 or so folks who pre-registered for the event, some 75 lined up ahead of the timing chute, despite the wind, steady (and often driving) rain, and temperatures in the low 50s at the 5:30 p.m., Saturday evening start time. The intrepid participants ranged in age from middle school to retiree, and also included at least one infant, who completed the course sleepily strapped to their mother. An Ohio family of four made the drive out to take part in the race. Equally impressive, the diversity in fitness and gear on display, reinforcing the idea that you don’t need much to play in the dirt (or mud). 

Not everyone needed the most technical, or even the most functional, gear to race (looking at you, cargo pant guy). Despite the differences in dress, it was the lack of clothing that distinguished the most competitive among the crowd of fun-seekers. “The better you get at trail running,” said one racer, eyeing an individual wearing naught but short-shorts and shoes, despite the chill, “the less clothes you wear.

A family of runners poses for a photo at the Salomon x Public Lands Trail Fest

Competitive Spirit

Though first-timer and elite-level participants were on hand, ostensibly, to compete against one another, the on-course vibe was much more celebratory of a shared experience than cut-throat competition. Take the kid who’d beaten his whole family (and would undoubtedly remind his brother and parents of that fact all the way back to Ohio), suddenly their fiercest ally upon spotting their approach to the finish, where he ran next to them and shouted encouragement until they crossed the line together. There were, of course, a handful of folks who were there to race (see the full results here), but they were the exception, not the rule. This was by design, says Public Lands Community Manager Steven Wood. “[We wanted the event to be] fun, challenging and connecting [people] with one another,” Wood said of the well-integrated mix of semi-pros and average joes. “Hopefully friends and family had fun together and new friends and running companions were made during the event.” 

Local Connection 

With the help of local trail running group North Park Trail Runners, who supported the event with tabling and marketing, and sponsors like Salomon, Silipint, and Stick City Brewing, the humble event—while very much a small, regional affair—had an air of ambition and promise for more in the future. As the participants found their way to the finish line, feet contacting the ground in time to the music thrumming from one of two park pavilions that flanked the track, they were each cheered on by those who’d been awaiting their arrival, or had already finished. Towels and blankets passed around helped wipe away some of the accumulated mud and grit, a Stick City pint (for those of age) and DIY-nacho bar care of local plant-based eatery Veggie N’at providing warmth and replenishment in the pavilions. Each participant also earned a Trail Fest T-shirt and Silipint pint “glass,” and top-three finishers in each distance received Salomon shoes and Public Lands gift cards. (For those who didn’t podium, Salomon was on hand to demo its latest and greatest, notably the new Speedcross 6.) 

Shared Stoke To Inspire

As finishers exchanged the cutting-edge footwear for their more-worn treads, thanks and compliments handed out in equal measure. And though the idea of strengthening bonds through the camaraderie of a common experience (especially in which participants suffer, at least a little) is nothing new (see: militaries, corporate retreats and Tough Mudders), its practice when the trail chips are down and when the adverse conditions are best described as “character-building,” is what marks it in the memory banks. The proof was in the chatter at the pavilions, where racers gathered over refreshing pints and warm nachos, donning blankets to stave off the chill: Complete strangers exchanging stories about the evening’s exertion, from “that hill was so hard!” to the answer of “I walked it” from another. That shared elation is the community-building block that will endure and ensure that more runners hit trails and attend festival events for years to come.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.