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Trail Running Ethics in the Time of Coronavirus

Respect and care, for others and the environment, are called for when heading onto the trails, now more than ever.

Imagine that everyone you may encounter on the trails is immune-compromised and that you are COVID-19 positive—so that merely breathing near them could very well result in their death. Think of them as an aging relative. Similarly, think of the sprouting, fertile ground on the edges of the trail as lava or quicksand so that stepping off the path, except on a sturdy rock or log, will result in your demise.

With these scenarios as a guide, how should you be running on the trails, or should you be there at all?

Fresh air, sun and enjoying nature are vital to both physical and mental well being. As of early April, being outside, even without a mask, is still permitted everywhere in the U.S., although masks in public are being recommended. Who knows if the privilege of running will eventually be verboten, as it is in some countries. So many things a month ago are now off limits.

Some trail systems, such as those in the Seattle area, have already been closed and the goal should be to preserve our off-road running rights by proper behavior.  “Remember that running is a privilege and should be treated as such, and that environmental considerations are as important as ever,” writes Zoe Rom, in “A Guide to Trail Etiquette in the Age of Coronavirus.” This is emphasized by local government and volunteer organizations, such as the Vail Valley Mountain Trails Alliance, who are emphasizing responsible recreation guidelines and reminding us that “Public lands access is a privilege, not a right.”

trailhead signs
Trailhead signs advising on space regulations / photo: Adam Chase

If you decide to run on the trails, here are some expectations and guidelines.

Space and Protection

Be prepared for some people to freak out when they see you running, breathing hard and possibly sweating in their general direction. Some folks think that a safe distance is 27 feet. Some studies say the virus can stay afloat in air for as long as three hours, while other studies rebut that position. If those who take the less optimistic view happen to see or hear you cough, sneeze or spit they may want to charge you with assault and battery—so try to be as respectful and cautious as possible.

An easy way to appease those who are genuinely scared is to wear a mask, scarf or Buff and pull it up to cover your mouth and nose when you see them coming towards you or as you approach them from behind. Make eye contact and, in the event you aren’t wearing a mask, a smile and friendly greeting—from a generous distance—goes a long way.

As you catch up on slower-moving folks on the trail, politely call out to them and telegraph your intention to pass, informing them on what side of the trail you are passing. Think of yourself as the moving character in a video game as you maneuver, front and back, left and right, to avoid any contact with others who may or may not be predictable in their vectors.

This is not the time to be running with headphones so that you can be alert to other users on the trail and react immediately.

Pass on Pushing the Pace

Nor is this new pandemic era the time to be pushing for a Strava segment or doing forward-only tempo work, which should be reserved for spaces or times when you can be sure you won’t encounter others.

“I’m using this time to do more things that I don’t normally get a chance to do with training and races and at lower intensities than ‘optimal training’ to explore the backyard a bit more,” says Salomon-sponsored Jackson Brill. Nancy Hobbs, executive director of the American Trail Running Association, says, “I run with my English Setter, Crimson, tethered to a hands-free leash and we turn around if I see hikers, bikers or runners coming in our direction, or take a path where we won’t encounter other individuals closer than the prescribed six-foot radius. I also find myself holding my breath when I do pass someone on the trail. It has become a habit.”

open dirt road
An appropriate place for a virtual race / photo: 101 Degrees West

Virtual racing should be reserved for deserted roads, treadmills or parking lots. It should not be something you do on trails if there is a chance of encountering human traffic, be it other runners, hikers, mountain bikers or equestrians. Racing—by definition—entails going all out and putting your head down to dig deep. That is hardly the conduct that will allow us to keep our trail running privileges during these troubled times.

A former virtual trail race supporter and director, Greg Lanctot, recently wrote a guest editorial for the American Trail Running Association, “Why We Don’t Need Virtual Trail Running Events … Right Now.” He observed: “Trail runners, hikers and cyclists are at the forefront of outdoor exercise. And, if you are paying attention to social media, ‘some’ of the runners and cyclists are going about their exercise selfishly: aggressively passing on single track trails running or cycling single-file with their buddies.”

Environmental Matters

Respect your sensitive eco-system. It is spring, a time ripe for controversy over the question of whether it is okay to trample budding wildflowers and sensitive native grasses growing on the sides of narrow paths in order to give a wide berth to other trail users. Some argue that it is worth saving lives but they overlook a significant error in their reasoning: if the runner weren’t on single track in the first place, having made the conscientious decision to forego such trails for wider dirt roads, bike paths or pavement, there would be no need to trample the precious vegetation.

While it best to run solo, if you do happen to be out with someone from your household be sure to be in single file. Try to minimize human encounters on the trail and, if you are able, run at odd hours when the trails are deserted. The nice thing about head lamps is that they act as clear signals of your presence so you won’t be surprising anyone by accident.

Avoid dangerous trail conditions, including slippery footing or any situation that increases the likelihood that you’ll need to be rescued or have to visit an already-overstressed hospital.

Government officials and park rangers have had to resort to using telescopes to police trail behavior, issuing citations for violations and track conduct that informs administrative decision on closures.

So keep it all in perspective, and consider that it may be a time to give the trails a break and hit some wide open roads. And just be happy you are still permitted to run, assuming you are able.

*Adam Chase serves as the President of the American Trail Running Association, but the views expressed in this article are his own and may differ from those of the organization.