There has recently been an increased focus on the environmental impact of trail running and races. So what's the answer? No trail races? Should everyone just run on treadmills? Oh wait that uses electricity powered by coal plants. And likely the treadmill is in some concrete structure changing earth's albedo. So that doesn't help. Running on the roads presents many of the same issues with the concrete jungle. Then there are all the people that drive to trailheads. Now it’s not even just the trails that are damaged. These people, myself included, must really be out to get Mother Earth I guess. You could literally go in circles for months discussing all the ways running negatively impacts the environment.
There are always going to be a few people who can't be bothered to throw out their gel packets at aid stations, who prefer to shortcut trails and in general don't respect trails. You're never going to completely solve this problem. But I think in general when you get someone in their first trail race or just out on their first trail run and they see how unbelievably beautiful it is this person gains a new respect for trails and their environment. You can show pictures and talk a big game all you want, but the best way to get someone to understand is to show it to them.
I'll never forget my first trail run. Now I didn't immediately run home and volunteer to help rebuild trails or make any sort of conscious effort to protect the trails. But it gave me a new appreciation for trails and I knew I wanted to run trails for a long time to come. My first trail was at the Reforestation Camp in Green Bay. My college cross country team went for a gorgeous fall run. I’ll seriously never forget that feeling of just being lost in the middle of the forest, the soft dirt and pine needles beneath my feet, the smell of fresh air and the way running just came easily that day. I was hooked. In one of my first trail races I crested the top of Blue Sky basin in Vail and literally had to stop for a moment to take in the amazingly beautiful the view. I had run a load of races in some pretty cool areas, but nothing has captured my heart like trails. In almost every trail race I’ve run I’ve had a moment that just took my breath away and I can recount every single one of those moments. I would never intentionally do anything to harm these amazing places that mean so much to me.
As someone who spends the majority of their weeks working on cleaning up petroleum leaks and spills I think there are bigger battles to fight than the environmental impact from trail races. I try to pick up pieces of gel wrappers I see on the ground when I'm out running. I throw out all my wrappers at aid stations, carry my own water bottle, I try to avoid muddy trails, don't shortcut trails...all the typical respect the trails things. But I'm also not going to start boycotting races with too large of fields and I'm not going to start getting on races to reduce their impact. I've got bigger battles of my own to fight so I'll continue to do my small part and call it good. In my humble opinion the benefits of trail races outweigh the downfalls.