I mentioned that I was part of a weird congested train of runners for several miles at my trail race on Saturday. By the time the huge group of people leap frogged around the person at the front of the train (Who was wearing headphones, I’ll get to that in a second), we were probably close to mile 3 which is a long time to be that congested. The problem is, it’s hard to pass people on a “single track” trail. That’s what “single track” means – it’s basically wide enough for one person. And, unless you’re the winner of the race, someone’s probably going to want to pass you at some point. And even the winner might get passed once as we all have different times we want to surge ahead.
My point? Everyone needs to know how to pass and be passed if needed. Unless you are trying to win and really don’t want people passing you, but then – obviously – none of this applies to you.
See…if you’re highly competitive, you might not worry about the rest of the racers so much…you’re running your own race. But, that means you’re probably in a different “race pack” to begin with where you’re surrounded by other aggressive runners who have no problem just whizzing around people on the trails. But I’m a COMPLETER, not a COMPETER, and in my race pack we’re all athletes, but not necessarily out to whip around everyone in front of us. So, if you’re an average runner out to enjoy a trail race for the exercise and the experience and not necessarily the type of person that’s going to be just zig-zagging around the slower runners in front of you without a care for anything but keeping your pace? You’re probably in a different race pack than I am and this stuff is not as important.
But – if you think you’ll be a middle-of-the-pack type of runner, or slower, here are some tips to keep from causing huge traffic jams.
YOU NEED TO BE ABLE TO HEAR.
And the #1 way to make sure you can hear? DO NOT WEAR HEADPHONES. Or, at least only put ONE bud in. Especially in the winter when we’re all wearing head wraps to stay warm anyway, adding headphones to the mix? Just makes you deaf.
Trail runners are so nice. Seriously. I love this community. I’ve only had one really shitty experience and it was early on, and I’ve been doing this for 4 seasons now…so one bad experiences is AWESOME. Overall? They’re all wonderful people. And no one really wants to loudly yell, “I NEED BY ON YOUR LEFT!” As a matter of fact, most of them try to avoid pointing out they’re passing you all together. They try to just find a spot to get around you. So, you need to be able to hear them behind you so maybe you can save them the trouble and say, “Do you need by?” Most trail runners will not hover on your heals if they’re okay behind you. If you’re setting a good pace, they’ll stay a little further back. If they’re on your heals and you can hear them there? They probably want by. If you don’t want them to pass you? You might want to speed up. If you like your pace? They’re going to want around you. Ideally they’ll say, “I’m going to pass on your right,” or “On your left!” depending on which way they think is the safest way around you. (On bikes you always pass on the left, but sometimes on a trail that’s not safe so it’s good to tell them which side you’re choosing.) But, sometimes they just are waiting for a good time to sneak around you. Either way? You need to be able to hear them.
I am certain I heard at least two people vocally warn the guy they were going to pass him on Saturday and he didn’t indicate he heard them in any way. As a matter of fact, he hopped to the left around a puddle about 1 second after someone said, “On your left.” So, I don’t think he was hearing people warn him, which probably made everyone in the pack nervous about passing him which slowed the leap-frogging down. If someone says, “On your left!” to me, I’ll say, “Thanks!” or sometimes I’ll even scoot to the other edge if I can. I always want them to know I hear them so they don’t have to worry about me jumping the wrong direction when they’re trying to pass me.
Either way? I need to be able to hear. AT ALL TIMES. Whether it’s footsteps behind me or verbal announcements.
UNDERSTAND: NOT EVERYONE TAKES WALK BREAKS
A lot of trail runners power walk/hike up the steep hills. There’s a lot of reasons for this, but this was my method on Saturday. But, especially early on when I could hear crowds behind me, I knew I’d be slowing down my pack every time I took a walk break. SO! Every time I did, I called an audible. “I’m walking up this hill! Feel free to pass me!” I would even try to give people space on my left to pass since it was SO early and the crowd was SO thick. Now, a lot of those people passing me, I passed later…that’s something you just accept on a trail race. We all have different strengths so you do a lot of leap-frogging. But that’s okay! Just be aware, if there’s anyone behind you on a single-track race when you decide to walk? YOU DON’T HAVE BREAK LIGHTS. Therefore, you need to let them know you’re stopping AND that you’re aware they’re coming around you.
UNDERSTAND: SOME PEOPLE RUN THE DOWNHILLS
Trail running is terrifying when you first start because these rocky downhills covered in roots and limbs seem like a death trap. It took me a long time and taking a lot of advice to feel comfortable running a lot of the downhills. And if it’s a new downhill? I’m still SUPER cautious so if I were to do an out-of-town race, I’d probably go really slow on the downhills. So, especially if you hit a downhill early in a race when it’s still congested? Be aware that a lot of people may want to fly down that hill and if you’re not one of them? It’s frustrating and a little dangerous to be blocking their path. I have stood to the side and let 10 people pass me before, because I had no desire to be the front end of a gravity-powered pile-up. And you standing off the trail for 10 seconds while 10 people pass you is going to keep you from being the engine on a 10 person train. I’ve done this SO MANY TIMES.
But – I’m also really good on some downhills. Or at least “really good” by the “middle of the pack” standards. So! Saturday I had a goal. To find a faster pack to hang with until after the first major downhill. I didn’t want to walk that first downhill because it’s a long one and I could bank good time if I took it fast. Since I’m slow on the uphills, banking time on the downhills really helps. So, I flew around people the first mile I might not have normally passed, just so I could get with a good strong pack going down Sinks. And it worked BEAUTIFULLY. I stayed in the middle of this strong, fast-moving pack all the way down the mountain. It was one of the best early-in-a-race downhill experiences I’ve ever had. Since I’m slower, I start in the back often, but that screws me if there’s an early downhill.
Now, of course all of those people had to pass me later, but I like to think – because of the reasons above – I made that easy as pie.
EVERYTHING IS BETTER AFTER THE CROWD THINS OUT
The truth is – no one likes the crowds in the early mile(s) of a trail race. Many race directors plan the first mile(s) intentionally to give the pack time to thin out. Once you can’t hear anyone on your heals, and once you’re not constantly try to decide if you should pass the person in front of you, you’re free to run your own race. One that crowd FINALLY thinned out around the guy with the headphones? I relaxed into my zone much easier. Trail racing is tough because no one runs a consistent pace the whole thing. Person A might be your perfect pace on a flat stretch, but then they speed up more than you do on the downhills, or they slow down more than you do on the uphills. I’m a strong walker, but I’m short, so there are some people I can pass even as I’m walking uphill, but others who get trapped behind me and my slow legs, even if they’re walking!
The point? You want the crowd to thin out as quick as possible so anything you can do to help that, whether it’s stepping out of your comfort zone to yell at the guy with the headphones, “I AM PASSING YOU ON YOUR LEFT!” or whether it’s stepping off trail for 5 seconds to let the people flying down the hill behind you get past, it kinda takes a village to get everyone in the right place early on in the race. And that village needs to be aware of all of the other villagers. It also helps if all of the villagers are kind. Which, in my experience, most in my middle-of-the-pack are. (Honestly, I’m probably more back-of-the-pack, but let’s not worry about that right now!)
ONE STORY ABOUT THE AWESOMENESS OF TRAIL RUNNERS
I help with a No Runner Left Behind trail running group on Sundays. This Sunday there was an icy/dangerous crossing at the very end of our run and by the time the back of the group got there (Probably a good 30 minutes behind the lead) there were still two fast guys waiting there to make sure everyone got across okay. That was AWESOME. I wanted to hug them both but I didn’t because that would be weird.