Sunday, April 13, 2014

Let's not commercialize the training run!

Step three is profit!
"I love capitalism!"  my friend Ana used to say. Growing up in Sarejevo, Ana was always annoyed by carrying ski boots back to the car.  But in the US, they made these little devices - a handle with a loop of string - to carry the boots.  Someone makes them because everybody buys them.  Hooray capitalism!

I should have just used the one on the right. 

Similarly, commercialization has brought some wonderful gear to trail running.  As an example, last year, I had a packable windbreaker, for hiking, that was cut poorly for running.  I also had a running windbreaker that didn't pack well, and barely tied around my waist.  Now?  I own a packable running windbreaker, and I had several to choose from. I'm happy to pay for great gear.

But is commercialism a threat to our sport?  I can see one trend that frightens me.  It isn't sponsored athletes or pricey races. It's the commodification of training runs.  

I'm doing just fine, thanks. 
Like many, I dabbled in triathlon before taking up ultrarunning.  At my first race, all the women I racked near asked me which "team" I trained with.  Apparently, most of the locals spent their weekends at clinics and workshops run by one of three commercial enterprises.  I trained by myself?  Wow!  How did I have the confidence to do something like that?
It didn't take long before the trainers themselves approached me personally, and tried to hard sell me on these clinics.  They both took the angle that I MUST be terrified of open water swimming, and they could help!  On and on about my fear of open water swimming.  The truth?  I'm a strong swimmer and dangerously full of hubris.  Another truth?  I don't like being harassed by salespeople.  So I left triathlon. 

A similar dynamic exists in the hiking community.  When my husband and I lived in NYC, we regularly crossed paths with guided hikes run by the Appalachian Mountain Club, which, while technically not a business, collects money for guided hikes.  The guides were very upset that we were heading out to the trail with just each other for company.  On one occasion, an AMC guide barged into a restaurant near the trailhead, and interrupted our pancake breakfast to announce that HE AND THE REST OF THE GROUP WOULD BE LEAVING WITHOUT US.  Another time, an AMC guide demanded to see the contents of our backpacks, so he could determine if we were "adequately prepared" to be on the trails without his superior expertise.  Considering that one is never more than a mile from the road in the Metro New York area,  it's hard to justify such concern.  We lived to hike again, in case you were wondering.   
Can you believe we'd endanger our children like this!?!?!?

Now, I fully understand a desire to hike, train, or run with a group.  I'm not even concerned about athletes signing on with a coach.  And those destination events, like Geoff Rose's camp in Alaska?  While pricey, I can see the value in several days worth of guided runs in a strange and beautiful place. 

What bothers me is when coaches and leaders recruit clients by instilling fear and undermining an athlete's self-confidence, which was what I observed both with the AMC and the triathlon coaches. Frankly, it's irresponsible and dangerous.   Earlier this month, Bob Root got separated from a trail running group and was missing in Foresthill CA, for two days.  He was apparently without a map, compass, or water purification.  Did he just presume that others were bringing these?  Or did he genuinely not know that one should carry some essential items out on the trail?  I don't want to see more people getting lost because they didn't prepare and just ceded that responsibility to some guide.

I hope "commercial training runs" isn't a growth industry, and I dread the day that every trail runner is viewed as a potential new client.   Recently, I went out on a group trail run and a women who claimed to be a personal trainer attempted to recruit the entire group for a series of non-competitive trail runs, for which she was going to charge a fee - and she was going to teach us all "how to do it".  It was uncomfortable.  I  don't want to have to dodge groups of trail runners every weekend to avoid the annoyance of a sales pitch. 

I've heard other complaints about commercialization from trail runners, but I think I benefit from most of them.  I personally enjoy following sponsored athletes.  I love the gear, and up here in New England, the few "for profit" races are moderately priced and a pleasure to participate in.  However, I'm afraid the commercialization of the weekend training run is going to be done by preying on runners' insecurities, and guides are going to stay in business by discouraging their athletes from taking personal responsibility.  Are we approaching an era when a substantial amount of trail runners never venture into the woods without a paid escort?   That's too much commercialization for me.

This blog post was written for the TrailRunnerMagazine April Blog Symposium: Is trail running becoming too commercialized?