The Soul Will Always Be There

A community member’s thoughts on the commercialization of trail running, and the existence in harmony of grassroots community events alongside bigger commercial races.

By on October 24, 2023 | Comments

[Editor’s Note: This month’s Community Voices article is written by ultrarunner and iRunFar reader, Brooks Marion.]

The soul of trail running is alive and well in communities around the world.

In October each year in my own community, a group of about 40 trail runners gather in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, to run a one-mile loop that was built in a member of the community’s backyard. Located 45 minutes outside of the capital city of Jackson, Crystal Springs is known locally as the “Tomatopolis of the World.” The Mississippi Ultra and Trail Society (MUTS), based out of Jackson, goes down there to set up their final race of the year — the Clear Creek Ultra.

I say race, but it’s much more of a celebration of the community and the running accomplishments of the year. Participants of the race are encouraged to camp out the night before to grow the community and enjoy a night of good fun. The next morning, the sun hasn’t fully risen, but people are moving about the property setting up tables and mingling around the barn. People who did not camp out the night before are catching up on life, laughing, reminiscing about previous running events, sharing donuts, and drinking coffee.

Clear Creek Ultra - MUTS volunteers

Mississippi Ultra and Trail Society volunteers at the Clear Creek Ultra. All photos courtesy of Brooks Marion unless otherwise noted.

The 7 a.m. race start nears as everyone gathers at a makeshift starting line, from which they will run that one-mile loop as many times as they desire over the next 10 hours. The whistle blows, and people head off into the woods. Upon their return to the start/finish area, they are greeted with pancakes and bacon. Around noon, pizza has arrived at the barn, and the beer is starting to flow.

Some of these people will run for all 10 hours, and others may only do one lap. Regardless, these people are part of the community that I hold so near and dear to my heart. They are trail runners, ultrarunners, and are continuing the essence and soul of this sport in a place where most people would not expect it.

A big topic of conversation the past couple of years in the trail running community has been the quick influx of money into the sport. UTMB joined forces with Ironman, Spartan has purchased several big races, and shoe and apparel companies are becoming more involved in the sport. There’s a dividing question in the community if things are going to change.

Certainly, this large influx of money brings with it positive changes: our professional athletes will get paid more, our races can be much more financially stable, and our trails can be cleaned up and taken care of.

But there’s also a fear that it could bring changes that aren’t so positive: commercialization isn’t always a good thing. The money might be allocated incorrectly or with poor intentions.

The most important thing that people are worried about is if the soul of the sport will change. For many of us, the reason that we got into trail running is because it feels different. A lot of the pressure that comes with road running or triathlon is left behind. Speed becomes less relevant in favor of experience. Trail running is a chance to commune with nature, to push one’s body in beautiful places, and meet likeminded people who choose to spend their Saturdays pushing themselves on beautiful trails. None of us want that to change.

2023 UTMB photo gallery - start

The busy start of the 2023 UTMB. Photo: iRunFar/Kirsten Kortebein

I understand all those concerns, and I agree with the rationale behind them completely. What we need to be reminded of is that this sport exists wherever there is a trail on which to run. For the past three years I’ve lived in Mississippi and only competed in trail races that have been in the deep south of the U.S. Prior to living in Mississippi, I lived and trained in Colorado. My first 50k was the Continental Divide 50k in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

When I came back to Mississippi, I did not expect to find trail running, much less a dedicated group that puts on four races every year in the area around Jackson. Most of the sponsorship for these races comes from local businesses, most of those businesses being owned by people who run all the local races.

It’s not hard to believe that there is no big corporate money being thrown at the races that I am running. Despite that, I’ve felt a stronger sense of community and what this sport is all about here than I did during my time in Colorado. The soul and essence of trail running exists in the people who make it happen. It exists in pockets of people all over the world who have the desire to plan a race on a local trail that they love, knowing that they may lose money in the process. They do it because they love it.

Brooks Marionn - Clear Creek Ultra

The author out on the loop at the Clear Creek Ultra.

All that being said, I am still very much in favor of the sport attracting more money. More money entering the sport has made my experience as a fan much more exciting. Having the opportunity to watch livestreams of UTMB and the Western States 100 the past two years has been incredible.

Watching the livestream of UTMB this year in particular gave me a renewed sense of purpose in my endeavors in the sport. I want to run that race, and I spent the next few days looking into how to get a UTMB Index score and what races I needed to do to get enough stones to get into the race.

On the flip side of this, I know that my local races will probably never see a huge influx of money, and that is perfectly fine with me. I will still run them to experience my local community and the trails that we call our own. A lot of local trail runners will never run UTMB or the Western States 100, but rather aspire to run the local 100-mile race in North Carolina or Mississippi. Their experience is just as valid as someone who only aspires to procure Running Stones from the UTMB World Series.

Trail running has been around for a very long time. It existed before people were putting on races for thousands of people, and it will last as long as we take care of our natural places and care for our trails. I believe everyone in our community can rest easy knowing that all over the world there are people making this sport happen, with or without a lot of money behind them. They are doing it because they love the trails, and they love running them.

I know that I’ll always be able to find some grizzled old timer putting on a 50k in their backyard, or on a trail that they have called home since they were young. When this article is published, I will have already run this year’s Clear Creek Ultra, down in the middle of nowhere in Mississippi. I know it will be a fantastic day, surrounded by a group of people that love trail running and love the community.

That is the soul of trail running, and that won’t ever go away.

Clear Creek Ultra - Barn and Tent Set Up

The barn and start-finish area of the Clear Creek Ultra.

Call for Comments

  • Are there any local grassroots events in your area like the Clear Creek Ultra?
  • Do you have a preference for smaller, local events over big commercial events, or do you find space for both on your own race calendar?
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