Trail running, corsa al tramonto

I fully expect this post to rub some people the wrong way. Running is an independent action.

Why would that come with a set of obligations?

Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about obligations. Obligations at home. My obligations as an employee and small business owner. My obligations as a vegan, blogging about a non-vegan topic.

And my obligations as a runner, podcaster, HOKA ONE ONE Ambassador, coach, and voice, albeit small, within the trail and ultra running community.

Does it – should it – matter what I do and say on this blog?

Does it – should it – matter what we do and how we act on the trail?

I’m willing to bet that you’re probably nodding your head yes. Of course it matters.

Ethics. Morality. Loyalty. All things we can get behind.

But what exactly are my obligations? And what exactly are your obligations as a runner?

It’s easy to say that they exist.

It’s harder to define them.

Defining Obligations

In 4th grade, I’m asked to be a Peer Mediator for my class. Jackpot.

For weeks we skip an hour or two of class each day for training. Special lunches, fun games, it’s like an elite action hero group of which I have just become a member.

Once the training is over and I’m back into a regular routine of simple equations and fruit snacks, I’m called on to assist in my first mediation. What major world problem do I get to use my super strength to solve? A playground fight between my friend and a bully.

That’s when it hit me: I can’t play favoritism. As a mediator, I’m obligated to not join forces with my friend, and fight the evil ways of that bully. I’m required to be non-partisan and fair.

What have I gotten myself into?

My 10-year old self realized that day that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

As we go through life, we should feel a sense of obligation to give back to what has been given to us. It’s our often unspoken obligation.

For example, a few years ago when no one was reading this blog, I could write whatever I wanted and only my mom would notice. Now the momentum has grown and people are paying attention. I’m not going to lie, with that attention comes a lot of perks like, free gear, partnership opportunities, friendships, and money.

But with that attention I’ve also grown an increasingly important sense of obligation to you, the reader. A responsibility to be truthful and honest. To be vulnerable, appreciative, and respectful. To put out the best quality work I can, and release the vast majority of it for free.

Just by reading this right now, you’re doing me a solid, I owe it to you to do the same.

Running is no different.

A few weeks ago I asked the question, “Why do you run?

The responses were powerful, and almost entirely selfish.

So it begs the question: As we reap the benefits of this sport, are we automatically faced with obligations in return?


Below you’ll find what I believe to be the 7 main obligations you now face as a trail runner.

Obligations to Yourself

First and foremost, you’re obligated to take care of yourself. The second self preservation leaves the scene, your ability to run will surely follow. So that’s where we’ll start. With yourself.

What are your self obligations?

You’re obligated to:

1) Listen to your body: You are your best coach. You are your best regulator. Stats, monitors, and plans are all great until you quit listening to what your body is telling you to do.

2) Believe in yourself: Big, ambitious goals are great, but they aren’t a requirement. What is required is that you believe in yourself. Believe that you can continue running, continuing pushing, set the routine or go after the dream. You owe it to yourself to believe.

3) Respect where you are, now: There will always be a faster time or tougher route. To achieve your fullest potential, you need to respect where you are now. Live in it, and learn from it. Then push forward.

Obligations to the Trail

As trail runners, we get up close and personal with nature. It becomes our playground, escape, home, and bathroom. The trail gives a lot, which we often take without thinking twice. Repay the favor.

You’re obligated to:

1) Take care of the trail: For most, this one goes without saying. Don’t be a jackass. This includes respecting the wildlife, staying on trail, leaving no trace, and being mindful of the impact you have on the dirt beneath your feet.

2) Honor the mountains: Adventure calls many of us to the mountains, and it’s easy to get carried away. Always honor the trails and mountains, and the dangers they present. Push yourself to new limits, but take precautions and do it carefully.

Obligations to the Community

Community is one of the greatest perks we runners can ask for. I often find myself enjoying that same “elite membership” feeling I had as a newly minted Peer Mediator, and as a member of that club yourself, you have a responsibility.

You’re obligated to:

1) Be an ambassador for the sport: Chances are you picked up running because others said it would be good for your health, fun, or exciting. There are people out there waiting for you to do the same. Share your adventures, volunteer, encourage others, and demonstrate the power of this sport.

2) Celebrate all achievements: We may all share the same field, but we’re each playing our own game. Whether someone ran/walked their first 5k, qualified for Boston, or finished an ultramarathon in the middle of the pack, all achievements are worth celebrating. No matter what the pace or distance, at the end of the day we’re all just runners.

3) Thank your friends and family: Without the support of family and friends, most of us wouldn’t make it. Take time to thank them, and acknowledge the sacrifice they make each time you run.

Step It Up, Others Are Relying On You

Now’s not the time to pass your the obligations on to others.

You’re the runner, step it up. You owe it to yourself, the trail, and the community of runners out there cheering you on.

After all, there’s no such thing as free lunch.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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3 thoughts on “7 Obligations of a (Trail) Runner

  1. Thank you for this inspirational post. It is important to live up to our obligations in all aspects of life, and running is no different. I would love to hear your thoughts on your obligations as a vegan blogging about a non-vegan topic. It’s not something I see you mention very often on your own blog, though of course NMA radio is a different matter.

  2. Great post! I agree with all of these, and as a non-trail runner, my obligation as someone who runs the streets is to always be aware of cars and not to assume drivers can see me, especially when it’s dark.

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