I have a confession to make: I used to hop the gate at Shawnee Mission Park to run the trails when they were closed. Not all the time, mind you. If the trails were a soupy, soggy mess then running was not a consideration, but if they were simply damp then I’d take a look around to ensure no park rangers were present, and then slip past the gate and head down the trail. If the ground was simply tacky and didn’t stick to the soles of my shoes, I’d keep on going. If my feet sunk in, then I’d bail out of the woods and opt for the pavement instead.
The gates at the trailhead really were closed to keep the mountain bikes off the trail… at least that’s the rationale I told myself. It sounded like a good excuse, even if it wasn’t honest. It was behavior that I learned from others as a trail newbie, and it let me get away with doing what I wanted to do. I told myself I was really being a responsible trail user; mountain bikers who hopped the gates and left muddy treads were doing the real damage.
I don’t hop the gate anymore, and I haven’t in a few years. During my nearly five years in the sport I’ve seen some of the damage that I’ve caused, and I’m disappointed in myself. I run there now and see the erosion on the Violet Trail, and it makes me sad because I know I probably caused some of it. I’m thankful that wiser, more experienced trail-running friends – some of them who built the very trails that I love running on throughout the city – have educated me about the amount of time that volunteers spend building and maintaining the trails. They’ve educated me about how the type of soil we have in Kansas is different from other places, thus it is more easily damaged. They’ve taught me how to be a more responsible trail-user, and I’ve been able to absorb that knowledge and grow from it by putting my pride aside and not being too damn stubborn to admit that I can sometimes be the problem.
I’ve also done a trail work day at Clinton State Park, so I’ve put some sweat equity into those trails and learned that it’s not as easy as it looks. Far more, I’ve frequently seen trail maintenance volunteers – mostly mountain bikers – out working on the trails while I’m enjoying my Saturday long run. I make a point of telling them “thank you” as I pass by because I realize their volunteer efforts are allowing me to enjoy my passion.
I’d like to think that I’ve come full circle as a trail-runner, having transitioned from doing as I please while blaming trail damage on the mountain bikers, to becoming someone who stays off the trails when they’re sloppy, chats with mountain bikers on the trails, and readily acknowledges that the bikers put in far more maintenance work than the runners. But the reality is that I can do a whole lot more. I can volunteer my time and sweat to trail work, and I can do a much better job of communicating with other branches of the broader Kansas City trail community. Saying hi and telling a mountain biker to “have a good ride” as our paths cross is polite, but it isn’t exactly a deep conversation full of substance and understanding.
That lack of meaningful communication between trail-runners, mountain bikers, and other trail users is a problem. It has been a lingering problem within the Kansas City trail-using community since before I started running the trails, and last weekend it was the worst that I’ve ever seen. A storm has been quietly brewing for a long time, and in the aftermath of Saturday’s Free State Trail Runs at Clinton State Park it finally erupted in a way that was far more destructive to the community than it was to the trails that were so badly damaged.
Our community is in crisis mode now. How we respond to it will have a profound impact on the future of trail relations and all trail activities in the area. Regardless of our activity of choice, all of our respective trail user groups are to blame for this in some way, and we all bear some personal responsibility for it, including me.
The question now is whether we’re finally ready to grow up, expect better of ourselves, work together, and treat each other with genuine respect?
The Clinton trails were badly trashed on Saturday at the Free State Trail Runs. That’s not debatable. The destruction was unintentional, and it is important to recognize that the trails were dry and rain was not falling when the races began. A storm popped up mid-race, with runners already scattered throughout the 20-mile loop. If runners had been pulled from the course at that point, the trails would still have sustained damage – maybe not as much, but arguing about that at this point is a waste of oxygen. What’s done is done.
The race continued, and the trail conditions continued to deteriorate beyond recognition in some parts.
It must have become apparent quickly that a huge effort would become necessary to repair the trails. From various reports, during and after crossing the finish line numerous runners at Saturday’s race talked amongst themselves about what they could do to repair the damage that was done. They cared about what had happened, and they wanted to be a part of the solution.
That effort would require the man-power and woman-power of the massive Kansas City trail-running community, and it also would need the experienced leadership and instruction of mountain bikers and other trail users who do the bulk of the trail maintenance, possess the most tools, and can best instruct on proper trail-building technique. In short, a unified effort was necessary.
Instead of communication and unity, however, some people turned to social media and let their true colors shine. An inferno of distrust between trail-users was unleashed.
Our community’s dirty little secret was out of the box and on full fiery display.
The Free State Trail Runs were not yet complete when the social media venom started flying. It began with a passionate but civil inquiry about the plan for repairing the damaged Clinton trails. It was met with positive responses – at first – with runners inquiring about opportunities to donate time and/or money to the repair effort.
Civility didn’t last long, however. It quickly deteriorated into a quagmire of angry mountain bikers finger-pointing at runners; defensive runners dismissing the accusatory language; runner-on-runner shouting matches; and a few out-of-town runners who don’t know our dirt or care about our trails (some of them; not all, of course) insinuating that protecting trail quality is a sign of personal weakness.
There were even threats of physical violence between individuals should they cross paths on the trail in the future. It was shameful, disgraceful, and embarrassing.
Sweeping generalizations about entire groups put everybody on the defensive against each other as all sorts of good, well-intentioned people were labeled as destructive, insensitive vandals. Some who claimed to want to repair the trails gave their target audience plenty of reasons to stay away.
Some people pleaded for civility, but most were met with snark.
Many long-time trail stewards, some who built much of Kansas City’s trail system weighed in on Facebook with concern and constructive input. Others didn’t post anything but “liked” a constructive comment. Most of them soon found themselves kicked out of the Kansas City Trail Nerds’ Facebook group – myself included.
I reached out to Ben Holmes, the Free State Trail Runs race director, Trail Nerds boss and moderator of the Facebook page to inquire why, and I was told it was accidental. I was promptly reinstated, although others have not been, which I’ve made clear isn’t helpful as it silences important voices and creates unnecessary division in our community at a time when unity is needed most.
I was informed of vandalism to Ben’s vehicle, and that he received threats after the race. That’s disturbing to think about, but given the tone of some individuals on social media, it’s not hard to believe. Such behavior is damaging to our greater community. Ben deserves better that; we all do.
What was lacking during all of the weekend uproar was respectful discourse. It seemed nobody took a moment to put their rage aside and try to understand the circumstances of what happened, why it happened, and how it could be fixed. Everyone had a right to be upset, but not to be disrespectful.
Runners were blamed, yet it was not raining when the race began. Volunteers were blamed – as though it would be acceptable to abandon their post and put others in danger. Ben was blamed, yet few of us are willing to bear the pressures of being a race director, and even fewer of us would want to be faced with halting an event once it was well under way. That’s not a burden I’d want to bear, and I can’t honestly tell you what my decision would have been had I been in his shoes.
Discourse can be difficult. It requires us to actually talk to each other, try to understand each other, show respect for each other – and maybe even work together. While difficult, discourse is a far more effective tool than joining the Facebook lynch mob. It doesn’t solve anything. It just adds kindling to what ultimately will become a raging bonfire.
AN OPPORTUNITY TO COME TOGETHER – IF WE DON’T SCREW IT UP
Amid all of the ugliness that was unleashed following the Free State Trail Runs, there is a flicker of opportunity in our community. It’s hard to fathom such negative discourse could spark such glimmering hope, but it’s there if we choose to capitalize.
I’m talking about all of us trail-users.
The trails that have been damaged can be repaired if we put in the time to fix them. In that same vein, our damaged trail-using community doesn’t have to erode away. We can fix it if we all work together, and that is starting to happen.
As the social media blaze has smoldered and the heat has cooled, the last 72 to 96 hours have seen more discourse between the trail-user groups than I can recall witnessing ever before. Some of it has taken place on social media, but much of it is happening offline via email or actual human-to-human conversation. Imagine that!
The Lawrence Trail Hawks are in discussions with the Kansas Trails Council and have volunteers lined up and ready to work on the Clinton trails once KTC sounds the horn. Ben Holmes said he has a meeting set up with KTC and the Park Director at Clinton State Park to ensure the Trail Nerds do their part to repair the damage. Cliff Jones from the Trail Masons has coordinated a work day this Sunday at Wyandotte County Lake Park, and a few trail-runners have answered the call to “earn their dirt.”
I’m also seeing more inquiries than ever before from people wanting to know where trail work day notices are posted and if they can be better cross-promoted across trail-use groups because so many folks want to give back.
Last weekend opened a lot of eyes to some of the negativity that has been hidden within our community, but it gave us a tremendous opportunity to rally. I am incredibly encouraged that so many folks seem intent on not wasting this moment.
We all have a role to play in this, and it starts with treating each other better.
Ask yourself: Why do you run? Why do you ride? Why do you hike? What is it that draws you to the trails? If you participate in trail maintenance, what is it that you love about manipulating the dirt into a sustainable source of outdoor adventure?
What is your true motivation?
Chances are, your answers are very similar to just about everybody else out in the woods who shares the trails with you. That can be a powerful bond, and it can be a tremendous opportunity to do a whole lot of good. Let’s stop screwing it up.
We all can do better.