Trail Sports Amid COVID-19

by Alena Klimas

COVID-19 curbed many hobbies and activities this year, especially in March when parks closed across Appalachia. Many spring and summer events were canceled or postponed. Now, as we turn the corner on summer and COVID-19 rates rise in rural areas, many race organizers and state officials wonder if more postponements or cancellations will be necessary. 

Mountain biking, trail running, and thru-hiking are generally done in isolation or small groups, but races and running groups have been hesitant to resume business as normal.

Path to Wolf Branch Trail in Bent Creek Experimental Forest near Asheville, NC. Via Alena Klimas.

Trail sports are unique in that, after the start, athletes may not see or come close to many people, especially on a single track or narrow trails.The risk of infection is mainly during registration, the start, and on the trail. 

Best Practice for Aid Stations. Via ITRA Guidelines.

Still, race directors and fans are finding ways to keep the sport going and save the season. The International Trail Running Association (ITRA) released guidance on how to host trail running events. The above ITRA graphic demonstrates how an aid station might be safely run during a race by adding tables between volunteers and athletes. Usually, runners may barge in to grab food, get hydrated, or check in with a volunteer if they encounter unexpected trouble on the run. 

Carvin’s Cove Nature Area near Roanoke, VA. Via Alena Klimas.

However, even with the changes in events, little races are taking place across the U.S. Many of the iconic Appalachian trail events in March and April were postponed until the fall, while others deferred race entries to 2021. The West Virginia Mountain Biking Association cancelled all series races this year. The fates of three, one off, trail running events demonstrate the effects of a rise in rural coronavirus rates and the creation of virtual fun runs. Major event updates in Central Appalachia include these longer distance trail races:

Kanawha Trace – Ona, West, Virginia

Race organizers canceled the Kanawha Trace in accordance with state regulations. At one point over the past few weeks, West Virginia climbed to the highest transmission rate for COVID-19 in the U.S. Like many races, the organization converted it into a virtual “fun run” and opened the event to anyone for free.

Much of the Thunderbunny course traces Dow Lake. Via Flickr.

Thunderbunny – Strouds Run, Athens, Ohio

Thunderbunny is southeast Ohio’s premier ultra trail race with 50k, 30k, and 12k distances available. The race faced a similar fate to the Kanawha Trace because Athens saw a major surge in coronavirus cases that shut down many businesses. Race directors reapplied for the event in accordance with Ohio Department of Natural Resources guidelines and delayed the race until August. Yesterday, the race was canceled and so were all other events requiring permits in the area. This event is hosted by the Southeastern Ohio Trail Runners.

The Cradle to Grave Race – Pisgah Forest, North Carolina

The Cradle to Grave Race is held in the Cradle of Forestry in Pisgah Forest near Brevard, North Carolina. The race was initially planned for May, but was postponed until September. Last week, the race announced options for virtual 2020 competitions or a deferral until the 2021 race.

While cancellations can be disheartening for runners and race organizers, many trail fans are adapting to the virtual fun runs or competing on their own. Some folks are using their own neighborhoods or houses as competition zones—one man ran a marathon on his balcony. Others are setting goals and taking on big trails like the Pinhoti Trail, the “Appaloosa of Appalachia” who set the record on the trail in eastern Alabama. 

Wendy Wang, a runner in western North Carolina, still wouldn’t attend races that were open this year. Instead, Wang is participating in many of the virtual workouts, created by local groups, and challenges. She got creative and made her own challenges as well. In regards to the current racing atmosphere, Wendy said “Cancellations are necessary and wise. Races are large gatherings with poor hygiene. It sucks we can’t race this year, but this is so we could still run and race in the future.”

Many folks, experienced trail runners or interested novices, are finding their way to trails regardless of event cancellations.The rise of folks engaging has led to outdoor gear shortages—a good problem. While the pandemic continues to spoil event planning, it doesn’t mean that trails are canceled for 2020. 

For those interested in exploring trails, apps like AllTrails, Strava, and the MTB Project have hundreds of trails marked. In Appalachia,  Blue Ridge Outdoors releases excellent guides and articles on all things outdoors in the region.

Alena Klimas is a trail enthusiast based in western North Carolina. Klimas is a co-founder of expatalachians and co-manages the weekly Newsletter.