By Ken Bonus
It was a sunny spring day and I was leading a trail work crew of ultrarunners. I was heading back down the trail making sure that everyone knew it was time to head back for lunch. As I came around a bend, I found one of our volunteers with a five-foot-long rattlesnake draped over the end of his loppers. And he was surrounded by a group of runners leaning in to get a close look. “Oh no,” I thought to myself. “This isn’t going to end well.” It turned out that our rattler rustler was a herpetologist. After everyone got a good look, the snake was carefully escorted a good distance away from the trail and gently returned to its natural habitat. Whew.
Thankfully, not every trail work outing is this exciting, but they are always hard work, and with the right combination of ingredients, lots of fun. This is the story of how our running club, San Diego Ultra Running Friends, developed a comprehensive trail work program that we call TrailFit (www.sdtrailfit.org). Each year we clear brush on about 25 miles of trail, remove over 150 downed trees, and contribute more than 1,500 volunteer hours on trails in the San Diego mountains. We oversee maintenance on 150+ miles of trails.
We started more modestly, about 12 years ago, at the request of the Forest Service. For a few years, we held 3-4 outings per year, in groups of 10-15, mainly to clear brush using a variety of hand tools. Recognizing the natural affinity between ultrarunners and food, we always provided a filling lunch for our crews. And, since San Diego was just beginning to explode with new microbreweries, lunch also included one or more growlers of local ales.
Back in 2002 and 2003, San Diego was hit by a couple of huge wildfires. Many of our favorite running trails fell victim to the blazes. On the plus side, when a fire hits, it usually burns away excess brush leaving the trail wide open. On the negative side, new growth comes rushing back in, fueled by sunshine and nutrients released from the fire. In addition, the burned out trees soon begin to rot and fall across the trails.
As this natural post-fire recovery was unfolding, we were faced with an economic recession and drastic cutbacks in funding for the state and federal agencies responsible for our backcountry. This reduced the ability of these agencies to maintain trails using their own personnel. The net effect of all this was that many trails in the San Diego mountains had become impassible. One small core group of volunteers (mostly retired guys) spent one spring frantically trying to clear minimal passageways on trails for upcoming races. We were cutting back brush that was over 20 feet high. It was time to take a new approach.
We turned to ultrarunning icon Scott Mills, race director of the San Diego 100 Mile Endurance Run. He understood the problems facing us and suggested adding a requirement that the runners in his race volunteer for a day of trail work. This brought us a new group of 90-120 hardy volunteers. Along with our core group, we started work not just to recover our trails, but to make them dramatically better. We acquired more hand tools and also power equipment (brush cutters, gas powered hedgers, etc.) and invested in training/certification with the various agencies. Later on, we even purchased a six foot, two-person crosscut saw, which we use to remove downed trees in wilderness areas where the use of power equipment is not permitted.
Soon, we had our core group working nearly every week, plus another 12-15 annual outings with ultrarunner volunteers. At first we were just trying to re-open trail corridors so that a runner could pass through. After about five years, we had restored trails to the normal trail standard of eight feet in width so that equestrians and mountain bikers could also use the trails. The TrailFit program benefits a number of San Diego area ultra races: San Diego 100 Mile Endurance Run, Cuyamaca 100K, PCT 50 Miler, Oriflamme 50K, Noble Canyon 50K, Lost Boys 50 Miler, and Mt. Laguna Trail Marathon. In turn, the race directors of these races have supported TrailFit with time, money and encouragement for runners to pitch in and help.
No, we don’t just work on trails used in our races. We have invested substantial amounts of time and energy on many other trails, as part of our way to give back to the state and federal agencies. For example, we worked with the Forest Service on a two year project to re-open the 16 mile Secret Canyon trail in the Pine Creek wilderness, which had not seen any significant maintenance in decades. When we first started working on this project, it was so overgrown that in many places we couldn’t even see the trail! Now that trail is in nearly the same condition as when it was first built in 1992.
This may sound odd, but I think the most important benefits of our TrailFit program are not the nicely groomed trails. Rather, the real importance lies in the following:
- Building a “Pride of Ownership.” Nothing makes you feel like a trail is “your trail” like working hard to clear brush, trees and rocks. It has been my privilege to work with numerous ultrarunners on trail work outings and I can say with complete confidence that our volunteers put everything they have into the work. Many other volunteers are unable or unwilling to hike long distances, work on the trail and then hike back out. Not our guys and gals. They rock!
- Building stronger relations with federal and state agencies. Because we are so actively involved with trail maintenance, our input is heard. This is especially important when other groups try to limit or prohibit our races. These agencies have their hands full trying to keep our public lands open and accessible. Helping them is simply part of being good partners.
- Building a closer sense of community. Runners get to talk with other runners about races, strategy and equipment. Oh, and don’t forget the usual trash talk. OK, just kidding. Our volunteers also get a good feeling about putting something back into our local trail system. As a result, our TrailFit program has become part of the social activities of our club and that makes our club better.
- Having fun! Sure, it’s hard work with some upper body cross training. We usually start work near first light and wrap things up around mid-day. At the end of the work, we can relax together over lunch, enjoy a beer, and reflect on the day’s accomplishments.
Want to develop a trail work program for your club? Check out our TrailFit website. If you have questions or want assistance, please feel free to contact me at email@example.com. Let’s pitch in and make our trails better for ourselves and for those who will come after.
Ken Bonus is a retired tax attorney who reluctantly gave up his back-of-the-pack running a few years ago. He usually spends 80-90 days a year outdoors doing trail work projects. He also is a home brewer and considers beer education an important part of the TrailFit program.