The most important thing you need to know about trail running is that it isn’t always running. Take it from James Varner, who operates more than a dozen trail races across the west: “A lot of people think, I couldn’t run up a mountain. Well even a lot of trail runners don’t do that; they’ll hike up and then run down the other side.”
The next most important thing to know about the sport is that it’s growing bigger and faster than ever. In 2017 the Outdoor Foundation’s participation survey reported that trail running had grown 26 percent over the last three years. Across Washington, trail runners tackle almost every trail—yes, someone has jogged up Rainier—including picturesque routes around the Methow Valley and Orcas Island in races held by Varner’s Rainshadow Running. Unlike an in-town marathon, the events offer only 200 or 300 spots to keep trail impact down; Rainshadow races tend to sell out immediately.
The sport exists somewhere between two worlds; from hiking it borrows scenic appeal and unpredictable challenges. The constant self-competition comes directly from running. “It’s a natural human desire, to keep challenging themselves and change,” says Varner. Since starting to trail run himself in 2002, he’s seen the sport burst with fancy shoes, streamlined water packs, and, most notably, superbright flashlights that allow runners to train year round without turning ankles.
And yes, it’s not cheating to walk when the trails get steep, says Varner. The act of trail running evokes the joy he felt when he tore through the woods behind his house as a child. “When I found out about trail races, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe something like this exists.’ ”