Among fitness enthusiasts, trail running is a popular option for taking advantage of varied terrain and crisp air. Experienced mountaineers and amateurs alike are hitting high-altitude trails with big exposure in record numbers. However, the recent disappearances of two seasoned trail runners in Colorado, among a spate of other trail running injuries and deaths, has led to calls for improved public education on the risks of trail running.
Since July, two avid trail runners have gone missing in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. First it was Daniel Lamthach, who was regularly involved in ultramarathons. After disappearing in July, rescuers called off their efforts after finding only his cell phone after ten days of exhaustive searching. Then it was David Lunde, a well-known trail runner from Durango. He has been missing without a trace since he set out for a run on October 1st. This isn’t just a Colorado problem: in June 2021, 21 ultramarathoners, many in just shorts and t-shirts, died when high winds and freezing rains quickly blew into Gansu province, China. Europe has also lost athletes on its mountain trails. In November 2020 prolific Swiss trail runner Andrea Huser fell 450 feet to her death. While these incidents are sometimes chalked up to as “freak accidents” they have become increasingly common as more people enter the world of long-distance trail running, sometimes without proper training.
David Lunde, seen here running in the annual Kennebec Mountain Run in the La Plata Mountains. (Ben Brashear for The Colorado Sun)
Swiss professional train runner Andrea Huser. (Ian Corless for outsideonline.com)
Even experienced trail athletes like Huser, Lund, and Lamthach, are not immune from a misstep on loose rock or ice. There is also the ever-present dangers of hypothermia and dehydration for those runners who decide to pack too light and skimp on water. There is also the unpredictability of mountain weather patterns and the looming risk of avalanches, even in shoulder seasons, which many runners are not trained to survive.
There is no “one size fits all” packing kit for trail runners. While many runners ascribe to the “light is right” mantra, many experts generally agree that there are some must-bring items on the trail:
- Water, water, and more water.
- More food than you think you need.
- Bright clothing in multiple layers.
- Bivy sack or trash bag for shelter and warmth. Just because the trail parking lot is warm and sunny doesn’t mean it’s not snowing at the summit.
- A first aid kit with an elastic wrap and blister protection. According to a 2021 article in Sport Medicine, the most common injuries among trail runners are foot and lower leg injuries.
- If traversing deep into cell-free zones, a GPS SOS locater device.
- A whistle…there’s a reason these things are still on packing lists everywhere!
In addition to the must-haves, it is always a good exercise to review the basic pre-run must-do tasks:
- Make a plan and share it with someone.
- Charge your cell phone. Even on low battery it is constantly pinging cell towers in the area and can be affected by temperature extremes. Bring a paper trail map and/or spare charger as a backup. Be aware that not all virtual trail apps are accurate or updated with current hazards.
- Don’t set out until you check the weather forecast.
- And above all, do not wander off if you do not have the training and skills to stay alert on the trail and survive in the wilderness.
Many organizations offer free and low-cost training courses and often lament the lack of participation. They are seeking ways to engage the public outside of formal classes through efforts like placing index cards with safety tips and mini maps at trailheads across Colorado. They are also offering more virtual safety training options. That being said, quality safety and survival education programs may still be lacking.
In a comprehensive review published by Colorado Parks and Wildlife in January 2022, they found that only 30% of backcountry search and rescue volunteers and local sheriffs say that public outdoor safety education is “good” or better. But the report also mentions that “safety is a difficult message to attract outdoor users as most people do not think they will have an accident.” Wilderness medical professionals are well-suited to bolster public education efforts and remind the public of the risks of trail running. They have the medical expertise and interpersonal skills to deliver important information that may save even the most confident ultramarathoner in a pinch.