Preparing For The Risks Of Trail Running

Risks of trail running

I recently came across an article in Runners World about the Mt. Marathon race in Alaska. The Mt. Marathon race sounds insane. It’s run every year on July 4 and while the race is short (under 4 miles), it runs pretty much straight up and down a mountain.

The Runners World article focuses on a runner a few years ago who was last seen near the top turn-around point of the course and then disappeared.

He has never been seen again.

Extensive searches of the mountain have never revealed evidence about what happened to the man.

While it’s a longer read, it’s well worth checking out.

The runner’s disappearance began some soul-searching for race organizers and locals about the safety of the race. It’s a dangerous, scree filled race. It is not appropriate for beginners. In fact, at the start, the race director specifically advises the runners that it’s not for newbies. This race shouldn’t be your first time up the mountain.

For the man who disappeared, this was going to be his first time on the mountain. But this race was a bucket-list item for him. He had prepared, he had trained. He’d dreamed of competing in this race for years.

Now there he was, standing at the start line of a race he’d always dreamed of doing, and the race director was advising him not to proceed.

What really struck me was a line near the end of the article:

“What would you do?”

Risks of trail running

Do I Ever Really Feel Prepared?

I immediately thought of myself at the start of so many of my adventures.

Trail runs and races. Ultramarathons of ever-extending distances.

As I stand at the start line, there is almost always some degree of uncertainty or fear. Some part of my brain is wondering if I can do it.

I’m often thinking some version of: ‘I’ve trained enough (hopefully), and I’m ready (I think). Sure this race will push the limits of what I’ve done before, but everyone talks about how you need to push out of your comfort zone. I can do this… right?’

I don’t know what I would I have done if I was in that man’s position at the start of the Mt. Marathon race.

Trail running, or any outdoor endeavor, presents very real risks. Getting lost or injured in the wilderness is potentially dangerous. Animal encounters can be deadly.

How do you know the difference between the apprehension that naturally arises from pushing your personal limits and the fear that can arise from doing something you really aren’t prepared for?

How do you know if you’re just scared or if you’re about to do something truly risky that you don’t have the skills to cope with?

Risk Management In Life

In a former life, I worked in corporate risk management. It suited (and made productive) my natural ability to always come up with (at least) a dozen things that could go wrong in any situation.

A few of those corporate risk management principles are more applicable to life than I ever could have imagined.

Risk v. Fear v. Worry

Many people consider risk, fear, and worry to be interchangeable, when in fact, they are very different.

Risk is a thing. It is an external event that may or may not happen. A risk is not inherently good or bad. Sure risks can result in negative consequences, but they can also create new or novel opportunities. Some risks result in negative outcomes that are actually positive in the bigger picture when they teach you lessons you otherwise may not have learned.

Fear is internal. Fear is a person’s response to risk. It can be based on the actual risk of a thing, but it can also be based on how dangerous something seems or appears to be. Fear can be rational (for example, the fear of coming upon a rattlesnake when doing a trail run in rattlesnake country), but it can also be irrational (getting mauled by a tiger on a run thousands of miles from the nearest tiger- not that that’s a fear I’ve ever had personally…oh…wait). Fear is the endless stream of what-ifs that arises from your imagination.

Worry is also internal. It’s close to fear but it’s entirely passive. Worry will make you consider all the things that can go wrong, but it won’t prompt you to do anything about it or to try to stop it, minimize it, or prevent it. Worry is all downside.

Read MoreRisk Management For Trail Runners

Risk v. Danger

There are risks to everything. There are risks to walking down the street (heck, I once broke my foot simply walking down the street).

But not everything that has risks attached to it (which is everything) is dangerous.

For something to be dangerous, it not only has to have risks attached to it, but those risks have to be somewhat likely to result in negative consequences.

The example that’s often used in risk management literature is the difference between teaching a kid how to build a fire (which is risky) and just giving a kid a box of matches (which is dangerous).

Read More
Mindful Risk Management

Risk Ideas In Practice

How can risk management ideas help you figure out what to do if you’re in a position like that guy at the start of the Mt. Marathon race?

How can you consider the risks (so you can prepare) without freaking yourself into inaction, deciding instead to stay home wrapped in bubble wrap because the world is too dangerous?

There are several considerations, but they all come down to the same basic idea: be realistic about what could happen. Separate the likely and the horrible worst-case scenarios bouncing around in your head.

Don’t let one bad possible outcome keep you from taking action.

Are There Specific Advisories?

As you start out on your (maybe risky, maybe dangerous) adventure, check if there are any specific warnings or advisories.

At the Mt. Marathon race, the runners were specifically advised of particular risks. At many trailheads, there are signs pointing out risks like wild animals in the area or parts of the trail that are particularly dangerous.

Parks that are prone to heat or severe weather will often suggest gear to carry or will advise how much water to carry.

Those warnings are there for a reason. They are specific to the thing you are about to do.

  • Heed the warnings

What (Specifically) Could Happen?

Consider the things that could go wrong in the situation.

If you are heading out for a solo trail run, you could get lost or injured. You could get caught in a storm or run out of food or water (I could go on for hours listing the potential negative stuff that can happen, but you get the idea).

You could never think of every possible negative scenario (and Murphy’s Law suggests the one thing you didn’t think of is the one thing that will happen), but don’t just think “Things could go wrong” or “It could be dangerous,” be specific.

  • What (specifically) could happen?

How Likely Is That Thing?

A basic concept of risk management is the equation of likelihood v. severity. How likely is the negative consequence, and if it were to happen, how bad would it be?

For example, the odds of me getting poison oak after a long trail in the Bay Area is about 100%. It will happen, but the severity is mild. Wash down with a little Tecnu, and I’ll likely only have one or two itchy spots (I always seem to miss a spot).

On the other hand, for something like the Mt. Marathon race, the likelihood of something truly bad happening is minor, but the severity of that thing, if it were to happen, would be extreme.

The same risk could have very different severities based on the situation.

If I’m going for a trail run in one of the urban parks in Oakland, the likelihood of getting lost is pretty high. There are lots of trails intersecting in every direction. But the severity is minor. You’re usually within eyesight of houses or roads, and most trails are fairly well-traveled. You are likely to cross paths with another runner even if you are totally lost.

However, if you are doing a trail run in a super-remote state park late in the fall when the weather changes quickly, getting lost could be life-threatening

There is no right balance to the likelihood/severity equation.

Everyone gauges ‘severity’ on a different scale. Everyone’s willingness to accept risk is different, and everyone is willing to accept different levels of adversity.

  • Consider the (specific!) things you think could go wrong. How likely are those things? How bad would it be if it were to happen? Don’t automatically assume the bad thing (getting lost on the mountain, for example) would never happen to you. The bad thing could happen to you, although the likelihood of it is pretty minuscule.
  • Consider you. How much adversity/challenge/risk/danger are you willing to accept? There is no right or wrong answer to this. There are still amazing adventures to be had even if you aren’t willing to accept a lot of risk.

Not All Risks Are Created Equal

Objectively view the possible negative outcomes of the adventure you are considering.

If you really aren’t prepared enough, what will happen? A bruised ego of having to walk more than you’d like? A finish time way slower than you’d like? Or is there an actual risk to your health or safety?

Some risks are objective, where everyone faces the same risk (like weather or terrain). Other are subjective (like poor gear, undertraining, or overconfidence in your abilities).

Many risks can be prevented, or their negative impacts minimized, with the right gear, training, experience, and self-awareness.

  • What can you do in advance of your adventure to minimize the risk? Carry a paper map (your phone’s GPS may be spotty in the wilderness)? Learn wilderness first aid? Carry a small first aid kit in your pack?
  • Be honest about your abilities and what you are and are not OK with.


What about you? How do you deal with fear before a big adventure?

Risks of trail running


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