Thriving Despite Pandemic
Trail running is not for the faint of heart. You can get mucky, have to deal with gnarly footing, and even get lost in the woods. It has often been promoted as a super sport, for those looking to push themselves to go fast and far. But COVID and the related increase in virtual experiences have opened things up in new ways, allowing women across the state to try something new.
Running groups can’t exactly gather in larger numbers or hold trail races right now, so they have gotten creative by offering virtual options to connect. The result has been that new runners are participating more than ever. These clubs plan to continue their virtual offerings, even once they’re able to gather and race up actual mountains together.
Trail Monsters is an organization based in Southern Maine that’s been around since 2007. They host group runs and races for men and women throughout the year. Valerie Abradi is a long-time member and organizes the Sunday group runs, among other duties. “When we weren’t able to have group runs, we still wanted to be connected,” she said. So instead of running together, members posted weekly challenges on their website and sent out trail bingo cards to those interested. They could post pictures of what they found and earn a prize for their efforts.
“Even when we can get together again, we will continue in this way. It was fun to see our members, and also new people try it out,” she says. Trail Monster aims to be as inclusive as possible in their efforts. That includes no economic barriers. As posted on their website, “membership dues are paid in the form of sweat and blood on the trails and are collected on a weekly basis.” Even so, running virtually has provided opportunities for newbies to try it out with no pressure.
This level of encouragement has translated to the few in-person events that Trail Monster has been able to hold during COVID. “We’ve had group runs, with social distancing rules in place, and we stop at every turn and make sure no one is going to be left behind,” says Valerie. “We want to offer a space where anyone can come and run.”
Bradbury Mountain is their home turf and home to a series of trail races known collectively as Bradbury Dirt. But they also hold a different type of event a couple of times a year—the “Fatass runs.” These are usually loop runs and aren’t timed like a race. Everyone brings something to share afterwards, and it is more of a social event than a race. “A party that is a run is the perfect combination for running friends,” says Valerie.
Up the coast is Trail Runners of Midcoast Maine (TRoMM), which also hosts regular group runs for their members and organizes an annual trail festival. Founder Emily McDevitt is enthusiastic about the way the organization has shifted during the pandemic. “Our membership has really stepped up,” she says, “When we couldn’t get together for group runs, they dove in and started posting their runs on our Facebook page. Our members realized how much the club meant to them, and now we’ve become much more of a member-driven club.”
Aside from their usual members, Emily says they have definitely seen an increase in interest. “There are more people out on the trails, no doubt. And more new people are posting questions, like ‘What do you do for running in the snow?’ We welcome runners of all abilities,” she adds.
Further up the coast is Emily’s friend, Donna, member of Bold Coast Runners. “We have a pretty different population density up here, so we have still been able to have our weekly group runs in small groups. That’s good because I’m not on social media. I just had my first Zoom meeting last week,” she says laughing.
Several of their members did take part in a virtual event this fall, however, in support of Down East Hospice. “The Cobscook Social Distancing Challenge was a highlight for our club members,” says Donna. They have also seen an increase in their membership, particularly in women. “I think women of a certain age are more aware of staying healthy, but they also want to do it with friends,” says Donna.
Running with friends is what Trail Sisters is all about. Unlike the other trail running clubs in Maine, this one is just for women. Trail Sisters is a national organization that has local chapters throughout the country. Maine’s only Trail Sisters club is in the Greater Portland area. It began in 2018 when Mari Balow decided to start a local chapter. She had known Gina Lucrezi, founder of the national organization for a while and she says, “I realized this was a great opportunity to help broaden the reach of the organization and get women out on trails in our area.”
The group focuses on the creating connections between its members. “Running for us is a social gathering—a chance to talk to people and not be judged,” says member Kristen Michaud. “It’s a really great confidence builder for women. They can go to a trail they might not know, and they might otherwise be worried they might get injured or lost. But we work together to make it a comfortable, low-stress, low-impact experience,” she adds. Early on in the pandemic, they’d set up Zoom calls with their members to get each other excited to run. Now, they’ve been able to get back on the trail in small groups. “There is definitely increased interest in trail running,” says Mari.
Right now, she is working on getting more people involved that might not have the resources to start running. Mari started a non-profit called the Northeast Runners Alliance in 2019 with the goal of gathering donations of running shoes and gear to give to women who can’t afford it. They’ll also pay for registration for one race each year. “We are aiming to eliminate barriers and increase access to running. My hope is that this will also provide a framework for a more diverse group to feel safe going out to run and have a network of support,” she says.
Breaking into a new sport is never easy. In advance, you might feel you don’t have the right snazzy gear, energy bar, or hydration pack. You might want or need to start with a few miles. You might look at others involved already and see a fit, hearty looking bunch of trailblazers.
But all of these clubs are full of intrepid, dynamic women who are working to expand the reach of the clubs, in spite of the pandemic—to reach more women across the state of Maine. It is an unexpected opportunity to get more women into a healthy, active sport that fosters confidence and appreciation for the outdoors.