Trail Running, Community and Custodianship.

On the relation between nature and community.

Story written on: March 8, 2022

Lets get the obvious bit out of the way. I spend a lot of my time running. I run long distances at a time and on average about 100kms a week. The weird thing about this is not so much that I run somewhat obsessively but that a substantial number of other locals do to.

About four years ago I started a facebook group so that my ultra-running mate Simon Tibbs and I had an outlet for our obsession with what then was a pretty marginal activity. We didn't imagine much of an audience beyond our little circle of freinds. Three years later that group consists of 350 runners with a good portion of those active and local. It is now a pretty rare day that I head out for a long run up the escarpment without running into other members of that group we called The Seacliff Coasters.

One of the interesting things about this group is that it is incredibly diverse. We would have very close to a 50/50 split of female to male runners and we have runners of all ages and abilities - from elite podium toppers, to age category contenders, all the way to those who run trails just to be immersed in nature. Ultra-running as a sport has become an interesting space in that regard. There is very little dividing the top women and the top men. As races get up past the 200 mile length women come further to the fore. Our trail running heroes aren't divided into genders as they tend to be in so many other sports.

In fact ultra-running seems to hate distinctions. When you are running through the bush together for many hours even the most introverted amongst us tend to chat and that chat tends to extend into conversations that transcend the limits of the everyday. You get to know people on quite a different level to that you would if you met anywhere else. You also depend on each other because you are often out in the wilderness together. 'Racing' ultra runners will often wait for their nearest competitor so they've got someone to run with. We face each other as we face our limits. It is intense and intimate. It is human. All of these things mean ultra-running breeds a certain depth of community that is a little different to the other activities I've been involved with. In this sense ultra-running, and somewhat oddly given its solitary nature, is somewhat of an antidote to the most dangerous curse of modern life; individualism.

If ultra-running tends to breakdown the differences between us then its not too much of stretch to say the same is true for the relation between us and the environment we run through. We spend a lot of time on our trails and in the bush. We get to know that environment in the same way we get to know each other; deeply and intimately. We get to know the ebb and flow of the seasons and the thirst and thrive of those longer cycles of dry and wet.

Lately we've noticed the impact of Covid-19 on our bushland as more and more people get out into the wild for the mental and physical relief from isolation that it affords or just to make the most of the opportunity that being at home more often has presented. It is kind of weird to think our local bush is suffering the impact of a human virus - but it is. Suddenly we have more time for it, more time for each other; human and non-human. Despite the noticeable impact of increased use, it can only be a good thing that more people are making the most of it. More people are getting the chance to build an intimate connection with their local environment, to feel those ebbs and flows, to learn to listen and see the extraordinary value it offers. The bush will adapt, we will adapt.

As endurance trail runners we develop an intense sense of 'ownership' of the natural spaces we spend so much time in - but its not ownership in the sense of real estate or property. Its an ownership in the sense of custodianship. It the sense of our lives not being distinct from the life and lives of the environment through which we move. We feel the health of the land and the health of our bodies and minds are connected and reflect each other. When we are tired of modern life we go into the bush to recover. When the bush is tired, we understand its need to rest and recover because it's our need as well. The wilderness we share is a part of our community.

If this year has taught us anything it should have been that we need to learn to live differently. We are one organism, our health, our lives, are intimately and intensely connected and interdependent. We are all more than simply individual, more than simply human.

It is with this in mind that we local trail runners are fighting to ensure that the remaining escarpment bushland is preserved in a continuous Illawarra Escarpment Reserve and Trail Network. It turns out this was always part of National Parks and Wildlife's Management Plan for the escarpment. While most of that trail network and reserve are already there and well used, there are historical anomalies that mean we, as a community, can't be assured access and ownership of our wilderness backyard. As the NPWS plan of management states; 'the distribution of the park along the escarpment is discontinuous, which could affect the long-term viability of the park to maintain its full range of values'.

We trail runners want all the communities that live along the escarpment to be able to make use of it. We want the opportunity for all of us to experience the escarpment's social, economic and environmental value - and to understand that its well-being is intertwined with our own and those of our commmunities.

We can't maximise the long term economic value of the escarpment if it is off limits to the people who live along it. We can't maxmise the social value the escarpment holds for community, health, and well being, if its use goes completely unregulated and its environmental value is compromised. The best way to ensure the environmental value of the escarpment, is to encourage 'stakeholders' to take responsibilty for it, to allow people to celebrate that value socially and economically and to encourage a mutual belonging; this belongs to me, I am responsible for it, I belong to this ground.

A continuous Illawarra Escaprment reserve and trail might be the big green banner that unites our home between the mountains and the sea, a banner that ties us together and shows us a way of living together, sustainably, and moving toward a bright, healthy and wealthy economic, social and environmental future.