A beautiful sunrise on an early Saturday morning greeted the trail runners as they meandered through Mesquite Canyon. The scenic view from the White Tank Mountain Recreational Park in Waddell was just one of the perks for the athletes who competed in the trail racing event.

Whether they were casual runners participating in the 8K or experienced ultra long distance gurus, the desert’s dramatic table of wildflowers and imposing boulders made for the perfect setting on this March morning. It sure beat the monotony of training on a treadmill, alone, while staring out a window as COVID-19 kept most everyone inside.

READ ALSO: 10 of Arizona’s best hikes

Though the pandemic forced most races to go virtual this past year, in-person races are finally coming back, but things look a little different. The races start in waves to promote social distancing, and participants must wear masks or facial coverings. Even with these changes, demand for in-person racing remains high. Runners often like to be surrounded by their community, instead of running alone.

“Training on your own is hard,” said runner Kaesha Guillaume, 14, of Casa Grande. “It’s nice to be with other people.”

Trail running and trail racing is connecting people in an otherwise disconnected world during the pandemic.

Aravaipa Running, a Valley outdoor training group that organizes local events, started its in-person trail runs last August, and the popularity of these events continues to increase. The pandemic has limited a lot of outlets for physical activities with gyms being closed for a substantial amount of time, while other sporting events were also canceled because of safety concerns. Outdoor trail runs allow participants to compete safely.

“I think people are getting a bit more comfortable, and seeing how being outdoors and spread out, it can be done safely,” said Jamil Coury, owner of Aravaipa Running.

The demand for in-person racing is very high, with most of Aravaipa’s events selling out, Coury said. Brian Karasek, part of the aid station crew for Aravaipa Running, said everyone who signed up for the race was technically waitlisted.

“The company didn’t want to take money from people until we knew the race was going to happen,” Karasek said.

Aravaipa and other organizations that stage in-person events need permits and have to follow CDC guidelines to ensure the health and safety of runners. After obtaining the permit, runners on Aravaipa’s waitlist were contacted to see if they were still interested in participating.

“We didn’t want to take a bunch of money in and then have to refund a bunch of money, so it was better just to wait,” said Karasek.

In-person running allows for the social interaction that virtual events lack. This is part of the reason for the high demand for in-person racing. Virtual races became popular when the in-person events were shut down at the beginning of the pandemic.

“The virtual events have their benefits, especially with COVID and everything, it was the only way we could run and have some sort of a community feel to it,” Karasek said.

Having a supportive running community is important to runners like Guillaume, who has participated in three trail runs on the Hummingbird Trail Series. She started racing two years ago, but started trail running only six months ago. She prefers in-person races to virtual because of the social aspect.

“It’s better for me, I like to be with my competition, in the crowd,” Guillaume said.

The running community is a tight-knit group. They show love and support for each other during the races.

“It is so much better to actually be here and be able to see people and see the excitement when they cross the finish line for whatever race they wanted to do,” Karasek said.

When attending these races, you can see the genuine friendship and support between the runners. They cheer and congratulate each other when each person crosses the finish line.

“It’s something we’ve all been missing, just in general in the past year. And so for me to go to an event and be able to at least just be around people or be on the trails with them, share some miles together when, especially when it’s hard,” Coury said.


Story by Regina Burgess, Cronkite News