Many a time, during the course of a race, I have stood still on a trail, looking back from where I came, trying desperately to remember the last marker I saw.  Although the occasional confidence marker is appreciated, I enjoy this jolt of “oh no… how long have I been unconscious?”  This scenario is a reminder that trails are everywhere and I could easily end up in Halifax if I decided to ignore the course markings and zone out for a while.

Another scenario familiar to me is arriving at a trail junction that has a single ribbon hanging from a bush and I have to make a guess as to the direction of the course.  This time, I have to search my brain for the course map and try to remember the ‘junctions of significance’.  It is like uploading a pdf file in your brain – it takes a while to upload it and then it is out of focus for a few more moments, while you impatiently wait for the needed information.

White River '10

Simple course markings

But what about an over-marked course?  Earlier in the spring, we came across a 5 Peaks race course while we were out on our own little jaunt in the forest.  It was as if we had come across a circus in the middle of the woods.  Flagging stakes were placed about one foot apart for the entire 15 km route.  The responsibility for route finding was completely eliminated for these runners.  I half-expected to see neon-lit signs flashing ‘distance covered’ and ‘estimated finishing time’ to each runner as they passed.

I worry about what happens to these coddled racers when they make the jump to ultras.  If your first experiences on trails includes the ‘follow the lighted path’ 5 Peaks initiation, then you are in for a huge surprise when you run a trail race with ribbons tied only at significant junctions.  Unfortunately these newbie runners may be alone for a long while before a companion shows up if the event is a low-key grassroots affair with minimal environmental impact.

Marking a run course is a lost art.  Luckily, there are still a few who are able to communicate turns and other subtle nuances of a course through flagging ribbon, chalk, flour, paper plates and/or stakes.  To the unseasoned eye, ribbons may seem to be strung willy-nilly from tree branches and flour arrows poured haphazardly onto the dirt.  But it is time to appreciate this rare artistic form and learn from these masters as we attempt to recreate the work of an artiste.

I have always appreciated the simplicity of the Hardrock 100 course markings.  At the pre-race briefing, Charlie Thorn states the one rule – the markings always stand to the left of the runner.  Simple.   Think about that.  It truly is simple.

photo by B Powell

HR100 course markings

When running a course, racers need to prepare not only their bodies but also their brains, by studying the course maps and descriptions.  When marking a course, the volunteers may assume that the racers have knowledge of the course and the necessary route finding skills and they may mark the course accordingly.  So, don’t forget to upload that pdf file into your memory so that you can hike your way back from Halifax.