In this series of articles, the American Trail Running Association recognizes and celebrates trail race volunteers and trail runners like Derek Wirth who have dedicated themselves as everyday athletes to grow trail running in their community. “View from the Pack” is supported by ATRA corporate member RaidLight.
An interview with Derek Wirth by Nancy Hobbs
Hometown: Evansville, IN
Years Running Trails: 20+
Miles per week on Trail: 12-15
Approximate Trail Races Per Year: 10+, I strictly run 5k so I can compete often.
Longest Trail Race Completed: 5k for now.
What got you into trail running?
For me, trail running really happened organically. I have spent my life traveling and pursuing outdoor adventure. When I was younger there was a point out on the trail where the call of the wild called me, to just take off running through the woods. It felt right, and I have never really stopped.
What motivates you to keep running?
My main motivator is definitely my family. I now have my wife Megan, and my 3 kids Ethan, Corbin, and Leila chasing me on the trails. Trail running quickly became our family pastime. My 12-year-old, Ethan, is already winning his divisions and is right on my heels, so I am really pushing my times. I also have many outlying health issues, and trail running keeps me moving, breathing deep, and in a positive state of mind.
Have you witnessed any differences between trail running and road running?
In short, absolutely! Trail running is so much more cathartic, primal, and far less repetitive than road. In trail running you use your whole body, including your mind, to avoid obstacles, duck under tree limbs, run from bears, etc. For that, it is a much more immersive activity. Also, you are breathing pure oxygen emitted from plant life. Comparatively, in road running you are often directly breathing fumes spewed from exhaust pipes. In terms of sports culture, the trail running community is rich with openminded, warm individuals with a true sense of adventure. It seems there are more souls interested in finding themselves, overcoming strife, and answering their affinity to explore, rather than just get the win.
Trail running is a sport where you can line up at the start with some of the best trail runners in the world. Does this intimidate you, foster a sense of inclusion, or fall somewhere in between?
I am not there to get the “win” necessarily, so I am not intimidated by any person’s presence. I am always simply focused on improving my own health and well-being. Of course, you get a sense of inclusion when the people that are favorites to win are encouraging and high-fiving everyone there before and after the race, which is usually the case. I believe our sport is just slightly spiritual enough that any unspoken intimidation is rendered moot in the face of such natural majesty, as we often find ourselves passing through.
What is your opinion of the camaraderie you’ve witnessed in trail racing?
A great example is the four-race series I am currently competing in, called the Friday Night Fever Trail Race Series. There are a few front runners that are favorites to win every race. Instead of resting and enjoying their incredible finish times, they always turn around and run the course backwards, high-fiving and shouting words of encouragement to every single person they pass that is still running. Just being in the presence of such great acts of compassion and encouragement is in itself worth the entry fees.
What advice would you give to a fellow runner who may be hesitant about entering a trail race?
I would share my own positive experiences and help them understand all the benefits of participation. Then for advice, I would warn them that their first trail race will undoubtedly NOT be their last. People often reward themselves after a hard trail race.
What is your post-race indulgence?
That is definitely, a large chocolate shake!
Do you have a favorite motivational trail race story to share?
I actually began competing in trail running somewhat recently, following a personal tragedy. After losing a few family members to a rare form of cancer, we discovered a rare gene mutation called CDH1. It causes stomach cancer at a rate of 83% in your lifetime. The only way to prevent the cancer is total gastrectomy, total stomach removal, yeah. So I had my operation on April Fools’ Day 2016 to save my life. I woke from my surgery in bad shape and unable to walk, then soon received the news that early-stage cancer was found on pathology, and had I postponed my treatment, I likely would not be telling this story now. In my case, recovery begun literally by taking a first step. Eventually I was able to walk around the ICU halls, and all I could think about was running through the forest again, turning over hills, with the sun’s rays flashing through the trees. Trail running truly became my vision of hope. Eventually, my doctors told me the best thing for me, was to get as much exercise as I could. So as motivation, I signed up for my first 5k trail run, which I am sure is what my doctors meant, ha-ha! At the time of this writing, I just took my first-ever win in my age division, in a nighttime race by headlamp. Never stop pushing, never take no for an answer, you are capable of much more than you think!