ABS Consulting Group, Inc.: Home | Blog | Resume | Speaking | Publications

Monday, November 28, 2011

Observations on Young People and Wayfinding

To Hill and Back

Over the holiday weekend I attended one of my favorite local races. It's a four mile trail race including a long, rocky, exposed hill. The event is called "To Hill and Back." This was probably my fourth attempt and I was happy to finish in the middle of the pack (64/139, results).

In past years the race director (RD) introduced the course just before the start. I recall announcements explaining that after a short section on the paved road, we'd head into the woods where it would quickly turn to single track. Single track refers to a thin trail where it's very hard (or impossible) to pass. The RD suggested  that we try to "seed ourselves," that is arrange ourselves, so the fast folks would be first to the single track and not be trapped behind the slower runners. In past years it worked very well and I carefully hung back so as to not get in the way of those who run the trails like deer. The other information I recall from past races related to the volunteers on the trail pointing the way at every turn and survey tape on trees and survey flags on the ground marking the way.

This year the RD only mentioned the volunteers in her briefing. I chatted with a few folks new to the event who asked me key questions: Where is the hill in the four miles? Is there single track? I was happy to share my knowledge. At the start, several runners new to the race assured one another there was no single track. I was not sure whether to correct them or not.

What interested me most about the event was a pair of young people who ran. I want to share my observations (some second hand) about them and their navigation of the trail.


I found myself behind Mom, who was wearing an iPod, and Son, about nine or ten. Mom, from the start, tried to slow down Son. It did not work. Once into the woods, Son came to a screeching halt on the trail to wait for Mom. She informed him he could not do that with other runners behind him. He continued to weave unpredictably through the long snake of runners. Mom would call out to coach him fairly regularly. She did not take off her iPod's earbuds.

I decided it was a good time to model good trail etiquette for Son and others. I let the folks behind me know that if they wanted to pass to just let me know. They didn't let me know, but they did pass me, sometimes on my left, sometimes on my right. Once I was in a position to do so, I modeled what I hoped to see. I called out "passing on your left" and passed two runners. I thought, "now Son, and maybe Mom, have seen and heard how it's done."

I confess I was ecstatic to see Mom helping Son take off his track pants alongside the trail within the first 3/4 of a mile. It was quite warm; I'd started in shorts, a rarity for me this late in the season. While tugging on his pant legs, Mom chastised him about wasting time. I never saw them again.

Fast Kid

Up at the front of the entire race, I was told, was pack of about five men. Two of them are in my running club and one explained how the race played out from his perspective. My friends were third and fifth respectively in the standings, sandwiching a 13-year-old who took fourth. The young man had run with them from the start and at times got ahead of them. When he was leading and came to an intersection, he'd stop short waiting for guidance on which way to go. The other runners would call out "left" or "right" from behind based on their knowledge of the course or seeing the survey tape. Then the kid would get going again.


Pondering these young people trying to navigate the trails got me thinking. If Mom knew Son was new to trail racing, why did she not prep him about the rules? And, if she expected to coach him on the trail (which I fully support), why did she wear headphones that limited her ability to hear his questions and perhaps the key information other runners shared? Did Son not observe that most runners were "staying in line" and not weaving in and out? Could he not decipher this was how we behave on the trail?

Clearly the teenager is a great runner. Why then did he not have the trail navigation skills he needed? Had he not seen survey tape used to mark a trail? Even if he had not (and as I noted the race director did not mention it) could he not have seen and deciphered its meaning in the early miles? Had someone (a coach, fellow runner, parent...) not spent some time teaching him some of these skills?


Seeing young people in these situations without the basic geographic skills to navigate our world saddens and frustrates me. As much as we hang our heads when students can't find countries on maps or recoil about another story of a driver following GPS directions too literally (such as into a lake or tree),  I think we need to worry more about simply navigating ourselves, under our own power, in our natural and manmade world. Spatial literacy may well begin in the woods.