In the spring of 2021, I began to notice a new phenomenon at PNW trail races- cow shorts. At any given race, you could be certain to see not just one, but hoards of people wearing cow print split shorts. Several of these “cows” (their term, not mine) were finding their way onto the podium.
It wasn’t until several months later- when I was helping to stash water for Daybreak Racing’s Backcountry Rise- that I got the whole story. The cow shorts are the calling card of Cowgill Trail Collective, a trail running community based out of Seattle. Their ability to get turnout for events is unparalleled. In fact, I was the only volunteer that day that was not affiliated with the group. It was here that I learned that Cowgill is really a lot more than a running group. It’s an inclusive social club that encompasses the spirit of trail running. Not only are they offering creative and memorable run opportunities for their members, they are giving back to the whole running community through prolific volunteering at races and regular maintenance on their local trails. I caught up with Cowgill Trail Collective founder, Aaron Long, to find out what makes the group so special.
What is your personal background in running?
I've always been active and started running and hiking in elementary school. I ran track and cross country from middle school through college but dealt with chronic injuries. While I have always loved being in the mountains, I didn't realize trail running was a sport until a few years post-college. I started running trails more frequently when I moved to Seattle. Sticking to trails has allowed me to increase my volume while reducing injuries!
When and how did Cowgill originate?
Cowgill started in 2018 as a lighthearted Instagram account for posting silly trail running content and shenanigans from a decidedly non-elite perspective. It was like the Coconino Cowboys (or the satirical account Cappuccino Cowboys), only if none of them were actually good. When our shenanigans evolved into some pretty cool trail content, we realized we could use the platform to build a more cohesive trail community in Seattle. The name Cowgill is a nod back to my college days- I ran with two 6'5" imposing identical Swedish twins, Jarrett and Kyler Cowgill. We often used their name for intramural teams, for example, 'Cowgill United' for the intramural soccer league.
The main goal of the group is to build an inclusive community that welcomes runners from all experience levels. We also aim to get trail runners more involved in trail work, volunteering, and mentorship. We have weekly morning trail runs, workouts, and a road run with a post-run social in addition to monthly long trail runs and runs centered around trail work. We especially love getting people to try new routes and explore wilderness areas they might not otherwise think of. Finally, our Slack workspace allows members to coordinate endless other adventures and opportunities to get out on trails. Our group can come off as a bit intense, but most people are convinced otherwise when they come out for their first run. We are very welcoming and will encourage you to achieve any and all of your wild goals!
Why did you want to start a running group?
Brad, Rachel, and I were doing a lot of fun trail adventures in 2020, but we didn't have a lot of trail running friends to join us. We thought it would be rad if we could figure out a way to connect with more people and share these experiences. None of the other main running groups in Seattle were solely trail running-focused, nor did they organize the long mountain adventures we wanted to see offered. We knew there would be a lot of interest, but we waited until everyone had access to vaccinations before starting up group runs.
You have a remarkable ability to get turnout for Cowgill events- how do you do it? What makes your members so invested?
There are several reasons why we get good turnout. In the beginning, I texted every trail running friend in my contacts for every single run. This slowly became unnecessary once everyone met and got more invested in growing the herd. We have been incredibly lucky to build a really solid foundation of runners who want to hang on and off trails.
I also attribute our great turnout to the organic nature of Cowgill's growth- people recruited their friends, we met people at races and on trails who liked our vibe, and we may have even gotten a few folks to come out after we stole their Strava crowns. Our grassroots approach has attracted people who mesh well and it's led to a group of people who are excited not just to run together but to build meaningful relationships.
Another aspect that helps is that we don't have any formal leadership. Yes, Rachel, Brad, and I organize a lot of the runs and make a lot of the social media posts, but we've structured the group so that people can be as involved in the planning as they'd like. We have a group of ~30 people who brainstorm ideas for future Cowgill events and give feedback on our (sometimes wild) ideas. This more nebulous planning style has made our members invested in shaping Cowgill.
On top of all of this, we are surprisingly very organized. We use Slack to communicate most events and have just over 300 people on it. There's a Slack channel for just about anything! If you want to volunteer, race with friends, put on a trail camp, grab a drink, exchange gear, go climbing or skiing or biking, there is a channel for you! In short, our turnout is a combination of relentless amounts of communication, people who genuinely love trail running and hanging out together, and the sense of teamwork built into organizing the group.
Give us some Cowgill slang. Grazing? PGJ? Thirsty Thursday? Thirsty Seconds?
Grazing is our shorthand for the lifestyle consisting of running trails and pounding all kinds of calories. You can graze on mountains, vert, pizza, beer... we're here for all of it. We use the hashtag #alwaysgrazing to convey our commitment to this lifestyle.
PGJ is an acronym for 'Personal Growth Journey'. A PGJ is any run/race/event that may have been tougher or more than expected or led to some personal growth. It's our way of turning a potentially demoralizing experience into a positive one.
Our Thursday morning trail runs start at a trailhead in Issaquah at 6:30am and are called 'Thirsty Thursdays', because we're quenching our thirst for vert. The runs initially started as a way for us to improve our uphill running and the name refers to that. Our second run of the day, 'Thirsty Seconds', is an evening road run 12 hours later. The run ends at a brewery, and, for those of us who are thirsty for more beverages (and arguably the best fish and chips in Seattle), moves to a nearby bar open till 2am.
Our trail work events where we run with saws and clear downed trees are called 'Silky & Filthy'. Most of us use Silky Big Boy 2000 folding saws, which is where the name comes from. We're taking our local trails from filthy to silky/creamy/buttery/milky smooth.
Smooth Mooves is our monthly long run and is aimed at getting people out to places and on trails they might not otherwise go. We usually camp out for that weekend and some of our recent favorites are Teanaway and Goat Rocks. We love a ridgeline!
You have some really fast runners in your group- I think most northwest runners can recall a time they were passed like they were standing still by a runner in cow print split shorts. Despite that, the group doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. How do you balance that competitive presence with a fun, welcoming group?
We have a lot of runners who like to push their limits but also want to have a good time and don't take themselves too seriously. While we do have some professional runners who run with us, most of our fastest runners are not sponsored and running is a passion. I think that helps keep things more relaxed and silly. It also helps that we wear a lot of cow print, since it's hard to be too serious in cow shorts telling people you're “on a graze.”
One thing we have struggled with is recruiting less experienced and/or slower runners. We invest way more time trying to get beginners to feel welcome than we do catering to our fastest runners. Some of our fastest runners may not attend our bigger group runs as often, but we feel it's worth it to make more people feel welcome. That being said, our runs are not totally inclusive- we often don't run under 4 miles and a lot of quick people show up. For our weekly runs, we regroup often and have different pace group leaders as needed. For our longer, more adventurous weekend runs, there's naturally separation between groups, but we make sure people know the route and have the right equipment (or at least plan to stick with someone who does). The longer the route, the harder it is to keep everyone together, especially when some of these events are key training efforts for our runners.
We initially decided on the name Cowgill Trail Elite as a joke, since our Instagram content was all about non-elite runners. For instance, I made a lot of tipsy, silly posts and called them 'Elite Cow Tips'. Once our runners in cow shorts started showing up on podiums at races, we realized that the 'Elite' in our name could be taken the wrong way- especially since our audience had grown past our 15 closest friends. 'Collective' felt fitting, since we strive for everything to be a collective effort. While I do not regret the joke, I do feel bummed that some people got the wrong first impression. I hope by now everyone realizes that it was ironic-- just look at my Ultrasignup percentage!
What upcoming events does Cowgill have and how can people get involved (locally and beyond)?
For monthly events, people can check out the Smooth Mooves long runs and our Silky & Filthy trail work runs. This year, we'll work aid stations for at least two more races. We are also hoping to put on a 25k race next summer! The best way to get involved is to show up to a run and join the Slack. I am at almost every run and love to talk about ways to get more involved.
Where do you see the group going from here? Do you have visions of something even bigger with Cowgill?
I see the group continuing its slow but steady growth. Our central goal is to connect the trail running community and give people an easy way to get together for fun adventures and achieving big goals. I think we have been doing a great job with that in Seattle so far.
On a greater level, we want to connect the trail running community in the Pacific Northwest. Last year, some runners from Portland reached out to start a PDX Cowgill herd. It's been awesome watching the Portland herd grow, and I would love the two herds to share more grazes. Folks in Bend and Boulder have also asked us about starting herds in their cities, and I love the idea, even if these will probably take a bit longer to get established. Imagine arriving in a new city with breathtaking mountains and a ready-made herd! The model we've established with the cow theme, our not-too serious culture, and organized events could be successful in many places.
A long-term goal is to slowly change trail running culture and grow the sport. We want trail running to be more inclusive, we want to get more people running on trails, and we want trail runners to take part in more trail stewardship. We're doing our part to make incremental progress on all of these fronts. One goal Cowgill does not have is to make money off of our members. Members will never pay dues and if we organize paid events down the line, we will keep costs low and make sure it is accessible regardless of economic barriers. Any profit we make (if any!) will fund future Cowgill events.
What advice do you have for someone looking to start their own running group?
Starting your own running group is a slow process and requires at least one person who keeps the passion going. It's also key to have a solid foundation of people who are invested in establishing a group. I would also ask yourself if your group is unique and if it fills a hole in the community. It doesn't have to be ambitious or totally transformative, but it should fulfill the needs of a few people and be something that they look forward to attending. I also recommend checking out a bunch of different running groups before starting one. Don't just start one because you want to lead something. See what's out there and if there is a group you vibe with, get involved! But if you think there is a need for your group and you're passionate about it, then start it!