Trail Racing 101: Four Fairly Obvious Observations

The year is still young, but I already feel good about where it’s headed. Sure, as a liberal-minded American (aka ‘coastal elite’) I’m horrified by the day-to-day news cycle and the fact that our POTUS and his cronies know as much about governing as the Cleveland Browns know about winning football games… but at least I feel good about my running.

While the tweeter-in-chief runs our country into the ground, I’m trying to take solace in the fact that my half marathon training has gone really well. My long weekend runs have felt great and I’m confident that next month I’ll be able to break 2016’s streak of miserable times in the half.

One of the recent additions to my training routine has been trail running. As a resident of the Pacific Northwest I probably should’ve been hitting the trails from the day I broke down and bought my first expensive pair of Asics. However, it’s always been easier for me to just head out the door to log my miles instead of driving to the nearest trailhead. But this year I’m making a point of getting out into nature more often. Now I’m so on onboard the trail running train that I even ran a trail race this past weekend, the Dash Point 10K.

On Saturday I was #941.
Beyond that marker is 10K worth of kick ass trail running!

This event is actually a familiar one; I ran it four years ago when I was training for my first half. As a novice who wasn’t blogging or analyzing the minutia of running norms, I simply ran it and went home. This time, of course, was different. After finishing the Dash Point 10K, I thought about the event in relation to the other races I’ve run and how vastly different the trail race experience can be.

Watch Your Step
The biggest, most obvious difference between road running and trail running is the terrain. (Duh.) Instead of smooth, flat, hard ground you have to navigate paths full or roots, rocks, and mud. In addition to these potential ankle-busting conditions, the trails twist and turn and bend around trees and other greenery, while also throwing bumps and hills of various sizes into the mix. While running on this kind of landscape is ultimately more engaging, it also makes it harder for me to mail it in.

On Your Left!
Most road races provide runners with plenty of room. Speedier participants can pass on the left and slower runners and walkers can settle into their pace on the right. However, skinny, winding trails provide only one lane for runners to occupy. With less space to work with, people must be politely aware of those behind them or in front of them and quick verbal exchanges are usually needed to pass. I did my best to move aside and let runners by when I sensed them coming up the rear, and I gave a modest ‘on your left’ as I passed others. It’s a relatively easy thing to adjust to, but unfortunately this ritual means it’s tougher to pretend you’re not getting passed by faster runners.

Me on trail
Another race, another awkward race photo.

Stay the Course
Despite an overnight vandal messing with some of the trail markers, the course was well-labeled with pink ribbons, painted arrows, and signs. While I was always fairly confident I was headed in the right direction, the thought of a wrong turn certainly kicked around in my head. It’s easy to see where a fatigued participant in a race that had less thorough organizers could lose their bearings and head down the wrong path. Being the person who gets lost on the course will likely be a source of mild anxiety for me before every trail race.

Slow Burn
When I run trails I feel more engaged with my running. The weaving and turning, the changing landscape, it all seems to lead to me being more mentally dialed in. Yet despite this engagement, my times seem to be slower. It makes logical sense, all that weaving and turning doesn’t allow me to maintain as steady a pace as road running and that would certainly make me slower. Yet somehow, when I exit the woods, I’m still always a little surprised by my sluggish time. I’m sure there are runners out there who have mastered off road running and are able to dart through the woods like a caffeine-fueled jack rabbit. And those runners can go to hell.

Last weekend’s 10K was a fun challenge and I look forward to doing more trail running throughout 2017. In addition to adding variety to my training routine, running on this this type of rough terrain will help prepare me for whatever dystopian future awaits us after the Trumpocalypse turns our country into a barely recognizable hellscape.

So I’ve got that going for me… which is nice.

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