Knowing that I’ll be doing a triathlon next summer where part of the run will be on a trail, I thought it would be good to try out a trail run. Because of my partially herniated disc from Ironman Chattanooga, from over a year ago, my left leg is still a little gimpy. It does not have any natural reflex (tapping the rubber mallet on the knee elicits no response) and there is no feeling on my shin. As a result, the left leg doesn’t isn’t as strong or capable as my right leg. So running on a trail could be challenging.
I’ve only done a few trail runs and never a trail race (unless you count the daily trail runs in Outward Bound School when I was in high school). Having completed two half-marathons recently, I signed up for the Little River Trail Run at the Little River Park in Durham. Right off the bat, you get a sense of the trail running vibe: It’s not a Trail Race, it’s a Trail Run. They have a 7k, 10 mile and half marathon option. I chose the latter.
I picked up my friend, Kristine, and we headed to the park on a chilly Saturday morning in January. The temps were in the low 50s that morning but were dropping through the day as the wind picked up. It was supposed to be in the low 40s by the end of the race with gusty winds. I decided to dress conservatively with a SS base layer, a LS top, a light wind vest, a light cap, and medium gloves. I was excited to try out my Altra trail shoes, Lone Peaks. Although they are not specified as wide shoes, they fit my 4E foot well because of their large shoebox design. These may be the most comfortable shoes I’ve worn.
We got our bib numbers, got a good selfie, and headed to the line.
It was pretty chill at the start, folks milling around. There were about 150 people for the half so I lined up mid-pack, not knowing where how fast this crowd was or how fast I was on a trail. I heard “GO”, started my Garmin, and we were off! The course had a good long section on double-track so people could sort out their position and get in with those with a similar pace, at least at the start. It’s interesting how I size up the competition in a very arbitrary way during this period. Do they look fast? Look slow? How can I tell? Is it their gate? Their physique? What they’re wearing? Someone with a large CamelBak for a half marathon can’t be that serious. This person looks a little chubby to be that fast. Time to pass him. My pace was a little fast (8:30) but I figured everyone was going to be fast and I wanted to be in the top half or so. We entered the single track and to be honest, the miles just flew by. I heard the Garmin beep after every mile but I was mostly focused on good pacing, watching the trail and deciding when/if I should pass someone. It was tempting to come up on a group, fall into their pace, and do a little recovery (I was told later that part of the trail run vibe was running in packs; not for me!). I’d look down at my watch and panic. 12:35?!?! Time to move!
As the race progressed, the groups got harder to pass because a) they were by nature faster and b) I was tireder. What I realized soon was that I didn’t like running in groups because they not only felt slow but I liked having lots of trail visibility ahead of me. I eventually found myself running alone, which I liked. There was a woman pretty far ahead that I had my sites on. But as the race progressed, I found that if I took my eyes off the trail, to see how far ahead she was, I found myself stumbling from hitting a root or rock (it reminded me of how we can tell a road biker doing cyclocross because of how difficult they found the muddy or technical sections of the course–I was the roadie on the trail). I did eventually trip and fall but it was a face down slide on some leaves. No big deal but a wake-up call to pay more attention. I caught up with the woman but she was fast on the flats and slow up the hills (I caught her on a hill and encouraged to run faster, which she did. She thanked me later). I eventually passed her but she passed me back. About that time I could hear the crowds at the finish. My watch said 11 miles. What? I was confused. Sure enough, we popped out of the woods and into the finish shoot (folks later told me the back and forth of the trail combined with the tree cover made the GPS cut corners on the path and underestimate the distance).
My legs were spent but not destroyed. I had done some training since the last race but the trail had pushed my legs in new ways (stepping up, stabilizing my gait). We stood around for a possible podium but not today. Ended up 5th in by 50-59 AG. Not bad for first trail
- Trail running is to road running like mountain biking is to road biking or ocean swimming is to pool swimming. Same mechanics but a different technique.
- It’s hard to race based on pace. First, the distance is not accurate with a GPS and a tightly-packed, tortuous course. Secondly, the up/down nature of the running sends your pace into wild swings.
- Get into the woods early so you are not having to pass as many people. Better to be passed than to have to burn matches passing large groups.