When I run up these steps…
I’m on top of the world…
And I never want to come back down.
Early Sunday morning I ran my favorite trail – Manassas Battlefield - with a group of friends. I don’t know what it is about trail running, but whereas road running has the tendency to wring me out, trail running fills me up. There is nothing I like more than running through the trees, feeling the crunch of leaves or – depending on the season - rustle of grass under my feet , inhaling the scents of nature (unless there are skunks or dead animals, in which case I hold my breath!), and hearing the water run through the streams.
I’ve been running trails for many years and find them a very comfortable place to run, but I know there are many people who find trails intimidating, perhaps even scary. A few weeks ago a friend asked if I’d write a post on how to run trails. My first reaction was, “write about trails? Sure! I love trails!” And then I thought, maybe I don’t have all the answers, because I don’t really know what the questions are. So I asked people to tell me what they want to know. Below are the requests I received, and my answers.
How to run over trail stuff without getting an injury!
In my humble opinion, you’re a whole lot more likely to get injured running on a man-made surface (asphalt, concrete, track) than on a trail. That being said, I realize the fear is that you’ll trip over something. It probably is true that there are more serious injuries on the trail, such as broken bones, than on the road. First of all, you have to let go of that fear because otherwise you’re much more likely to fall because you’re not relaxed, and running relaxed is important on the trails. After I broke my ankle on a cross-country course my first few runs back on the trail were terrible because I was being overcautious and I was so afraid. Once I relaxed, I was fine.
Here’s the key: look where you’re going. That doesn’t mean stare at the ground under your feet. Look out and ahead, and you’ll spot any obstacles way before they become an issue. Another important modification is shorten your stride. I find that I naturally do this on the trail, but if you’re used to taking big long strides, you’ll want to shorten them on the trail. Doing this makes you more nimble and able to place your feet exactly where you want to. Remember, you’re not running in a straight line so your feet will need to land in different directions.
Here’s another request:
The subtle differences from the road. What you wish you knew on your first trail race / run
I don’t think there really are subtle differences. I think the differences are quite glaring. You know how road biking is so completely different from mountain biking? I don’t think the difference between road running and trail running is as big as that, but it’s still significant. Let’s talk first about pacing. So most of us run on roads with a Garmin that tells us our exact pace and we refer to it often. On the trail, your pace fluctuates so much because of the changes in terrain that looking at your pace is kinda pointless. Now I’ll admit that I wear a Garmin on the trail, but it’s really only to measure distance and total time. I really don’t worry much about the pace but go by perceived effort instead. My trail training runs are all based on time, not pace. Even in racing on trails, I don’t worry about pace. Besides, looking down at a Garmin and away from the trail can be hazardous! In addition, you cannot run the pace on the trail that you do on the road. You will be slower. So going by perceived effort is a much better idea.
My first trail race, besides high school cross country, was in France. I wish I had known how hard it would be. My shoelace came untied halfway through so I wish I’d tied them tighter. I always tie my trail shoes tight and tuck in the laces so they don’t pick up a ton of crap. I find out as much about the course as possible – hills, streams, mud – much as you would for a road race, but with more variables.
Do I need trail shoes?
This is hard to answer. Yes and no. I wear trail shoes – Brooks Cascadia. I look for a shoe that is light and has a nubby sole for traction. Trail shoes have a rock plate on the front that protects your piggies when (not if) you stub your foot on a rock or root. (Did I mention trail running isn’t for sissies?) That being said, you can get away with a road shoe most of the time. Unless it’s muddy. In mud, you want a trail shoe. During one particularly muddy Backyard Burn race a few years ago, I kept finding myself behind people who were sliding back down the mudslide of a hill they were trying to climb. All the sliders were wearing road shoes. It’s also nice to have a pair of shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty. My trail shoes get pretty mud encrusted. I usually just bang off the mud unless they’re really bad, then I hose them off.
Finally, a concern:
I’m worried about getting lost.
So am I. In fact, I have a reputation for getting lost. On Sunday I made a wrong turn…I realized and corrected myself, but I wouldn’t really have been lost as there are signs at the Battlefield. And you can always run a trail that’s an out and back, such as Bull Run. Mind you, I even managed to get lost there…not once, but twice…
If I could give a final piece of advice it would be: try it. Just go out and give it a try. You never know, you may find you love it as much as I do.
Saturday I made a cake. The middle sunk, so I cut it out with a glass. What was left got a big thumbs up from the cake lover in the family.
Sunday I raced a half marathon – Dahlgren Heritage Trail Half in King George, VA. I kinda sunk in the middle of that, too.
But then I knew. I knew that running a half marathon when my longest run in the last 8 weeks was 8 miles was a bit of a stretch. In January I got this glute/ham injury that turned into a calf injury. I could feel my leg twisting when I ran and was pretty sure my hip had rotated, something that has happened before. I rested for a week. It wasn’t enough. I got some acupuncture and saw my chiropractor. The pain lessened and I could run again, but of course had to start with low mileage, so going into the race I really didn’t have the fitness for a fast half.
I decided to go ahead and run the race because I find it hard to turn down a trail race. Also, I was running it with RunWiki, and, well, I’ll admit, there was prize money. (I did win some cash, just not as much as I’d originally hoped.) But since you can’t have your cake and eat it, I had to be content with running the race but not racing the race. I still gave it my all, it’s just that all wasn’t enough.
It turned out to be a beautiful day and I really enjoyed the trail. Had I been on the road I think I would have felt very different, downright miserable, probably. For some absurd reason the Guns ‘n’ Roses song “Paradise City” stuck with me the entire race. What a treat.
I ran with RunWiki and another girl for about the first 5 miles. I could tell that I was working harder than the two of them and doubted my ability to stick with them but ran with them so they could “carry” me a little. I knew that once I fell from our little pack I wouldn’t be able to sustain that pace. (Since we started in the elite category, 2 minutes ahead of the age groupers, there wasn’t another group for me to run with.)
At the turnaround at exactly halfway I told RunWiki to “go for it” since she was still with the other girl while I had fallen back. About a mile later I realized I was getting closer to RunWiki and the other girl. My Garmin had lost satellite and was either telling me I was running a 5 minute mile (impossible) or an 11 minute mile (I hoped that wasn’t true) so I couldn’t tell if I had sped up or they had slowed, but the fact that I was closing the gap gave me the incentive I needed to pick up the pace. As I got closer I realized they were chatting! But as soon as I reconnected with them I guess the other girl realized she had slowed and suddenly picked up the pace. I told RunWiki there was no way I was catching her, and told her to go after her. She said, “but she’s nice.” “It’s a RACE,” I growled. This girl obviously had a couple more gears because, while RunWiki tailed her ferociously, she kept just enough distance between them. Meanwhile, I kept plugging away, listening to Guns ‘n’ Roses, ignoring my Garmin which had obviously given up looking for satellites, and trying to keep RunWiki in my sights. I could see her all the way until the end and we finished 30 seconds apart, RunWiki 4th, me 5th. (Note that there were only 5 women in the elite category so I could have slowed to a walk and still come in 5th, since you had to start in this category to place in it. Of course I didn’t slow and pushed hard all the way to the end, but it was an odd position to be in…)
If you like flat courses and don’t mind a few rocks and pine cones, peace and quiet, and low entry fees ($35!), this is a great race for you. The course is an out-and-back along the picturesque Dahlgren Heritage Trail, a former railroad. The elite race is separate from the age group race and starts 2 minutes ahead, so you can choose whether you want to race for cash or awards. It also prevents a mass stampede at the start. The funny thing was that the guy who won started in the age group division, 2 minutes down, and went and passed every single runner who’d started ahead of him.
Here’s a fab picture of the start, taken by RunWiki:
And some other random pics:
Stupid, freaking traffic. It’s 10:40 Sunday morning and I’m running late for a rendezvous with the trail. It’s been a couple of months since I’ve been on a trail run and I can’t wait. But Pleasant Valley Rd. is backed up and I have no idea why. Then, as I crawl toward the 4-way stop at Braddock Rd., I see it. Cox Farms. And I remember that it’s Fall Festival opening weekend. And everyone in Northern Virginia is headed to the festival.
Finally crawl past Braddock and get on the open road. Quick call to my friend Lisa, who I discover missed the turn and is now backtracking, so at least she’s not waiting. I should be there in 5 minutes. But every stinking light on Route 29 is red. Quick call to husband to ask him to pick up kids at 12:30 as there’s no way I’ll make it now. Finally reach trailhead at 11am, 15 minutes late and FUMING. Stupid, freaking traffic. Stupid, freaking red lights.
We start running along Bull Run trail. And within 3 minutes my anger and tension have vanished. Running on the trail, any trail, is as close to a spiritual experience as I’ll get. I can’t describe it. I don’t even notice I’m running. And before I get too carried away and start dropping cliches all over the page, let me show you why running trails is so much better than running on the road.
There is just no way you can have this much fun on the road. And you don’t have to worry about getting lost. You don’t even need a map or directions. You just follow the markings on the trees:
Roads are for cars. Trails are for fun.
When I talk about trail-running, people often ask me if I fall. Of course I do. Not often, but yes, I do fall once in a while. When I do, I make sure it’s really good. I used to run in Rock Creek Park and a hill there was renamed “Butt Hill” after I fell at the top and slid on my butt all the way to the bottom. I still have a scar from that one.
Yesterday I made sure it was a fall worth talking about. Less than one hour into a 3.5 mile run on Bull Run trail, I slipped while rock-hopping across a river, smacked one leg under the knee, the other above it, and fell butt first up to my waist in the river. What’s worse, I ripped my shorts.
Thankfully, my running partner Adam rescued my sunglasses. What a relief! Actually, it was good that he did because 2 hrs later, the gnats came out in force. Although it was dusk I put my sunglasses back on so they couldn’t fly into my eyes. They still flew into my mouth but I was tired of eating GU anyway…
Once I extracted myself from the river and checked that I hadn’t broken anything, Adam and I continued on our way. My knee was a little sore, which made running downhill hurt, and my other leg was scraped up badly, but the river water had stopped the bleeding. We had run less than 5 miles and I had no plans to wimp out and turn back.
The hills and my knee slowed us down a lot, so when we turned around at 1 hr 45 mins we had only gone 9 miles, but the sun was due to set right at 3.5 hrs from the time we started and I didn’t want to run the trails in the dark. We were working hard but walking the hills like ultrarunners are supposed to, so I wasn’t really concerned about mileage. I did expect to run more than the 17 we ended up running, but the run was for time, not distance, so I didn’t feel the need to go and blast out 3 extra on the road or anything like that. I did say to Adam that I was a little worried about the fact that we will have to run 14 miles further than that in 3 weeks, but I’m hoping that the adrenaline that goes with racing and morning (rather than evening) running will help.
Aside from the scrapes and bruises, which are a wonderful shade of purple right now, my legs aren’t at all sore from the run. When I got home, even though it was 8pm and I was getting cold, I made myself sit in an ice bath. Some people think this is torturous but I have found a way to make it less painful. First, I fill the bath with cold water high enough to cover my legs completely. Then I get in with my clothes still on and a hooded sweatshirt on top. This is important because clothes do take the edge off. I find it especially essential to keep my socks on, as my feet really sting otherwise. Once I’m in, I dump a bag of ice in the bath. Then I grab my hot chocolate (really helps!) and phone and check e-mail, go on Facebook, etc. It’s amazing how quickly those 15 minutes go by!
Once I’m out of the ice, I take a hot shower. The ice helps to remove all the waste products from your legs, while the heat helps pump in fresh blood to promote healing and recovery. Now I just need some warm weather so I can show off my latest war wounds…
I have my fingers in too many pies and, as a result, spend far too much time feeling guilty. When I’m running with my running club, I feel bad that I’m missing whatever workout my tri group is doing. When I’m with the tri group, I feel like I’m cheating on my running club. I bounce back and forth between the two like some sort of adulterous athlete, trying to find the perfect balance and wishing I could be in two (actually three, because I’m not home, either) places at once.
This weekend I finally found that balance. On Saturday morning I ran with the running club. I certainly wasn’t going to miss post-run waffles at the home of two of our members! I planned to run 10 miles but the others were running 8 so I split the difference and tacked on one extra mile. I was worried all the waffles would be gone if I stayed out any longer. Hey, nutrition is important. Look at all that fruit and fiber.
Saturday afternoon was my tri club’s bike time trial and I was all set with my shiny new B2. Then it started raining.
Then it stopped and we set off to ride as many 7-mile loops as possible in 1 hour. I was doing well and having a grand old time passing people (helps when you have issues clipping in and start at the back) and felt strong on the uphills and fast on the downs. Then my freaking bike broke.
I was having issues with something rubbing on the small ring already, and then something started rattling like crazy and I looked down to see a screw that holds the handlebars on had come loose. I stopped, checked it out, and rode back to the turnaround to get it looked at. Long story short, it couldn’t be tightened on the spot and I was done. I drowned my sorrows in a humungous hamburger cooked to rare perfection, and felt much better. I also ordered myself a “onesie” tri suit that I am probably going to be far too embarrassed ever to wear. These are the things I do when I’m hacked off.
Sunday I planned to do an easy run on Manassas Battlefield with my husband, but he was having cramping issues from a swim that morning and bike the day before. Or maybe he was looking for a way out since I’m notorious for getting people lost on the trails…
I thought I was going to have to go it alone but my coach and another tri group friend decided to join me. Guess they hadn’t heard about my penchant for recreating scenes from Blair Witch by leading people in circles. Anyway, I was sure to bring a map with me this time and I actually managed not to get lost, although I made a couple of “it’s probably this way…” decision points. The guys really enjoyed the run so I think I succeeded in showing them there are far, far better alternatives to supposed trails like the W&OD, aka trail of death.
For now, I am like frozen yogurt - guilt-free.
Oh, and a couple more things: there’s still time to enter the Stuffitts Giveaway! It ends April 14th. And who searches for “running shorts you can poop in”???? Really!
I was going to post this yesterday but my husband convinced me to watch an episode of House, which I haven’t seen in ages. When did House and Cuddy get together? Honestly, I watch them flirt around for years and then miss the actual event.
Last Saturday I joined my Manassas Battlefield running buddies. This weekly get-together is organized by Ian Connor, the manager at The Running Store in Gainesville. It’s a great group. Even though I attend their runs sporadically they are always welcoming. Ian is one of the nicest guys on the planet. In college he was named All-American several times in Cross-Country and Track, has qualified for the Olympic trials, and could run up front with the fast guys if he wanted to, but he hangs back and keeps the group together, making sure everyone has a buddy to stay with and no-one gets lost. He is like the group shepherd. Or maybe the sheepdog, since he does a lot of herding.
I always enjoy chatting with Ian but feel guilty about monopolizing his time because, since I rarely come out, there’s always a lot for us to catch up on and I will bend his ear for miles. After talking about nip guards and body glide, we got onto more serious stuff. He asked me why I was running at the back of the pack instead of up front and I explained I’d just run Shamrock marathon and was training for a 50K so needed to take it easy. Then he told me he was putting his coaching hat on and suggested I bag the ultra stuff until I’m burnt out on marathons and run 2 marathons a year instead. I protested that I AM burnt out on marathons, even though I’ve only run five, and want to try something different, something off-road. It was an interesting conversation because it made me realize for the first time why I want to run 50K. I absolutely LOVE trail running and want to get off the road for my longer races. I could keep running road marathons and try to get faster each time but my heart isn’t in it.
I was practicing eating different foods, even though on a normal 10 mile run I’d just manage with one GU. When I pulled out the chocolate chip cookies Ian asked me if I’d brought milk…yeah, yeah. Everyone was squeezing gels and chewing shotblocks and I was eating cookies. I need to get used to eating regular food because I figure that’s what you need in an ultra. As those of us who have experimented have discovered, your stomach can only handle so many GUs. I managed five during Shamrock Marathon, the most I’ve ever consumed in a race. But the ultra will take me much longer, probably more than five hours, so I need to practice eating different stuff. But what, exactly?
I decided to enlist the help of some ultrarunners whose blogs I follow. Dan Rose is a seriously fast guy who runs seriously long races and ran for Team USA in last year’s 24 hour world championship. He lives near me and we both run Bull Run trail, but I’ve yet to meet him. Dan said: “Alison, I’m a ‘liquid only’ guy during ultras. For a 50k I’ll just mix in 6 or 7 hammer gels into my camelbak and sip that throughout. For a 50m, I’ll do the same and refill along the way so it works out to 250 calories per hour. For 100 milers I’ll mix in a little Perpetuem after the 50 mile mark to get a little protein & fat in my system. For 24 hour races I’ll usually drink a recovery drink like Ultragen in the middle as well. Overall the goal is always 250 calories/hr. Oh, and I’ll take an SCap every hour for electrolytes no matter the distance of the race. My fuel plan isn’t for everyone, but it keeps things simple and efficient for me and my stomach!”
What?! I was so looking forward to combining my two loves: food and running, and now I’m hearing that ultrarunners don’t really eat? Note that a 50K is small potatoes to Dan. Also note the food analogy. I once tried mixing GU in my water and it was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever tasted. Love you, Dan, but don’t think that plan will work for me!
So I asked Neal Gorman, another fast ultrarunner who lives in the area. Neal said, “On longer runs I usually start off with a Clif bar or two then mix in Clif blocks and GU gels from there after. During long races same thing but during a 50k I will go with only blocks and gels, with gels only towards the end. Calories absorb into the blood more quickly. I also consume one to two (depending on heat) s-caps per hour for electrolytes.”
OK, so at least Neal eats a Clif bar, but he doesn’t eat any real food, either! Amy Sprotson is another phenomenal ultrarunner for whom a 50K is a warmup. She is a member of the Montrail-Mountain Hardwear Team. She recently ran the Chuckanut 50K and experienced “stomach issues” for much of it, so my “hey, what do you eat during a 50K?” may have been poorly timed.
Amy said: “I usually stick to gels or shotblocks. Usually gels, if I’m carrying a handheld water bottle, as they are easier to carry. For a 50 miler and above, I actually don’t vary that too much and still prefer gels and shotblocks. I nibble on real food depending on how I’m feeling, but usually rely on gels/shotblocks/liquid calories (Ultragen). For me, they seem easier to digest.”
OK, three hits and I have totally struck out. So I guess I will be saving the cookies for after the run, and loading up on GU and Honey Stingers. How boring. And a bit disappointing because I was expecting a 5+ hour foodfest where I could look forward to each aid station’s offerings with wild anticipation. On the bright side, it looks like those s-caps I’ve never used will come in handy. Do they expire?!