Thursday, February 9, 2012

Ten Tips for Preparing For Your First Trail Race (Part 2):

Well, if you were persistent enough to get through the first five tips and have come back for the second five, then you probably do have what it takes to be a trail runner. (If you missed the first five, click here to read those first) Here are the second half of the tips as promised:

 6. Expect to fall occasionally: One of the things that often deters road runners from running on the trail is fear of falling. That is a justifiable fear. Trail runners do fall. It kind of comes with the territory. This is especially true when road runners first make the switch. Road runners often don't pick up their feet high enough to get over even small roots or rocks on the trail. This becomes an even bigger factor when fatigue sets in. One of the ways I can sometimes tell I am fatigued late in a race is that I start stubbing my toe on obstacles that I should have cleared.

As you will eventually find out, the ground is a lot harder than it was when you were a kid. However, most falls on the trails are minor inconveniences that result in a skinned knee or elbow, a little blood that is harmless but that makes you look really tough at the finish. and a big ugly bruise the next day that, depending on its location, may or may not be suitable for showing off to your coworkers (the ones who already think you are insane for running in the first place).

However, in the interest of full disclosure, I do need to say that sometimes more serious falls do happen. Anyone that knows me personally knows that I took a low speed spill last summer that ended with a ruptured spleen and four days in the hospital. I also fell on a poison oak branch once that punctured by arm and gave me systemic poison oak. Not fun! I also have known people who have broken bones. Twisted ankles are common. These things are rare, but they do happen. Trail runners accept this fact, just as bicyclists accept the idea that they could crash. I have had road running friends that have also been hit by cars. The sport is not without risk. If this is a big worry for you, then trail running may not be your thing.

7.Adjust your expectations: Trail racing is not like road racing. Most road racers think constantly about pace and are anxious to get to those mile markers and click off those mile splits. When I run road races, I am like that too. I expect the course to be marked every mile, and I expect everything to be accurate. Trail racing is not at all like that.

First of all, it is the rare trail race that has regular mile markers on the course (although they will often have the mileage at aid stations). Additionally, trail courses are often off some in their total distance. The race director cannot always get the trail marathon to come out to 26.2 and have the start/finish in an appropriate area. They have to work around the trail and the forest. Trail runners know and accept that. These are not USATF certified courses.

You also need to adjust your expectations about your running pace and finishing time. If you have entered a trail marathon or half marathon hoping to improve your road PR at those distances, you are in for a not very pleasant surprise. Most people run considerably slower on the trails than on the road, partially because of the surface and partially because of the hilly nature of most trail race courses. Let me give you an example. Last summer (before I broke myself) my road PR for a half marathon was 1:41:51 (a 7:46 pace) , but my best trail half during roughly the same period was 2:07:57 (a 9:46 pace). In case you think that the trail marathon must just have been a bad performance, I actually placed higher in my age group in the trail half than in the road race (2nd vs. 3rd). Trail times are just slower.

This is where preparation and doing some long runs on the trails are really important. You need to have a good sense of what your trail pace really is. In your first few trail races, don't try to push too much faster than your training pace, especially if the course is hilly. Running faster on the trails than you are used to can throw off your coordination, and you could fall, or you could just burn yourself out and end up with a really painful slog through the second half of the race.

I made that mistake at the Yankee Springs trail race last year (just because I know better doesn't mean I always do better). I took off feeling really good for about four miles and going way too fast. At about six miles or so we hit this long climb. I was dead. I slowed to a jog, then a fast walk, then a slow walk. Probably 20 people passed me on that hill. (I think I saw a lady with a walker whizz by but that might have been a hallucination). It was humiliating and painful and totally my own fault for not going out at a sensible pace that I knew I could maintain. I did end up finishing because there was no other way out, but it was a really long and painful last several miles. Lessons like that one stick with you. I still get tired just thinking about it.

8. Learn trail racing etiquette: Trail running has its own etiquette. It is not complicated like the rules of golf, but there are some things you should know about trail running and racing. Trail Runner magazine has an excellent article on this which includes the basics of trail running etiquette that you should take a look at before going out. The biggies include staying on the trail, not littering, and being respectful of others using the trail. I will add a few additional ideas for trail racing specifically.

Trail races usually start in a wide area, but often narrow quickly to a single track trail. This is to allow runners to sort themselves out a bit before getting in an area that is difficult to pass. If you are a new or slower trail runner, please don't sprint out with the leaders at a pace you can't maintain for more than a mile. This will mean that faster runners will have to pass, which is more difficult on narrow trails than on the road.

If you find that you have gone out too fast (or that you are slowing down later in a race) and that runners are wanting to pass, move to the side of the trail and make it as easy for the passer as possible. If someone approaches from behind, don't ignore them. Ask them if they want to pass. Usually a runner who wants to pass will signal by saying "on your left" or "trail." Don't make the person have to run way off the trail to get around you. Move as far to the right as possible and step aside. (Those are the same rules you should follow, in reverse, if you want to pass.)

My special pet peeve in trail races is men (sorry guys) who don't move over but just speed up when a woman behind them says "on your left." Making a runner repeat a request to pass two or three times will not make you popular with your new trail running friends. If you are the passer, it is also always nice to thank the person being passed for letting you through.

Although the Trail Runner article above did address littering, it needs mentioned again here. In trail races, you don't just drop things and hope someone will pick up after you. You know that little top off your gel pack that you normally spit out without thinking. That needs to be packed out or disposed of at an aid station, as does that empty gel package. Many runners carry a baggy just to dispose of those empties. Others take their gels right before or at the aid stations so that the trash can be discarded immediately. Some trail races, such as Keyes Peak, are even switching to a "no cups" policy. At this race all runners carry a bottle, and the aid stations refill them. This may be a wave of the future, as most trail races strive to be more and more environmentally conscious.

A related question you may have but be afraid to ask is "What if I have to go?" Eventually if you run trails much, you will have to go while out on the trail. There are rules of etiquette for this as well. Get a ways off the trail, out of sight if possible. Urination is not a big deal, but more than that requires special consideration. Dig a small hole about 3 to 6 inches deep. Sticks and rocks are good for helping with this. Be sure to cover your waste thoroughly. There are two schools of thought on toilet paper. One school says "pack it out" while the other says it is okay to bury it. If you plan to bury, a quick biodegrading kind, like they sell for camping, is a good idea. If you are packing out, I recommend a separate baggie from the one used for the gel trash. Oh, and don't forget one last thing: watch the vegetation. There is nothing worse than finding out later that the secluded spot you found was blanketed with poison ivy or oak!

9. Make friends with a veteran: As I mentioned in the previous post, most trail runners are passionate about trail running and love to share this passion with others. If you are interested in running on the trails or getting into longer trail races like ultras, try to find some trail veterans to run with.

I was very fortunate when I became interested in trails to have a mentor (thanks, Jeff) who was willing to share all of his knowledge with me. He had run many ultras, including the Western States 100 (and had the buckle to prove it), and was well ensconced in the ultra running community in Southern California. Not only did he show me all the cool trails, but he also helped me learn about things like how to hydrate and fuel properly for long races. He taught me about electrolyte supplements and how to recognize the difference between electrolyte problems and nutrition problems on the run. He also paced me through my first 50 miler, egging me on the dozen or so times when I wanted to quit, and then didn't even get mad when I ran off from him in the last five miles because I wanted to make a qualifying time for Western States. He also introduced me to some of his ultrarunning friends who were legends in the ultra community at the time, such as Jim O'Brien, course record holder at the Angeles Crest 100 and Dixie Madsen, multiple record holder for women over 60. These people were inspirational to me, and there kindness and willingness to help an eager newbie are typical of the attitude of trail runners.

One of the best ways to do this is to find a trail running group in your area. Most areas that have trails have trail running groups, but they are sometimes hard to find. Ask at your local running store. There is generally someone there who will be able to connect you with a trail group in your area. Searching the Internet, Facebook, or Yahoo Groups with the words "trail running" and your town or your favorite trail name might also get you connected.

10. Enjoy the view! Remember, a major reason to be out there running the trails is to enjoy the view. Why take the risk of running trails? Why do a "race" where you will be running slower than you have before. Here is a video that I think captures it perfectly. It is 4 minutes long, but worth every second:

UltraRunning from Matt Hart on Vimeo.

If that doesn't want to make you head out for a trail run, I don't know what would.

These are some of the tips I have picked up about trail running and racing. Do any of you experienced trail runners have anything to add? Is there anything I left out that you are dying to know? Leave a comment. I would love to hear from you!

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  1. Thank you for being my trail inspiration! I've definitely found a new passion.

  2. What I want to know is what are those little bootie/gaitor things some people put over their shoes/ankles?

  3. Good question. Those are gaitors. They keep sand, dirt, small rocks and such from getting kicked up and into your shoes. I have not had to use them here on your trails in Michigan, but on the sandy trails in Southern California I wore them quite a bit.

  4. I read this and your other posts a week or so ago, and meant to post then, but didn't, and may have missed the answer to this question. Do you have suggestions on trails in/around the Lansing area for people who have no experience, but are interested in trying out trail running?

  5. Melody,
    I am so glad you came back to post. It depends on what part of Lansing that you live in. I have a few favorites. Hawk Meadow is a good one for beginners because it has a mix of pavement and trails and it is next to impossible to get lost:

    I also like the Lake Lansing North Trails:

    They are well marked and have a variety of options. Playmakers has a great group run there on Thursday evenings in summer.

    I also do a lot of running at the trail system at Woldumar Nature Center and Anderson Mountain Bike Trails that are up the road about a quarter mile:

    These trails aren't as well marked and are a little more rugged, but I run there a lot.

    Those are my three favorite options. All of them give somewhere between a 3.5 to 5 mile loop, depending on how you navigate the trails.

    If you ever want company or someone to show you around the trails, let me know.

  6. Thanks so much for the suggestions! I live just about 3 or 4 miles away from Woldumar (and have never been there!), so I may need to check it out. I may have to take you up on the company too, for some help and tips. I've always thought trail running sounded fun, and I'm also hoping that maybe I can get my husband into it- he claims to "hate running", so I was thinking running the trails would be more interesting for him.

  7. Melody,
    Too funny. We must be neighbors because I also am only about 3-4 miles from there. In fact, from Anderson, I can see my house on the other side of the river, just about a quarter mile as the crow flies, but of course I have to drive around the river to get there.

    I go over to Woldumar/Anderson at least once a week, weather permitting. Anderson, which is right next door to Woldumar practically, is my new favorite. I am thinking about going out there in the next day or so to make a video like the one I did for Hawk Island (posted over in videos) so people can see what it is like. You can email me at if you would like to join me sometime.


I would love to hear from you!! Please feel free to comment, ask questions, leave ideas for future postings, or just say "hi."