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What I Learned From Trail Running

Posted Jun 16 2011 3:44pm

(This post was constructed entirely on the plane with my phone.  Yes, it’s a first and yes i’m very proud of myself…)

When I began this trail running experiment last fall with the intent of being an ultrarunner someday, I never expected the decision to have such a tremendous impact on my running life.  After all, I thought, i’m such a natural at this road running thing (yes, I like lying to myself every once in a while) and trails are just extensions of the road, so how hard could this really be?

But after conquering a 50K, and suffering through a 2+ hour half marathon, a 4+ hour marathon, (both about 30+ minutes longer than my personal worst I might add), and countless other trail runs where i’ve found myself running slower than i’ve ever run and struggling just to finish, I have come to realize that the trail is just a completely different animal and i’m just as poor at running them as the perenial couch potato running his first marathon with little to no training.  Perhaps this declaration will come as a surprise to most or some of you who are used to my rocking every workout or killing every race, but when it comes to running on trails with some changes in elevation or with a little technically, the truth is apparent and not at all subtle…for a trail runner with as much success as i’ve had on the roads, I pretty much suck.

But before you feel sorry for me or object to my self-depricating voice, let me just say that I’m actually very okay with not being a very good trail runner.  In fact, i’m more than okay with it.  I appreciate it and consider it a blessing that i’m less than adequate at something that involves self-propulsion on my own two feet.  This may seem like a strange statement to make on the surface.  After all, who likes to be told they are actually no good at something (Lebron James anyone?).  But when I stop to think about what the trails has taught me about running specifically and life in general, I’m so glad that i’ve somehow meandered my way into that classroom.

For starters, trail running has taught me that just because you are less talented and less skilled than average, it is not an excuse to accept defeat and not train to be better.  As long as you are passionate about what you do and have willingness to learn, you will undoubtedly experience a performance gain every time you run.  On the trails, it hardly matters how fast you run to cover the distance, it is the journey and the transformative process that one goes through from start to finish that is most important.

Another important lesson I learned from trail running is patience — both with myself and with others.  I came into trails with the attitude that every run should begin and end within a specified pace range.  At the beginning when I used to see my trail run pace average in the 9-10 min/mi range instead of the 6-7 min/mi that i’m used to on roads, it really upset me a great deal.  But the more I got out there, and the more reality set in that pace is pretty meaningless when you’re facing  a several hundred foot climb or you’re facing obstacles with danger lurking around every turn (i always imagine myself falling off a cliff or drowning in quicksand when I run…don’t ask me why).   I’ve learned to relax and forgive myself even when the numbers are horrible to look at.  I’ve done it often enough now where I can just log the runs into my running spreadsheet without having to cringe or make excuses for my pace in the margins.  It’s not easy, but i’ve accepted that I will not be fast out there, no matter how long or short the run is. (Believe me, it’s taken me quite a bit of time to get to this point!)  As a consequence, i’ve found that i’m becoming more patient with other people and their running too. Because of my own flaws and follies on the trail, I can more easily identify with newer runners who are having a hard time on the roads.  I understand now when they can’t motivate to run constitently everyday.  I am not frustrated by people who run and race much slower than me on the roads.  I imagine myself on trails having as much difficulty as them keeping a 10 min/mi pace on the road and i’m immediately humbled.  It’s not either easy or fun to run so much longer than what you intended to or what you think you could.

Finally, i’m appreciative of trail running because it has rejuvenated my running. Not only am I able to run longer now than I ever have I am also (surprisingly) running much faster too!  Let the evidence show that since hitting up the trails in late November, i’ve PR’d in the 5K, the 10K and the marathon too.  I attribute much of this success to the amount of time i’m spent recovering and “cross training” on trails.  Because I run so much slower on dirt than I do on pavement and the rough and uneven terrain engages entirely differrent sets of muscles than running fast on even roads, it has proven to be a very effective form of cross training for me.  I generally feel less sore and more healthy the day after a recovery trail run than if I had sat the day out particularly after a long hard tempo run or a race.  Some people bike or swim.  Others like to do yoga or pilates on their nonworkout days.  I hit up the trails and it seems to work for me.

The lessons i’ve learned while out on the trails are many and extend beyond its obvious benefits to my running performance.  Although i know this is true inherently, it is still sometimes hard for me to get excited over the prospects of a 2 to 3 hour run over trails (i would much rather spent that time on a 20 or 22 mile run!).  But like i tell the kids i see at the office everyday (those who are old enough to understand anyways) more often than not the best medicine and treatments hurt a little and aren’t the most comfortable! I try to keep that in mind when i’m having a particularly rough time on a hilly trail run and find myself debating if i should continue or just go home ever come back!

What is your general attitude on trail running?  Do you do it often, sometimes, or not at all?  What lessons have the trails taught you? Share your thoughts.  I’d be curious to know.

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