Last week presented me with an opportunity to explore something that I had been reading about and hearing runner buddies of mine talk about for quite some time.
A true Trail Run.
Now for the past 3 or 4 years I have run close to 5 days a week on the Brushy Creek Trail here in Austin. Some days I’ve decided to run the majority of my miles on surface streets, especially when preparing for a marathon as I believe in training as close to the race environment as possible.
But when I’m not in a heavy marathon training period I take to the local trail as it is much easier on my knees, ankles and hips to be running on crushed limestone or granite than on asphalt.
Calling the Brushy Creek Trail a “trail run” however is not entirely accurate.
Our local trail is a well maintained, manicured, man-made path. Sure there is the occasional rut, dip or gully, even some uneven footfalls especially after a rain storm.
But for the most part I run at close to the same pace I would on asphalt even in the wee hours of the morning with very little light. I may step on a rock or misstep slightly on occasion. But nothing too dangerous.
Trail running is an entirely different animal.
Trail running is a variant on running that differs markedly from road running and track running. Trail running generally takes place on hiking trails, most commonly single track trails, although fire roads are not uncommon.
A distinguishing characteristic of the trails is that they are often inaccessible by road except at the trail heads. The trails tend to traverse varying terrain; hills, mountains, deserts, forests, and narrow passages are common.
Likewise, steep inclines or rough terrain sometimes may require hiking or scrambling. Runners participating in trail runs must often descend these same steep grades. It is not unusual for trail runs to ascend and descend thousands of feet.
Such was the site of my first trail run with my good friend Lara Robinson near Boulder, CO.
Still fighting off a cold that Landry brought home from Day Care I knew that I was going to be in for a tough run as it was. We were starting the run at 6:30 a.m., 30 degrees at an elevation of 5,637 feet.
The previous morning my run took place on my home turf in Austin, temperature 67 degrees at a cozy elevation of 873 feet. I wore shorts, socks and running shoes. Nothing else. Clipping off an “easy” run at 7:29 pace over 6.2 miles.
When I hopped out of my rental car to greet Lara I was back in my winter running gear. Tights, Under Armor Top, Running Vest, Two pairs of gloves and my winter running hat. What a difference a day makes.
Lara and I chatted for a second and then headed up onto the trail at a pace that I would normally consider slow and plodding. I should have been able to talk very easily with Lara as we got underway, but only a couple of minutes into our run this Texan was already wondering where all of the air was.
I was taking deep breaths, but the thin Colorado air was not helping. Add in a clogged nose and a bit of a lingering cough – this was going to be a tough run.
The opening mile climbed 203 feet. Mile 2 another 243 feet. Mile 3 “only” 140. We were going up, up, up toward the top of the canyon reaching a maximum elevation of 6,246 feet before we were able to come thundering down the trail over the last couple miles of our run.
As we continued on the run it was like discovering an entirely different way of running.
Every single footfall needed to be carefully measured. There was not a time where you could really look up ahead and just “zone out”. I watched as Lara ran ahead of me deftly adjusting her stride length, where her foot would land, whether she would drop her foot down onto a flat rock, or jump left and right to find the best footing.
It was remarkable, almost like watching a cat or another sure footed animal naturally adapt to the terrain they were traveling over.
After a couple of miles these changes to my stride and gait started to come naturally. I was even able to start taking a peek here and there at the beauty around me.
At certain points we would stop to take a breather and Lara would tell me about the area we were in.
We ran through one part of the trail that had been blasted away to make way for the path and to the right you could look hundreds of feet down to the river racing by below. It was truly remarkable.
Finally with about a mile or so left to go we were back down on flat terrain and then ran the final ½ mile or so on the asphalt rode I had driven in on to reach the parking lot at the trail head.
My natural running cadence and rhythm came back to me at this point and we were able to turn a mile right around 7:15-7:20 pace.
After only one trail run I could see how great this would be to train for road racing. How much the elevation changes, terrain and variable footing would strengthen every bit of your “lower half” – making you a much stronger runner.
To have this trail system at your disposal anytime you wanted it as Lara does makes me green with envy.
I couldn’t help but think how great it would be to spend a week or two out in the Eldorado Canyon leading up to the Denver Half-Marathon in October, my tune-up race prior to the NYC Marathon on November 6th.
Now when I read about those trail races being held all around North America like the HAT Run that my friends participated in out in Maryland this past spring I “get it”. What an invigorating challenge to race over that kind of terrain.
I’m not sure I am quite ready to put that on my to-do list, as I have enough trouble right now figuring out this swim thing for my first triathlon. Although I did swim 600 Meters yesterday ….
Lookout next time though, I’ll have a much better idea what I’m getting myself into.