I’d done my reading and my asking around enough to know trail running had certain benefits. Fresh air. Synapses firing because trees and rocks and streams and being like a caveman. The actualization of that aspirational rave run image: gliding in clean neoprene over an endless and undiscovered swath of trees across babbling stream on the shoulder of misty lake. All specifically painted without errant brushstroke just for me, The Trail Runner.
Reality was vastly different. Reality was twisted ankles, bug bites, dehydration and, well, a lot of falling to the ground—gouges to the palms and mouths full of dust.
No, I was not a trail convert, not by a longshot.
Give me a long stretch of tarmac and a cool brew on the other side. Show me a consistent pace and keep it light on the injuries. Let me run with the wind behind me and gravity not yanking me down to the thistle and gravel.
One day, a 12-week-old rescue border collie named Kip entered my life, and that all changed.
Kip had energy, lots of it. In that way, we were kind of the same. We differed when it came to running, however. I wanted to run. Kip needed to run.
You know when you’re a little kid and you spin and spin until you end up on the ground and the sky’s still spinning? Or when you’re a little older and you drink and drink until you end up on the bed and the ceiling’s still spinning? Well, I hadn’t had that sensation in years—till I started running with Kip.
While I was attempting to get from point A to point B in a dignified and timely manner, he was trying his best to prevent that by herding me. Watching a dog trying to corral a runner on a 10-foot lead is akin to watching an eighth-grader square off in an ego-boosting match of tether ball against a hapless third-grader. A lot of futile reaching into the air and spinning around and eventually, tears is what my initial runs with Kip brought.
I reasoned I wasn’t going to fix generations of border collie breeding with a straight road and a rope around his neck. I also knew it was only a matter of time before I had to let Kip roam free to circle me with a 20-foot buffer of his own creation.
The only place to do that would be the trail.
And here’s what I learned once I got out there:
- It’s OK to not be as fast on trail: Part of my problem was my six-minute road miles quickly became 10-plus minutes off-road. For some reason, I thought my overall run times should be negligible on a trail and felt “slow.” Not so. Once I learned that a trail day wasn’t going to be a half-hour doorstep to doorstep, I learned to relax a bit, to slow it down. To mind my footing. To watch the young pup chase chipmunks into the brush. To wave hi at hikers. To let aggro mountain biker guy go by. In a sense, once I learned to slow down…
- I started to speed up: Once trail got in the mix, my workouts on the pavement began to improve, instantly. My ankles and calves were stronger and my quads started to actually, look like quads (not just like, um, pairs). My turnover was quicker and my resting heart rate lower. But more than anything, I was just more sure afoot. As a runner who’s also preternaturally clumsy and prone to ankle injuries, I’ve never had to take two weeks off with the boot since I started becoming trail-centric. Coincidence? I think not.
- I learned to leave the gadgets behind: There’s nothing wrong with being the guy with the GPS watch, the heartrate monitor, the phone/music strapped around the bicep, earbuds in and headband low over the eyes. It’s just there’s not as much room for that on the trail. It’s not that time doesn’t matter on trail (quite the opposite, sometimes you get a little ‘lost’ in your own thought and cadence and need a reminder to turn back) or that it’s not nice to track your progress or be in your running zone with your tunes—it’s just that being outdoors, is different. Different sights, different sounds, and—to be quite honest—different threats. Nature is not the Apple Store, and whether your eyes and ears open for a Moose on the Pinebrook trails in Park City, snake rattles in the, what else? Rattlesnake Canyon in Santa Ynez, or watching for whale spouts from the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, there are many reminders on the trail that we are not alone—so might as well bring your wits along for the ride.
- It’s the workout, stupid: Sure you get better foot-eye coordination and after awhile you can to impress your friends skipping over tricky technical spots like Pan. But workouts, the best workouts, can be tailored to trail. Some of my most-effective interval moments have been on singletrack. Mixing in a fartlek (short bursts) is key. My favorite workout of all time is done on trail: It’s a 20-minute warm-up, one-minute surge, back to normal pace for a minute, two-minute surge, back to normal pace for a minute, three-minute surge, back to normal pace…you get the picture. The most I’ve done is eight minutes and then worked back down (seven, rest, six, rest, five, rest…) and a 15-minute warm-down to end it. In under an hour I’d run more than 10 trail miles and had the best training run of my life. Note: Recovery day the next day included a hot tub and watching Point Break wearing compression sipping a smoothie.
- Trails = hills. And hills make for bad-ass runners.
So go ahead, get a little dirty. Increase your VO2 max. Hone that great American novel idea. Solve a few of the world’s problems or at least some of life’s mysteries. Take the dog out with you and let him roam free like all dogs should. And get rid of those shin splints and ITB issues while you’re at it. Trails do all that…and come with a thousand Instagramable memories sharable with only you.
And soon, you’ll find you won’t just want to do a trail run, you’ll need to.