lessons learned from my first trail race

A couple years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to trails. Having been an exclusive road runner (except for maybe in high school XC), I didn’t quite see the attraction. I like the consistency of the pavement (well, when it is) and not having to slow down. But I’m always more than happy to find someone to run with even if this particular person had slightly different values. Unfortunately, I never really saw myself doing it in a serious way, and after a 2-3 runs, I never tried again.

Fast-forwarding to the end of this past fall, I signed up for a trail race to test my mettle (full disclosure: there weren’t any upcoming road races convenient with my schedule). Unfortunately, I didn’t do any research at all until the week of the race, and the little research I did do this past week was cursory. Running websites seem to have a bias against road racing, juxtaposing a sea of marathon runners with the solo ebullient runner traversing a picturesque landscape. They stressed that the two were very different, and I suddenly became anxious about the whole endeavor. Maybe I had underestimated the technical run.

Two days before the race, I decided that I needed to figure out two things: First, with exception to my brief forays I mentioned before, I needed to actually run on a trail. I’ve mostly been on the treadmill or doing other cross-training to maintain my fitness this past month.

Second, the weather has been much colder, and because I knew that trail running wasn’t necessarily the same type of sustained effort as road running, I needed to figure out how warm I would really get in 30 or possibly 20 degree weather in order to layer correctly.

Suffice to say, it would have been helpful to start preparing sooner.

After a few hills on the trail, my legs felt heavy on the pavement. It took me a while to regain my stride, and I realized that I would have to change my mindset. True to what I had read, it’s not a game about finishing as quickly as possible; rather, it’s one that can maybe be compared to meditation, where you learn and practice to become more patient and aware of your surroundings.

At least, those were my immediate reactions. I also came up with a few more after running the actual race this morning, and I thought maybe they could serve as practical lessons for those also looking to do their first trail race:

1. Don’t follow too closely. Just like driving, you never know what’s going to happen. You may trip, or the person in front of you may trip. The end result is the same: it’s your fault (or in the case of this morning, my fault). And I like to think I’m pretty nimble on the road.

2. Enjoy yourself, but keep an eye on the trail. Nothing happened this time, but it was more luck that I was able to quickly recover after getting distracted. I guess that’s why they tell you to learn a trail before you race it!

3. Chat. I highly recommend it, at least. People aren’t checking their split times as often and just seem a lot friendlier. At least, I found people a lot easier and willing to talk to than in a road race where people are chasing after PRs.

4. Take small steps. A veteran on the trail imparted this advice when I told him it was my first trail event. And it makes logical sense. You’re not going for large strides when you’re not always going to be sure where your next step is.

5. Maybe those longer distance aren’t so bad. I opted for the shorter distance this time around because I haven’t done long distances lately, but I felt like I had been running on clouds after the fact. Definitely could have done another loop.

6. It’s not a speed game for good reason. There were a couple times where I passed people only to find a larger gap between me and the next runner. On the pavement, I took this as a challenge to close it as quickly as possible. Well, turns out the 25-75 meter dash on the trail is a lot more tiring than on the road. As one might expect.

And that’s all I have for now! It was a lot of fun, and I feel like I have a deeper appreciation of this side of running. I know some of these items are common sense or don’t seem like they should be said, and I admit that I play the fool sometimes. But I also know that I’m not the only one. So if you do take this advice, I make one final recommendation: Take it to heart. Knowledge and application are not the same things.

Or don’t. Because sometimes living and learning means diving head first, and all the research in the world just isn’t as fun.

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