Trail Running, Where Have You Been My Entire Running Life?

The trail makes me feel so free. Primal even. I get very dirty, I ignore my split times, and I concentrate on escaping deeper into the woods. 
Because I’ve never raced on trails, I’ve never thought to train on trails. Why go off road if I’m only participating in road races? This was my thought process, until recently.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am completely in love with distance running. Through running I found a strength inside of me that I didn’t know I had. My goal each year is to get a little bit better, but more importantly, my main goal is to just keep running. I don’t want to ever quit running. I want this feeling for as long as I can have it. Trail running has allowed me to look at running with fresh eyes. I’m experiencing the excitement I felt when I first discovered running. I have embarked on a whole new world of running. I can certainly see how adding trail running to the mix would prevent runner burnout. I never thought I’d be able to appreciate running more than I already did, but I can safely say that trail running has increased my love of the sport of running.

One of the very first things that appealed to me about trail running was the increased connection with nature. Road running allows for a certain type of communing with nature, certainly. There’s just something about being outside, free of a vehicle, and feeling the body move for hours at a time. This is what I find so stimulating about long runs. I feel like Henry David Thoreau out there on a long run, even if the majority of my run is through suburban streets. But, I have to say, running through trails is just pure magic. It makes me feel primal. On the trails I have completely escaped the concrete jungle and I’m truly in nature.

I find that trail running is very different than road running. It’s almost as if it is an entirely different sport. I find that instead of closely monitoring my pace like I do on a road run, I run to the tune of my own body. On the trail, there’s no more pace, instead I think about effort level and the terrain. Additionally, I can’t map the distance out before I get there since I can’t exactly google map an off road trail, so that only adds to the intrigue. When I set out on a trail run, I run according to the feeling of my body and the terrain. Whatever distance I end up with is what I end up with. Whatever average pace I maintain, is what I end up with. I do not tailor my run to anything other than the way my body is feeling and the terrain.

Trail running is proving to be an excellent way for me to cross train and recover. With road running I tend to run in a straight line. With trail running, I must routinely side step and change my stride length to avoid roots and other obstacles. My pace varies because of fluctuating terrain, and all of this requires patience. Patience is a wonderful quality in a runner. For, isn’t that the quality that makes a distance runner successful? You cannot be impatient on the trails. I have found that you just can’t. Furthermore, you have no desire to be impatient. I find that I concentrate on the terrain, and this close attention completely engages my mind in my activity.

I find that trail running is helping me develop better running habits. I have to pick up my feet quickly and raise my knees high to clear tree branches and roots. Quick feet and high knees are good for running form. I am also finding that navigating the trail requires balance, coordination, strength, agility, and power. I can feel that I am working different muscles because of the elevation and uneven surface. I am working my stabilizing, lateral muscles and this makes for a tougher workout. All of this work will surely improve my road running.

Am I a road runner? A trail runner? Let’s just say I’m a runner. I’m not willing to give either up, and luckily I don’t have to. I can enjoy my long runs through my suburban neighborhood and take to the trails whenever I please. I am absolutely fascinated by both road and trail running. Recently I have encountered runners that are either trail runners or road runners exclusively, with no wavering. Some trail runners claim that they are more laid back and that road runners are more uptight and commercial. From my limited knowledge, I can see a little truth in these beliefs, but personally, I think that all runners are just a little bit off. I mean that in a good way; I mean, I’m right there in that group too, remember?

Runners are just a little bit different. We’re extraordinary. We are our own breed.

My perception of fatigue is what limits me as a runner.

What I have to come to realize with distance running is that it all boils down to perception of fatigue. Short distance sprinters rely on their physical capacity. Conversely, in distance running, the reason a runner doesn’t finish faster has everything to do with their internal monologue and perceived level of fatigue. It is a mental advantage that separates distance runners, not a physical advantage.

So all of this has got me thinking about the disparity that exists between what I feel when I am running and what is actually happening. It’s not the actual fatigue that’s making me feel horrible, it’s my brain’s response to the fatigue. My running goal each year is the same: to get a little faster. In an effort to make this happen, I do track/speed work each week. This is the time where I work on my speed over shorter distances. From all of this speed work, I have learned that my problem isn’t lack of speed. I know I can run a 6:30 mile. The problem is the lack of endurance, or at the very least the perceived lack of endurance, necessary to run 26.2 miles at a 6:30 pace without hitting a wall and needing to stop. Is this wall real? Or is it an imagined wall? I mean, I know it isn’t real in the physical sense, but you know what I mean.

On my long run this past weekend I asked myself, When is it that I struggle? Is it at certain times of the year? Month? Is it when I have a lot on my mind? Is it when I don’t have anything on my mind? Is it when I’m battling injury? Is it when I’ve been overtraining? Undertraining? Is it when I pay too much attention to how my body is feeling? Is it when I’m too concerned with monitoring my pace? Is it when the weather is too cold or too hot? 

I often know that what I’m feeling doesn’t accurately compare to what is physically happening to me. In other words, my highly unreliable brain tells me that I’m going to run out of steam if I don’t ease up on my pace. Why on earth would I listen to this negative voice? Why can’t I muster up enough mental strength to quiet those negative thoughts? I believe it has to do with how hard my brain is working my body. It’s all about my perception of effort and how hard my brain is working. As my body gets tired, my brain has a harder time working my body. The feeling of fatigue ends up trumping those thoughts in my brain that were propelling me forward.

I’m an amateur, but I’ve read enough from elite runners to know that this desire to stop for inexplicable reasons plagues the elite runners too. The simple fact is that running is hard. It is just plain hard. It’s hard to convince myself to wake up early for a run, it’s hard to kick myself out the door to start my run, it’s hard to keep running at a certain pace, it’s hard to keep running as opposed to walking, it’s hard to avoid shortening my course, and it’s hard to stick to my running plan. It’s just so very hard. This is also why it’s so very rewarding. It’s extremely rewarding to do something that is very hard to do. When we do hard things we get to say, “I do hard things.” How satisfying is that? It’s extremely satisfying. 

One thing I know for certain is that once I cross the finish line of a race I am immediately feeling better. I am feeling better because I accomplished what I set out to do; I crossed the finish line. But often I end up kicking myself because I know, in my runner heart of hearts, that I could have pushed harder. I mean, look at me on that finish line! Am I doubled over in pain, vomiting and shaking violently? No, I’m smiling, receiving my medal, bottled water, and banana and making a mad dart to the beer tent. So why is it so hard for my brain to convince my body to keep pushing? I’m not exactly sure, but since I know that my performance is directly linked to how hard my brain is working my body, I shall try to keep my brain working hard on working my body.
Easier said than done, right?