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It's All In Your Head

A Woman's Guide To Trail Running
By Nancy Hobbs - December 10th, 2004

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Even though I started running in 1980, the first time I went on a trail run was in 1986, and I wasn't alone. I had a male companion encouraging me every step of the way. He was patient, supportive, and helpful. I was hooked. But, had it not been for that first trip out on the trail with my friend, an experienced trail runner, I might not have ventured into the sport until much later in my running career. I heard about people running on trails - mostly men - and I figured that I would get injured, twisting my ankle or cracking my head open on a rock. I was convinced that I would be attacked by a wild animal as I raced down a hill, fearful of what lurked behind the next tree. I had thought that running on trails was much more complex than a road run. I had to drive to a trail, and I had to carry additional things with me -- like food, water, a map, and an extra jacket. I had no idea what to expect, and I had convinced myself that trail running was way too tough and that I wouldn't enjoy it. Ironically, I hear many of the same concerns from women today who are thinking about giving trail running a try. If you are looking for some reassurance, I have a few suggestions to get you off the road and onto the trail for a more enjoyable first-time experience.

First, find someone who will take you on your first trail run; not someone who will just go with you, but a person who is familiar with the trail you'll be visiting and is able to provide pointers to help you run more smoothly. Seek an individual - male or female - who has a personality that is complementary to yours (as opposed to one that is in direct conflict). If you're shy or timid, be sure that your training partner will reinforce your effort and not push you to run a trail that is beyond your ability. Your confidence will be greatly enhanced by a partner who reinforces each of your accomplishments, and you will soon be running on trails that you wouldn't have considered for your first effort.

I was fortunate to have a supportive male companion urging me down the trail my first time out, but that wasn't the norm when I first set out on the trails. In fact, as recent as the early '90s, I would often be in trail races where men pass me at the earliest opportunity, and park it in front of me just so they could say they weren't beaten by a woman. This tactic was aggravating and a bit intimidating. I find that men are much more tolerant of women in trail races today primarily because there are more women and they are considered to be just as tough competitors as the men. Back in the mid-'80s men outnumbered women 5 to 1 in trail races. Now it's not uncommon to see 35% of a trail race field comprised of women.

Another alternative to choosing a trail-running companion is to run with a group, especially for your first trail outing. One frequent comment I have gotten from women is the worry that they'll be the slowest people on the trail. With a large diverse group, you can always find someone to run at your pace. Most people don't like running alone on the trails; they would rather share their experience. One of the groups that I run with schedules one- to three-hour runs on Sunday mornings. I know that when I get to that workout, I can go at my own pace. Everyone takes off together from the meeting point, and if I want to run with someone, I must either match their pace by slowing down, or speed up to catch the person in front of me. There has always been someone in front of me, sometimes within my line of sight, sometimes not. Since I'm a better downhill runner, I usually make up the time on that portion of a run. I figure that you can always make up more time running down than you can by running up. In a group setting, you always seem to go a little harder and a little further than you might have gone on a solo run. One of the best parts of the group that I run with is that people hang around until the last person finishes. The cheers are often the loudest for the person who is out on the trail the longest. This doesn't undermine the effort; rather, it encourages and rewards the achievement.

For your first run, think about time - not distance - and pick a trail that has relatively easy terrain. If you get with a group that runs one to three hours, choose the shorter outing. Too often women get discouraged because they pick a trail that is too long or too difficult, or they have been goaded into doing something they are not prepared for. Conversely, someone who thinks that they know the trail and the time it will take to run from start to finish can always get into problems. I took a friend of mine on a nice one-hour trail run a few springs ago. I assured him that I knew where I was going as I'd been on the same trail numerous times. Well, I'd never been on the trail in the spring and it looked a bit different (as trails often do in the different seasons). We (I) got completely lost. The weather was changing, we had no jackets or warm clothes, and we had run out of water. After nearly two hours, we finally ran into a mountain biker who steered us in the right direction. Another hour passed before we finally made our way back to the car exhausted, with me apologizing profusely for getting somehow turned around in the woods.

Ease yourself into the trail experience; do not head up a five-mile, single-track chute with a 45-degree pitch your first time out. Choose a trail that is gently rolling with some obstacles (like logs, rocks or creek crossings) and some nice vistas. If you are comfortable running for an hour on the roads, you should be equally comfortable going for one hour or more on the trails. You'll be on softer surfaces and you won't be running quite as fast as you would on the roads due to the variable terrain. Intersperse walking with your running -- it's ok. You'll enjoy yourself much more by taking in the scenery at a walk or standstill than you will be while running. Plus, your potential to fall or misstep is greatly reduced. I have learned this the hard way. Because I have always been super competitive (and still am), and felt that walking during a run was taboo, I would often miss the scenery and peaceful surroundings afforded by trail running. When I would look up long enough to enjoy a vista, I would lose my concentration and my footing. I took my share of falls before I realized that I could walk during my training runs, and still enjoy my trail experience just as much.

Although there are different techniques to learn on the trails, you'll catch on quickly, and you'll develop some new muscles in the process. Trail running also provides a boost for your mental attitude. Not only are you communing with nature and enjoying a stress-free environment, you develop mental toughness by taking on the challenges inherent in the sport. Like me, you will feel empowered and your self-esteem gets a lift when you run further and faster than you initially thought possible. Once you're out on the trails, you become a mentor for other women in a sport that has traditionally been dominated by men.

Nancy Hobbs is the founder and executive director of the All American Trail Running Association, the U.S. Skyrunning Coordinator, and for the past six years has been the team manager for the U.S. Women's Mountain Running Team. She is the sole female delegate on the 25+ member World Mountain Running Association and is an active committee member of USATF's MUT (mountain ultra trail) subcommittee. She runs about 40-45 miles per week.


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