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Your First Trail Race

By Adam W. Chase - October 8th, 2001

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Ready to convert from road racing to trail racing? Been running trails for years to get in shape and want to step up to racing on them? Nothing should hold you back, especially if you properly prepare for your first trail race, which begins by acknowledging the many distinctions between trail and road racing.

Spontaneous combustion is one of the biggest problems that first-time trail racers suffer, especially if they are long-time road or track runners. They will typically go out way too fast and blow up, which is why it is a good idea to wear your sunglasses around rookie trail racers. Such incendiary starts are embarrassing, wreak havoc on oneÕs confidence, and can lead some runners to quit trail racing before they have given the sport a real chance. Think negative split, especially if the second half of the course is easier than the first.

Trail races are almost always slower than road races, and pace is crucial to enjoying Ñ much less finishing Ñ your first trail event. Never try to set a time goal in a trail race that correlates directly to a road or track race of equivalent distance. Some trail races are already rough enough and demand almost double the time it takes for a road race of the same distance. Even comparing the same trail race from year to year is not a fair measure of your performance because trail conditions can change dramatically due to elements such as weather, wildlife, trail maintenance, and other exogenous factors.

Trail races are often run on hilly terrain, and many trail events are held at higher elevations. They are also run on some pretty challenging terrain that slows runners down to a cautionary, injury-prevention pace in order to avoid ankle twists, blown knees, or major falls. Your lateral stability in trail racing is at a premium, so practice using your hands and arms for balance as you descend rocky trails, leaping from footstep to footstep. Weather and trail conditions also play a role in the game. Mud, ice, snow, or all three may bog you down. Route-finding can also cause you to greatly reduce your pace, especially at high altitudes where marmots are wont to eat flags and other trail-marking materials. And donÕt forget the chance encounter with moose, bears, wildcats, and other wildlife.

Unlike roads, which are often graded and winding in order to avoid steep ascents, trails frequently run straight up mountain faces. If the trail is extremely steep and the race is long enough to warrant energy conservation, then it is often best to power-hike some of the ascents. Some people are more efficient if they climb uphill leaning forward a bit at the hips and swinging their arms to match an equivalent leg stride. Maintaining a consistent rhythm is crucial to powering up a big climb. Other runners find it best to trudge along in a running motion, taking baby steps in order to keep up their cadence as they make it to the top of the ascents. Practice both, and try to determine what is ideal for your running style, body type, the course on which you will be racing, and the length of the race.

Some other things to consider when you contemplate your first trail race is the potential difficulty associated with passing people on single-track. There is a certain etiquette involved in gracefully telling the bozo in front of you to shove over and move his lard butt so you can sneak on by. Practice makes perfect, so go out on your local trails and try zipping by people without starting any fights.

Speaking of fights, keep in mind that most trail runners are pretty laid back, and that the prevailing attitude in most trail events is that of: ÒWe are all out here together to have a groovy time with nature, dude.Ó Trail races tend to be less ÒcompetitiveÓ than road races; racers will often help each other along, and coordinate finishing in unison. It is considered bad form to run into the finish with someone and surge in front of him/her in the final meters, unless he/she was pushing the pace and being competitive by drawing first blood. In that case, just trip them up or push them in a mud bog. What do they think this is, a race or something?

Finally, if you are used to drinking from cups and tossing them on the pavement in your road races, or leaving gel or energy bar wrappers on the road-race course, you should be immediately disavowed of that habit. Trail races are conducted with a strict Òleave no traceÓ ethic, and many race directors will disqualify those who litter the course. Public stoning is probably a more suitable punishment!


Adam W. Chase continues to grow up in Boulder, Colorado, where he is the President of the All American Trail Running Association. When he is not on his best behavior as a husband, father, and tax lawyer, he is out on the trails testing gear, training, or racing as a sponsored ultramarathoner and snowshoer.

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