5 Surprising Things I Learned from My First Trail Running Race
For one, going off the pavement is so worth it.
Road running and trail running are not created equal: For one, trail running requires you to think fast on your feet, thanks to rocks, boulders, creeks, and mud. So, unlike road-running, there's no zoning out to Beyoncé. You also need stamina of steel for steep inclines, consistently uneven terrain, and altitude adjusting if you're heading to the mountains to hit the trails. (This is just a taste of what beginner trail runners need to know before heading out.)
Two years ago, I learned these things the hard way. I ran my first Adidas Terrex Back Country Half Marathon in Aspen, CO, thinking, "A half marathon?! No problem, I got this! I've done roughly 15 already." It ended up taking me nearly four hours to complete-and that's saying a lot, considering my average finish time for a half marathon road race is only two hours. I was doubly exhausted from the elevation gain, altitude, and narrow rocky paths, making this run much harder than even the full marathons I'd run.
I left that first race with my ego checked, but a lot of lessons learned. This summer, I took these five lessons and returned to Colorado to meet the challenge head-on for a second time, ready for redemption.
1. Prepare for the elements in any way you can.
I live and train at sea level in New York City, but the Back Country Half Marathon is held in Aspen. It begins at 8,000 feet and climbs up to 10,414 feet.
I knew I was in for it the moment I stepped off the plane-just breathing was more difficult. That's when the anxiety of running 14.1 miles of trail hit me. Let's back up: Yes, 14.1 miles. That's what they call a "half marathon" on the trail in Aspen, according to the Alpine guides that map the course. Given the fact I train on pavement at 33 feet of elevation, I had to get crafty with my training knowing that altitude was going to be an issue. This meant weekend trips to trails up the Hudson River (just over an hour north of New York City by train) and short runs when I visited Colorado on weekends. Any chance I got to run off the road and on dirt, grass, or rock, I would take. Running in the intense heat of summer helped prepare my body to deal with less-than-ideal running conditions too.(BTW, heat training can indeed help prep you for altitude.)
2. Have the proper gear ready and be organized.
Pre-race day-with my nerves in tow-I headed to my weekend retreat at the Limelight Hotel in downtown Aspen, right near the registration pickup for race day. (Travel hack for runners racing in different cities: Stay close to the bib pick-up/registration location.) As with any race, it's important to be organized the day before the race and make sure you have the proper gear, nutrition, hydration and all accoutrements for the run. Trail runs tend to have fewer aid stations than road races, and since you're out in the wilderness, you'll want to have all the proper gear with you as extra insurance.
For me, that meant grabbing my favorite trail running gear: a hydration pack from Cotopaxi, Adidas Terrex trail shoes, an Adidas wind jacket, and sunglasses from Westward Leaning. (Here's more gear ideal for long runs and marathon training.) It's always important to have good running shoes-but even more so when it comes to trail running. You may think you can get by with running shoes you already have, but it's crucial to wear a proper trail shoe with grip to help you safely glide over rocks, boulders, hills, grass, and just about every type of terrain you can imagine. I love this Adidas pair because they have intense traction, plenty of cushion in the heel, and were laceless (featuring BOA technology, which you may have seen on snowboard/ski boots or cycling shoes), eliminating any risk of them becoming untied or hooking onto sticks, shrubs, or other obstacles in my path. (Try one of these top trail shoes.)
3. Nutrition is key.
Nutrition is incredibly important during any race, but when you're running 14 miles on a trail with elevation it takes more time, which means your body needs more nutrients to go the distance. My favorites: Nuun tablets for my hydration pack, Lärabars, nut butter–filled Clif bars, and a Stinger waffle. I snacked at miles 9, 11, and 12-just enough to get me across the finish line. (Here's your guide to fueling before, during, and after a half marathon, straight from a dietitian.)
4. It's technical-so take your time and enjoy the view.
The race ascended more than 2,400 feet starting at mile two, then peaked at 10,414 feet on the Sunny Side trail before descending at mile nine into Hunter Creek Valley. It can be tempting to take in the incredible views along the way, but while you're moving, you need to keep your eyes on the trail as much as you can to avoid injury. I kept mine glued to the ground almost all 14.4 miles. Drastic ascents can zap your energy, so try to stay reserved on the uphill and walk if you need to. I pushed flats, downhills, and any dips along the way. That being said, even the descents can be difficult due to steep downhills, narrow chutes, and rocky terrain-so keep quick on your feet. I also like to plant my feet wide on either side of the trail and avoid the center of narrow chutes. (Here are some more trail running safety tips for beginners.)
For me, pacing on the trail is different than any road race. I like to go by feel and keep my pace one minute per mile (or so) slower than I would on the road. Think: It's not about time, it's about effort. Another reason you won't want to rush the process: Your surroundings are probably killer. It's important to enjoy the fresh air, the ground beneath your feet, any sights and sounds of nature that are calming (like birds or the sound of rushing water). Be mindful and grateful you are lucky enough to run surrounded by such beauty. (Also see: How to Score the Awesome Benefits of Trail Running)
5. Push to the finish and don't skip recovery.
The sprint to the finish began at mile 13: Smuggler Mountain Road. After three plus hours on the trail, I was desperate to finish. My body ached and my mental state started drifting into negative territory-but the light at the end of the tunnel started shining brightly as I rounded the corner of the Rio Grande Trail, putting the finish line (and the beer tent!) right in view. I felt victorious as I sailed my way into a personal record: The Backcountry Half took me approximately 3:41:09, a 10 minute PR on the course that was one mile longer in length than my first year's attempt!
Post-race recovery is huge, so don't skip this step. (See: Exactly What to Do-and Not to Do-After Running a Half Marathon) I usually hydrate with an electrolyte drink, stretch, foam roll, take an ice bath, and then hop in a hot tub to relax my muscles. Make sure you put plenty of healthy calories back into your body so it can properly recover.
Above all else, I try to remember to smile, take deep breaths, enjoy the sights and sounds on the trail, the fresh air, and appreciate that I'm an athlete. Happy trails!