26.2 Reasons your next race should be on trails
26.2 Reasons your next race should be on trails
By Alexandra Tilsley
You just finished the New York City Marathon. You fought through the crowds on the Verrazano and the agony of mile 23. You felt that runner’s high as you pumped your arms crossing the finish line. You regaled all your non-running friends with the play-by-play details (“and then my snot rocket almost hit a spectator!”) of your big accomplishment. But now that the space blanket has been thrown out and your diet no longer consists of plain white carbs and sports gels, you find yourself wondering: what’s next?
Big city marathons are exciting. The crowds, the sights, the swag. But if you’re looking for your next challenge, consider these 26.2 reasons New Yorkers should forsake the roads for some ankle-twisting rocks and roots:
The scenery: Sure, the view from the Queensboro is pretty nice, but can it beat the view from the top of the mountain you just ran up?
The fresh air: Take a deep breath.
The aid stations: The typical road race water station has paper cups of water, and maybe gatorade if you’re lucky. The typical trail race water station has both of those, plus soda, pb&j, chips, boiled potatoes, bananas, chocolate...trail runners are typically on their feet longer than road runners, so they need more substantial fuel. And as much as you can convince yourself that your salted caramel gu is just like eating candy -- candy that you slurp, or something -- you know you’d rather have actual candy.
The community: New York has a fantastic running community. But the trail running community is special, especially here, where so many runners are pounding pavement. You’ll see the same people from race to race. You’ll swap trail beta and gear tips. You’ll compare the amount of mud caked on your legs after a run. And when you trip over a rock and fall flat on your face, that guy who you met at that aid station that one time six months ago will help you up, remember your name, and run with you for the next few miles.
The swag: This varies by race, of course, but for the same price as a road race that doled out cotton t-shirts, I ran a trail race and went home with a hat, a tech shirt, and a pair of gloves.
You’re more likely to win something: Not as many people run trail races, which means there’s less competition. Some of these people are really, really, really good runners, of course, but with smaller divisions and age groups, the odds are in your favor.
The wildlife: When was the last time you saw a deer while running through Central Park?
Your pace doesn’t matter: There’s no way to maintain a consistent pace on the trails. With serious climbs, steep descents, and technical sections, you’ll be working hard just to stay on your feet, nevermind hitting that 7:30 pace. For data-junkies this might be hard to handle, but in trail running, the goal is just to keep going. Focusing on your mile splits is a recipe for disappointment, so just relax and run.
Your watch probably won’t work: Garmin fanatics may get nervous at the thought, but in the middle of the woods, that GPS watch is not going to do so well. Which is great, because, as noted above pace doesn’t matter. (You’re not going to want to see that 14-minute-mile split flash at you, anyway). So, leave the Garmin at home...and just run.
Every race is different: You can’t really compare your times in trail racing, because every course and every race is different. You might run a 10k on a reasonably flat double-track one week, and then the next week try the same distance in the snow on a technical single-track with 1,000 feet of elevation gain. Your times won’t be the same; you can’t expect them to be. So, once again, relax about your PRs, leave the Garmin behind, and just run.
You feel pretty tough: You’ll probably come home from a trail run with some cuts and bruises. These are badges of honor. Wear them proudly.
New shoes! Who doesn’t love an excuse to buy new running shoes?
You probably can’t run the whole thing: You ever try to run up a sandy hill at a 30 percent incline, or through a hip-deep stream? You can’t. At times in trail running you’ll be scrambling up on your hands and feet, or wading through water that makes it difficult to move. It’s part of the adventure -- enjoy the chance to take a deep breath of that fresh air.
Soft ground: better for your knees!
The elements: In trail running, rain and snow are no longer nuisances that wreck your chances for a PR. Instead, they’re just par for the course, part of nature, the reason you’re trail running in the first place. And, they make you feel even tougher.
Feeling like a kid: How often do you get to skip over rocks, wade through streams, use trees to pull yourself up a hill, and eat PB&J? Trail running is like being an excited little kid, running through the woods, leaping and bounding, carefree until you fall flat on your face. Awesome.
Camelbaks: Road races shun camelbaks, trail runners love them. No longer do you have to worry about how to carry your water, food, keys, phone, layers. Maybe throw a headlamp in, too.
The people: Anyone who wants to frolic through the woods is probably someone you want to be friends with.
It’s a full body workout: Running works your legs, yes. Trail running works your legs, core, shoulders, ankles...
The start line doesn’t matter: Forget the stress of weaving through ten thousand people in the first mile. At trail races, the race director points to an arbitrary line on the ground and says “go.” The end.
Registration fees: There are exceptions, but trail races are often more budget-friendly.
Belt buckles: When you complete an epic race -- say, Leadville -- you get a belt buckle. Way more hardcore than a finisher’s medal.
Cool scars: I was wrapping up a trail run one day when I walked by two guys in the parking lot, comparing battle wounds. They saw the blood streaming from my wrapped knee (I had tied a shirt around it to stop the bleeding) and said, “whoa, I think you win.” We swapped stories -- I had tripped in the final half mile, flying head first down the mountain -- and they started showing me scars from other epic falls. By the end of the conversation, we had plans to run together the next week.
You don’t need to have a car: In case you’re thinking, “this all sounds great, but I live in NYC…” know that there are plenty of trail running options within reach. Some recommendations:
Blue Mountain Reservation (Metro North to Peekskill, short walk/run to the park)
Bear Mountain (Shortline bus from Port Authority)
Harriman (Shortline bus from Port Authority)
Ward Pound Ridge (Metro North to Kathonah, short walk/run/cab ride to the trials)
Hudson Highlands State Park (Metro North to Garrison)
Breakneck (Metro North)
You don’t even have to leave the city: If you’re really strapped for time or cash, hop on the 1 to Van Cortlandt Park, the ferry to Staten Island, or the A to the GWB bus terminal (from there you can cross the GWB and run through the Palisades in New Jersey).
But if you do have a car...There are plenty of options for trail running day trips. Think the Gunks, the Catskills...if you can hike it, you can run it.
.2: You can be a trail runner and still be a road runner! You can love the crunch of leaves under your feet and the thrill of finishing two minutes faster than your BQ time. You can enjoy the freedom of the trails and the discipline of regular road training. It’s fine. Some road runners don’t take trail running seriously (after all, how can a 13-minute mile be race pace?) and some trail runners would laugh in your face if you suggested they run a race in Central Park. But, in spite of these devotees, you don’t have to choose. Run trails, run roads, run both on the same day...just run.
Alexandra Tilsley grew up playing in NH’s White Mountains and still loves to be outside, whether running, hiking, mountain biking, or just walking through the city. A graduate of the University of Southern California, Alexandra has worked as a reporter for a number of publications, including the Associated Press, and spent several summers as a camp counselor in the Rocky Mountains. Before moving to New York to work for an education non-profit, Alexandra completed a thru-hike of the Colorado Trail.