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Becoming a Trail Runner: Adventures with Hail, Mud, and Blood in my First Trail Half Marathon

Trail running has always been a big part of my training. Whether I was on a team in college or training solo for my first marathon, I’ve always gravitated toward the off-road experience.

When I travel, I look for big chunks of green on Google Maps that will offer my legs relief from the asphalt (and my brain relief from stop lights). I’ll always choose secluded single-track or cinder paths than the bustle of crowded sidewalks.

Even though trail running has been a huge part of my life for over a decade – I don’t really consider myself a trail runner.

Why? Simple: I’ve never run a trail RACE.

Sure, cross country courses are off-road. But they’re still built for speed: smooth paths when possible, virtually no single-track, and they’re typically not on the side of a mountain with switchback after switchback.

So it was interesting last weekend to run my first trail half marathon – the Fear the Deer race in the foothills of the Rockies. It was directed by Scott Jones, who runs the Athlete on Fire podcast where I was recently interviewed.

There was blood. There was hail. There was chafing beyond my wildest dreams.

And it was a blast.

Even though my first trail race was fun, it was humbling. So many things went wrong and I know that I have to better manage myself in the mountains if I want to improve.

And I need that improvement: in a few weeks, I’ll be making my ultramarathon debut at the Dirty 30 50k in Golden Gate State Park, Colorado. Technically 32 miles, it includes over 7,200 feet of lung-busting vertical gain and quad-busting descent at altitudes up to 9,500 feet.

What have I gotten myself into?!

From Road Runner to Trail Runner

I quickly realized that to be an effective trail runner, you need a different mindset and racing style. The obstacles that trail runners experience are different than what you’re used to:

  • Mud. So much mud
  • Standing water, stream crossings, and slippery rocks
  • Hills so steep they’d be impossible to drive up in a car
  • Hills so steep there are stairs embedded into the mountain
  • Hills so steep that you run 5 minutes slower per mile than your easy pace

You get the idea.

Fear the Deer was no exception. Over 13.1 miles, the course included over 2,800 feet of elevation gain and descent, multiple stream crossings, and plenty of switchbacks to sap your momentum.

The most difficult aspect of this race was the weather. The Denver area has experienced unusual amounts of rain over the last two weeks so the course was sloppy, with slick mud patches on steep descents and rivers of water on what should have been dry trails.

And of course, it was pouring rain and hailing for the first 45 minutes of the race. That was pleasant.

Navigating technical trails with mud, rocks, and rivers with cold rain in your eyes has its challenges. And after five miles, those challenges broke me.

Like a n00b, I wore shorts and a t-shirt that had me uncontrollably shivering for the last eight miles of the race. I couldn’t get warm or stay loose on the fast descents and my performance plummeted.

Take a look at my splits (from my Garmin, so take them with a grain of salt):

Mile 1: 7:27
Mile 2: 7:37
Mile 3: 9:05
Mile 4: 6:57
Mile 5: 8:13
Mile 6: 6:29
Mile 7: 7:19
Mile 8: 8:05
Mile 9: 10:47
Mile 10: 7:55
Mile 11: 7:59
Mile 12: 8:07
Mile 13: 6:21

What a roller coaster. I finished in just over 1:43 – or in other words, about 30 minutes slower than my road half marathon PR.

That’s the other big challenge of running trail races: there’s no pace consistency. You’re at the mercy of the widely varying terrain so if you’re like me, there’ll be a 4:26 differential between your fastest and slowest mile.

Compare that with the Rock n Roll half that I ran last year, where the spread between my slowest and fastest miles was only about 30 seconds.

This makes trail races feel like fartlek workouts. The constant speeding up and slowing down breaks your rhythm, but also makes the race exciting. You’re less likely to get bored and the challenge is more physical.

I’m beginning to think of trail racing as an entirely different sport than road running, track & field, and cross country. Especially in the mountains at altitude, it’s a whole different beast.

I used to scoff at these slow paces (my average easy pace is way faster!) but it’s only part of the story. When the thin air, technical terrain, insane elevation gain and loss, and wacky weather are taken into consideration, it makes sense.

Context matters.

5 Quick Lessons From Fear the Deer

I’m not going to include a mile by mile report of how the race went. Honestly, I barely remember. I barely paid attention to the sweeping vistas and gorgeous trails all around me for fear of falling on my face after tripping on a rock.

Instead, I want to share some valuable lessons I learned from my first trail race.

1. Having a goal pace should be extremely tentative. 

It’s possible to have an average goal pace, but it will vary considerably from mile to mile. Under no circumstances should you try to run even splits because it’s impossible.

Plus, every trail race is different. I could run 10 minutes slower or faster on a different course depending on the elevation changes.

2. Rely on effort instead of pace. 

Instead, it’s much more valuable to rely on effort. This means you:

  • Walk the crazy uphills when needed
  • Hammer the downhills if possible
  • Slow way down on rocky, technical terrain
  • Judge your effort on breathing patterns and heart rate

Learning to run by feel during training helps considerably with this goal so leave the Garmin at home. Pay attention to your body, not your watch. It’s your body that’s racing, after all.

3. Raining? Take precautions…

Freezing rain and hail resulted in my first bloody nipple of my 18-year running career. Awesome!

Because of the conditions of many trail races (and since many of them are ultramarathons), more care must be given to “nuisance injuries” like blisters and chafing.

Bring some Vaseline and Band-Aids – you’ll need them.

4. Be more conservative early in the race.

Trail runners need to be honest about the challenges that they’ll face and conserve energy early in the race.

Unlike many road races which can be “time trialed” (run as fast as you can with a certain pacing strategy), it’s more likely you’ll need to compete with the course itself.

This often means running slower early in the race so you’ll have the physical and mental energy to safely navigate technical trails later in the race.

5. Pay attention!

I mentioned before you need mental energy to be a successful trail runner. Late in a race when you’re fatigued, it’s easy to zone out.

But zone out at your own risk: technical trails and steep descents are hazardous. I had a good fall and rolled an ankle during the Fear the Deer because I wasn’t focused.

Thankfully, they weren’t serious. But if I got mentally fatigued enough to nearly injure myself in a trail half marathon, how will I fare in a 32-mile ultramarathon at higher altitude with nearly triple the elevation gain?

As you can see, I’m learning that trail running isn’t all #trailporn and stunning views.

It’s hard.

It’s humbling.

It will challenge you in ways that you haven’t experienced during road races.

And it’s all worth it.

For more, check out the Trail Runner’s System so you can have a better first trail race experience than I did…

What trail adventure are you planning? Let the SR community know in the comments below!

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