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Long live trail running

The New York City Marathon and the Boston Marathon have serious street cred.  You can easily impress, say, a potential suitor by dropping the fact that you have run in such storied events.  Or run in any marathon, for that matter.  Yet the names of most trail races, even those requiring Herculean effort, would meet with blank stares.

I have been a runner most of my life, and after thirty  years, running is my religion.  The first thing I think when I wake is how am I going to squeeze my run into this day?  But my favorite pastime has had to take a backseat to injury with increasing frequency – I’m not the spring chicken I once was, so these breaks from running are inevitable, but so frustrating.  It can take a couple of weeks to recover from a half marathon, a full 6 weeks to recover from my last marathon since I insisted on running through an injury.  Who are these people who run a marathon every day or week?  They must be made of kryptonite; I, clearly, am not.

Last June, as I continued to nurse injured IT bands, in lieu of my beloved Scotiabank Half Marathon (it is a net downhill course, after all) I decided to run the  Seek the Peak trail race instead.  The race starts at the beach and ends on top of a local mountain, 16 km later.  I thought the mostly uphill course would be a welcome respite to my IT bands, which particularly howl with pain on downhill slopes.

In training I had no trouble with these injuries on the trails – the different foot strikes over roots, rocks and gravel recruits several different muscles and tendons, not the same ones over and over again.  Yet a few miles on the road – and the consistent pounding of the pavement – would have my knees complaining loudly.  Recovering from hard trail runs was quick and easy,  no problem walking the next day, nary a sore muscle to complain of.  What was this absence of pain? Was I not running hard enough?

Onward and upwards I trudged; mostly upwards, in preparation for the race.  When it finally rolled around I felt rested and prepared for my first trail race.

Race day was surreal in its simpleness.  The field was about 500 strong, so it was easy to show up half hour before the race, find a parking spot within a stone’s throw of the starting line, and even have time to hit the bathroom where only a few others were waiting –  too easy to be true.  I was used to thousands of runners milling about, jostling for parking spaces and half hour line ups for port-a-potties.  The gear check was open until 10 minutes before the race, so we were able to keep our sweats on until warm up time, when we simply walked up to the truck and threw in our bag – no line ups there, either.  I could get used to this.

After a strange start – in the distance, a horn sounded, and someone in the back yelled “Let’s go already!”, a few of us shrugged our shoulders and started to run.  A folksy start to a folksy race.  I quickly learned why a field of 500 is considered large for a trail race: single track trail had us crashing in to each other as we jostled to keep our desired pace.

By the 3 km mark things had settled down and we all seemed to find our rightful spot in the pecking order, just in time to start our ascent.  I had the curious sensation of not having googled trail running for dummies, as the same bunch of people would fly past me on any downhill slope, as though they were on a road bike.  Or sail through roots and rocks as though they were running on pavement, while I picked my way carefully through mud puddles, not wanting to risk breaking my ankle.  They would thunder across logs and streams as though they weren’t there, as I tiptoed my way across, arms horizontally outstretched as though walking a tight rope.  What, in god’s name, was on the bottom of their shoes that they could run like this?

In the final descent (at long last, the last kilometer is down the steep slope that we had just climbed), these seasoned trail runners sprinted down the loose gravel pitch, as sure footed as though they had grown hooves.  I gingerly made my way down, resisting my urge to crab walk to avoid a fall.

Throughout the unbelievably beautiful trail, across streams and under moss laden tree branches, there were understandably few spectators.  Every now and then a race volunteer would point you in the right direction, and the odd Red Cross person decked out in red hovered in the mist.  No throngs of people calling the name you had taped onto your shirt – motivation had to come from a different place on this course.

The glory of the finish line is always a welcome sight.  On this day, about 50 people and one photographer stood in the heavy fog, cheering for the finishers.  Not as sexy as finishing a big road race, but somehow fitting given we were on the top of a mountain.  Shame to disturb the bears.

Afterward my lungs felt taxed, and my legs were tired but noticeably not sore.  I took the day after the race off but was back running two days later.  An incredibly different sensation from recovering from the incessant pounding you endure on the road.

Although more elusive in general than road races, and perhaps missing a bit of street cred, trail runs and races are my answer to a longer and healthier running career.  I can tell you my IT bands are greatly relieved.

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