This article first appeared in OutdoorsNW, an adventure, travel, and recreational magazine for outdoorsy types in the beautiful Northwest.
The only reason I decided to get up early on a bleak and frigid winter morning to run up the trails of Mt. Pisgah while the rest of Eugene was snuggled in bed was because my trail running friend, Susan, asked me to. Being a new trail runner at the time, the lure of adventure came often, but I didn’t always heed its call–especially on foggy, frozen mornings–unless Susan went with me.
As the thick, wet air wrapped its arms around us and the disorienting light from our headlamps bounced off the mist, we inched toward the summit. Trying to stay upright, fighting slippery rocks and invisible icy spots, I drafted behind her in a wave of confidence. I was learning from her with every precarious step.
Susan was my trail running mentor; the one who taught me which hydration pack to buy when my trail runs grew longer, how a bandana could come in handy in 147 different ways, and how delicious a slightly smooshed peanut butter and jelly sandwich can taste at the end of a long, dusty day on the trails.
As the miles added up over those first few years of running together, so did my questions about trail running. Thankfully, Susan put up with all of my inquiries. She knew that nothing beats firsthand experience when it comes to learning the nuances of trail running and racing.
Experienced Trail Runners Can Pave the Unpaved Way
If you have the opportunity, there is much to gain from following–literally–in the footsteps of a more experienced trail runner or hiring a trail running coach.
Running through the wooded areas near my home can be fraught with downed limbs, mud-buried roots, and deep puddles. Learning to hop and dodge by copying my friend’s footfalls taught me to run “lighter,” find stability on a well-balanced rock, and how to avoid the slippery side of the trail.
Powering up a hill behind my seasoned friend I often felt a rope of strength pull me along, too. Noticing her smaller strides, her steady breath, and the boost in arm swing brought more drive and efficiency to my own hill-running form.
Enjoying the accomplishment with a pro at the top of a climb can be a new high. And a place to share snacks! Tasting and testing fueling options with runners who have tried them all can help you experiment with what might work for you. Ask them what they eat on long runs or about fueling by time instead of miles since trails can often be more strenuous than the same distance traveled on the road.
Listen closely to their stories and you’ll find hidden gems that just might save your race day. From one of Susan’s trail tales, I learned to always carry the course map stashed in a waterproof baggie. This tip came in handy years later when I found myself halfway through an ultra, lost in a snowstorm with 15 other people, and no GPS coverage. I was the only one with a map, which got us back on course.
When You Need a Coach
While you can load up on practical advice from experienced trail hounds, having a trail running coach is where race training specificity shines. A coach’s individualized plan can ready you for long and steady hills, just like those in your race. She’ll give you practice rock hopping to prepare for technical sections. By reviewing the course profile together, you’ll explore fueling strategies and hydration routines. Your trail coach knows there are no mile markers along the way and can help you stay on pace without them.
Coaches with an eye to the logistical needs of trail racing can prepare you for more than the run itself. For example, when I coached a woman headed into her first 40-miler, we focused on the clothes and skin protection she would need as the trail became more exposed in the afternoon hours, how to carry all her food in case later aid stations were less stocked, and even what to pack in her post-race drop bag, knowing she would finish in a remote location and need supplies for the journey home.
Learning from a trail veteran or coach is invaluable; both can teach you how to improve, become self-sufficient, and balance all the facets of trail running. Both can help you train for races with focused specificity. And both understand the magic of the trails often comes from surprises you find when running alone; like when a wrong turn introduces you to a hidden lake full of frogs, when you spot that first, white Trillium of spring blooming under a lush green canopy, or when a new-found strength carries you up the hill, the fog lifts, and you’re treated to a view only seen by reaching the top yourself.
Laura McClain is a Eugene-based freelance writer, runner, coach, and virtual trail guide for running mommas everywhere. Grab her free email series for beginning trail runners, find her on Instagram @RunMommaRunTrails or join her trail running community for women at facebook.com/groups/RunMommaRunTrails