Even though trail running has NOT been a huge part of my life until recently – I kind of fell in love with many aspects of running on the trails this past fall season. Maybe my body was craving a change, or maybe I am just learning to train differently as I age….
But, up until this point, I had never run an ACTUAL trail race! Just the thought of it sounded pretty darn intimidating!
Sure, many cross country and track courses are off-road. But they’re still built for speed: smooth paths when possible, virtually no single-track, and they’re typically pretty predictable when it comes to the terrain.
So it was interesting this past weekend to run my first trail half marathon – the Sloppy Cuckoo Trail Run in the suburbs of Philadelphia. This was a pretty neat course that winded though the rolling hills and curves of Pennypack Park, along the Delaware River.
There was mud. There was a tad bit of blood. There was 40 degree starting point conditions (I prefer the heat and humidity of summer).
And it was a blast.
Even though my first trail race was fun, it was also very humbling. From a race standpoint, I am definitely a trail race beginner, so I know that I have to better manage myself on the trails if I want to improve my running game.
And I truly need that improvement, because in a few weeks, I will be back at it running another marathon down at the Jersey Shore. This time, I am looking to PR and finish under 4 hours…
What have I gotten myself into?!
From Road Runner to Trail Runner
I quickly realized this past weekend 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
- Humbling hills that cause you to double your average pace per mile
You get the idea.
The Sloppy Cuckoo was no exception. Over 13.1 miles, the course included rolling hills, multiple stream crossings, and plenty of mud.
The most difficult aspect of this race was the wet grounds. The Philly 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.
Navigating technical trails with mud, rocks, and rivers with only a few other runners in sight has its challenges. And after five miles with not seeing many other runners, those challenges broke me.
Take a look at my splits (from my Garmin, so take them with a grain of salt):
Mile 1: 8:27
Mile 2: 8:37
Mile 3: 9:05
Mile 4: 10:57
Mile 5: 10:13
Mile 6: 10:29
Mile 7: 9:19
Mile 8: 10:05
Mile 9: 10:47
Mile 10: 11:55
Mile 11: 11:59
Mile 12: 10:07
Mile 13: 8:21
What a roller coaster! I finished in just over 2 hours – 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 huge differential between your fastest and slowest mile.
Compare that with the Rock n Roll half that I ran last year, where the difference 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. And I am sure with a higher 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. Considering the terrain, weather, and rolling hills, it makes sense.
5 Quick Lessons From Sloppy Cuckoo
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 landscape 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 how that particular course changes.
2. Focus on effort instead of pace.
Instead, it’s much more valuable to rely on effort. This means you:
- Walk uphills when needed
- Hammer the downhills if possible
- Slow down on technical terrain
- Focus your effort on your heart rate and breathing
Learning to run by feel during training helps considerably with this goal so leave your Garmin at home. Pay attention to your body, not your watch. This is easier said than done but it is your body doing the racing!
3. Wet conditions? Take precautions…
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 descents can be dangerous. Although the course I ran was geared toward trail beginners, I still struggled and tripped more than a few times.
Basically, if I got mentally fatigued enough to nearly injure myself in a trail half marathon, how will I fare in my next marathon or ultra? I am not going to waste my time over analyzing that realization….
As you can see, I’m learning that trail running isn’t all #trailporn and stunning views.
It will challenge you in ways that you haven’t experienced during road races.
And it’s all worth it.
For more, check out my recent review over on Periscope @holisticfitfam
What trail adventure are you planning? Let me know in the comments below!