Taking It Off Road

If you have seen any of my social network activity within the few months, you will have noticed a change in my running activity. Namely, I've backed off the endless miles of car exhaust infused road miles in favor of paths covered in sticks, rocks and the serenity of the wilderness.

Yep, I've become a dirtbag. And, I've never been happier.

Roads? Where I'm going I don't need roads.

It all started after last month's Cape Cod Ragnar, when my teammate Tim, a big trail runner, invited me on a shakeout trail run the day after I had just slugged out 36 miles. Honestly, I wasn't really feeling it, but shrugged my shoulders and we hit the marshland of Cape Cod for a breezy 3 miler. The miles seemed to fly by as I spent the majority of the time dodging tree branches, hopping over rocks and navigating undulating hills. Never once, did I check my watch or focus on my breathing. It was exhilarating!

I forgot how fun running could be.

Taking a step back. My wife and I have been living in Massachusetts for about two and a half years now and my running has taken a back seat ever since. Sure, I get out four or five times a week, but my heart has been far from in it. In Chicago, running was a near magical experience. I'd lace up, be out the door and on the Lakefront Path in minutes, with that amazing city on my right and Lake Michigan on my left. I could go for 20 miles easy, not once having to worry about traffic or pot holes. Whereas, in Massachusetts, my serene expeditions are now fraught with stoplights, horribly maintained roads and drivers, who are buried in their iPhones and would rather eat broken glass than share the road with a runner. Simply put, my surroundings had hijacked my love of the sport and I was letting it happen. Then, I hit the trails. 

To say my first run alone on the trail was therapeutic would be the understatement of the millennium. As I sped past the brush and darted underneath the low hanging branches, it was like all the residue of my recent road running bad mojo suddenly disappeared. Unlike the mind numbing miles of the road, every step on the trail meant something. If I didn't respect the path, I would most certainly be face down in a pile of rocks. This was real running and I felt alive again.

You don't get views like this on the road.

It's like my love of the sport turned a 90 degree corner and faced a steep, crag-laced path that was begging to be run. Happily, I obliged.

It's not just the excitement of new scenery, trail running hosts a whole new element of the sport that I felt had been severely lacking on its flat counterpart. For one, forget pace per mile. Trail running is about how long you run, not at the pace you run it. Since there are more obstacles to navigate along the trail, it's really about reaching a time on course vs. maintaining a steady pace.

Secondly, this stuff is hard! As I eluded to before, even if you run the same trail over and over, it's never the same trail twice. Rocks move, plants grow and rain diverts soil, making the trail an ever changing terrestrial enigma, testing your wits and crushing your ankles.

Third, the gear. Man, the gear! When I'm on the road, I like to be as light as possible, meaning the lightest shoes and that's it. But, on the trail, it's like gearing up for the Foreign Legion. Most trails require runners to be self-sufficient and everything has to come with you. I'm still learning how to run with a backpack and its two front facing water bottles, all the while sloshing as I navigate the granite monoliths that stand between me and the course. Plus, the shoes are more like tanks, really. With things like rock plates, lugs, drawstring laces and mounds of reinforcement, these suckers are built to kick ass, wipe it off and then keep going.

Yes, I've already heard all the jokes.

Can you guess which one is used to keep raccoons from biting you?

Both shoes are for getting nasty. But, only one can wash the nasty off after you step in it.

Lastly, and what I think is the best part, is the culture. Trail runners are super awesome people. Yes, they may be confused with hipsters (or homeless people), but don't let those looks fool you. The flannel shirt they are wearing probably came from an abandoned shack somewhere up in the Boulder, Colorado wilderness. As for that trucker hat, rest assured it didn't come from the likes of H&M. These people are the real deal and they're awesome.

Handwritten note? Who even does that any more? Classy.

Unlike a lot of road running clubs, where if you don't meet a certain pace don't bother showing up (especially around where I live), trail running clubs welcome all as long as you bring a good attitude and a love of dirt.

There are some realities I had to face, though when traipsing through Mother Nature's goodness. For one, speed suffers. For a front(ish) of the pack runner, this was humbling. But, given the randomness of the terrain, you have to expect it a bit. Secondly, I suck at directions, and have found myself lost a few times. Additionally, the bug situation is a bit unruly. Lastly, my stride approach had to be modified. On the road I keep my feet low, but doing that on the trails almost certainly means a tweaked ankle (which this wrap on my left ankle can attest to). However, all of this is manageable given you are prepared.

Although, it's only been a few months since I've been consumed by the trail bear, my outlook on running has done a serious about face. I'm blessed with the access to so many terrific trails within miles of my home and I'm on them nearly every day. Even days when I have to put in road miles, I reward myself with a few laps on my favorite path.


Now, trail running may not be your cup of tea. But, if you are finding yourself in the doldrums of lengthy, monotonous road miles and are looking for a little excitement, give it a shot. You'll see while the terrain may not be forgiving, the views and the people make it undeniably rewarding. Here's a little snippet of why I love it so much.

Hope to see you on the trails!