Trail running is hard to explain to outsiders. Ageless. Timeless. Primal. As tranquil or intense as you want it to be. I can’t say what it is for everyone, but I can tell you what it is for me in one word: necessary. First let me state that I am 48, not athletic, and not a runner. In fact, I really don’t like running at all and you’ll never see me running on pavement. But trail running has crept its way into my blood and I can’t shake it. I promise my experiences won’t inspire you to run ultra-marathons in Australia but if you can virtually walk a mile in my trail running shoes, you may be inspired to get off the couch and get outside.
My trail run today was pretty typical for me. Currently I’m “training” on a one mile loop which is the first mile of our staff 5K trail run. Our company owns a private, 80 acre nature preserve with miles of trails. Last spring I plotted a 5K course as a sort of team-building type activity, mostly for fun, but it is quickly becoming an obsession. So today was one of my M-W-F trail runs. Yes, I hit it 3X weekly now, but don’t tune out yet. I’m no expert.
The first mile of this 5K course is my worst nightmare. It’s about an 18 minute walk with way, way too much mowed grass path and not enough narrow, curvy, obstacle filled technical for me. I hate long distance running in any capacity so, of course, because I suck at the typical-cross-country-endless-running-thing, I’m trying to master this first segment which is mostly about jog-paced distance for the sake of a good warm up before the next two miles which are killers. My goal is to complete this first one mile segment in under 10 minutes. Doesn’t sound like much to a road runner but this is no track. My first attempt was 13 minutes because I stop and walk so much on the flats. Yeah, I’m that bad at distance running. If it weren’t for my sprinting speed and agility on the technical sections, my time would be even worse.
So today I warm up for about half a kilometer then start my Garmin Forerunner and jog away from the starting line. Down the grass path I go, eyes darting all over, steps landing hard, winded in 20 seconds when the self-talk starts. Why am I even doing this? I hate running. Quick right onto the first, introductory, mini-technical trail. Spider webs. Yuck. Always right at face level, too. Back out to the main course. Find your line, focus, stop landing so hard, you’re going to blow out your knees. Next quick right, up along the fallen log, touch the first checkpoint and now we go on the purple segment. One minute in, I’m warm, I’m ready, let’s do this! I jump over the next log and go. Hands up, protect your face from the evergreen branches, duck, watch out for that poison ivy, loop right, break left, back right, one more left, one more right, and bam! There it is: the first wall. Ugh. The trail opens back up to an uphill mowed path.
Jog, jog, jog…okay, at least speed walk. Stride out, pump your arms. C’mon. Heart rate check: 160. Whatever. Move your ass, old lady. My max is 170, target area 140-160. Quick right then a quick left through the trees and there it is: Purple Poison Ivy Pass – a slow, steady incline path past a poison ivy forest with a checkpoint at the end. I hate it. Voices on. Go! Look at all that poison ivy! Did you know poison ivy grows in bushes, on vines, and can even stand free, five feet tall, like a tree? Such a lovely looking plant. I really wish poison ivy wasn’t harmful. It’s so pretty. Slowing down now…twenty feet, maybe thirty. That’s all I’ve got. I’m done. Time check: 2 minutes, 30 seconds. Yeah. Seriously. I’m that done already. I’m a terrible runner.
More self-talk. I hate running. Why do I even do this? What’s the point? This is stupid. OH! Hello, Mr. Grasshopper! Pow! Right in my face. Did I just squeal? I think I squealed. OMG. Now I’m laughing which reminds me how much I love these trails and suddenly I’m able to at least jog again. Up along the pass to checkpoint number two. I know cross country runners love the opportunity to increase their pace on the open, flat paths but, to me, the only good thing about these grass sidewalks is the lack of spider webs. Here we are, the second checkpoint. I’m three minutes in and it feels like thirty. Welcome to the orange segment!
I take a quick right through the sumacs and evergreens, hopping over this branch, ducking under that branch, sharp left, watch out for spiders. Man, I love the technical trails! Then I see it right as I hit it – the underside of a huge garden spider suspended in midair right at chest level. In a split second it’s on my shirt, crawling up toward my throat. I’m not even remotely afraid of spiders yet I scream and flail as I frantically brush it off. That’s why most runners slow down on the technicals. Not me. I freaking love sprinting through those tangled, bumpy messes. Heebie jeebies be damned I press on. The red colors of the Sumac leaves in Autumn are stunningly beautiful. Exit the technical trail and oh…ugh…another mowed path incline. Greeeaaat. Heart rate check: 145. No excuses. Go! Lift those feet, lean into the incline, smile, have some fun. I got this, I can do this, look at me go!
Bam. I can’t breathe. Heart rate check: 165. I hate everything.
Jog, jog, jog…okay, at least speed walk. Stride out, pump your arms. C’mon. You’re almost to the next technical and there it is! Break right, left, hop that fallen tree. Go! Go! I take a hard left, jump the fallen branches, head south along the road to…ugh…the next mowed path, yet another slow incline. I wish for a car to drive by so I’m motivated to run. Walk, walk, walk. This is stupid. And why are there so many grasshoppers out here today? Time check: 4 minutes, 38 seconds. What? Yes! I know if I run hard right now maybe I can make it to the ladder obstacle in less than 5 minutes which will get me back on track. Heart rate check: 138. Run!
Head down, find my line, engage my core, land light on the balls of my feet, kick, kick, go! Go! Ladder obstacle time check: 5 minutes, 40 seconds. Dang it. Not terrible but not good. Next is a mowed path with a slight decline which means it’s time to run while I still can. I catch a new wind. Hair pin turn to the right and back up I go. Pull with your arms, breathe in (step, step, step), breathe out (step, step, step). Snake! Yes, that was a snake, slithering away into the tall grass. Rock on, dude! I am a beast! I am one with nature! This is such a primal experience. Look! Deer poop! I’m tired but I like this part. Duck down, through the trees, break left, I love this! Run, run, jog, jog, slowing down. What?! Heart rate check: 165. *Expletive!* Why can’t I ever exceed 165 anymore?!
Jog, jog, jog…okay, at least speed walk. Stride out, pump your arms. C’mon. Getting old sucks. What the hell, man? This bites. Buzz goes my watch. “Recovery Check: Good.” Thank you, happy helper. Could you maybe buzz my ass and make me move faster, too? Okay, whatever, you know? And then the justification talk creeps in. I’m almost 50. I look and feel great for my age. Compared to most of my peers I’m healthy and happy. This really isn’t even necessary. My husband loves me just the way I am. I’ve got a lot to do. I bet my phone’s exploding with texts. I’m probably done for today. Hello again, Mr. Grasshopper. Right down the front of my shirt. Seriously? Where is it? In my bra? I flap my shirt wildly and shake my head at the nonsense of it all.
Heart rate check: 132. What the…? How long have I been walking? Crap. Snap out of it. Go!
Head down, find my line, engage my core, land light on the balls of my feet, kick, kick, go! Go! Back up near the road, still no cars drive by. Keep running anyway! Our character is who we are when no one’s watching, right? I head south then east then south again, take a sharp right toward the giant brush pile. Optional checkpoint – don’t skip it, cheater. I keep running, landing lightly, feeling the earth beneath my feet, actually imagining that I can feel the grass bending and the dirt shifting. Eight minutes in. Yes, here comes the Zen place. OMG I love this. I keep running. Wait, is that nausea? Ignore it. This is your favorite part. I zoom through the trees, left, right, back left, back right, hard left, lunging and leaning like I’m racing motocross, quads fired up, careful through the mulchy stuff. Look at that. What a truly beautiful sunflower. I love Kansas. Slowing down now. Heart rate check: 168 and still jogging! Yes! I keep running because in two more lefts I know I have to slow down anyway for this technical segment – a single width trail that cuts diagonally through a tangled field of wild everything.
I’ve got this now. I know this section. I made this section. I know I can rest my heart while making up some time by high stepping the fallen stalks and skirting the sticker bushes. My legs are so much stronger than my heart. This is my expertise. I could do this all day. Sweat dripping into my eyes, in no time I’m out of the field and in a full sprint toward the teeter-totter obstacles. Up and over, up and over, without missing a beat, letting them catapult me forward down the path. I’m so good at those. Thank God I’m good at something. Isn’t the human body amazing? Downhill now, cross the road, and here comes the side pain. No. No way. No time for that now. I can see the end. Time check: 10 minutes, 45 seconds. I’m about to vomit. Voices on.
My husband’s voice in my head, “You can do anything for one minute.”
Chris Medlen’s voice, “Finish strong.”
My voice, “You’re so close! Don’t quit now, dumbass!”
Up to the top of the dam I go. Careful with the ankles, it’s really uneven here. Go! Go! I know I must give it everything I’ve got now, leaving nothing in the tank. Wow, how lucky am I that all the parts of my body work? I’m almost 50 and look what my body can do. Thank you, God, for the gift of health. Forgive me, Lord, when I take my health for granted. Around the pond I go, panting now, face on fire, fighting back tears of joy, pain, and gratitude. Blink, ten more steps. Blink, five more steps. Three, two, one, done! I click stop on my watch. 11 minutes, 31 seconds. Oh. Hmm. Not my best time yet not my worst but nowhere near my goal. Most importantly, though, I didn’t quit. After a two or three minute walking rest, I run it again, then a third time, until I meet my personal 5K minimum for that day. Each lap repeats a nearly identical personal experience.
That’s my typical trail run. That’s a mile in my shoes.
Now you’ll never meet anyone other than a trail runner who can actually be happy with an eleven minute mile. But running on the trail has never and will never be about the time in and of itself; it’s about the experience. It’s about engaging the earth and listening to the music of nature. It’s about celebrating the spider webs as confirmation you were the first one on the trail that day and marveling at the thought of what happened there with all the wildlife overnight. It’s about sacrificing your time in order to inspect a praying mantis, study a butterfly, stop and flip a turtle back over, relocate a dangerous locust branch full of thorns, or watch a sunrise. It’s about fresh air, sunshine, dirt, rocks, creeks, rain, mud, and navigating trails without a lead car or crowds or road signs. It’s about building strength, endurance, and having a strong core without ever doing so much as one sit up. And, if you’re competitive, it’s about running the same course over and over, mastering the details, learning how to beat your own time and then, perhaps, competing against others who share your passion for the trails. And most of all, it is anything but mindless. Full mind-body engagement is required.
Maybe your goal is to find new trails and see things you’ve never seen before. For lots of runners, it’s all about the distance and, on the trails, long enough never is. Maybe you’re just tired of getting less healthy sitting in artificial light all day. Whatever the reason, for those of us who dislike exercise, loathe running on indoor treadmills and roads, and could never fathom being a runner, trail running is a way to get out there and move – not only for physical health, but mental health, as well, as we connect with nature and realign our souls with the universe. For me, in the course of the first mile, I can shed all the distractions of modern life and excavate my primitive self. I don’t just enjoy the trails, I need them. I’ll never be a super athlete but at least when I’m maneuvering those trails I can discern my innermost voice and rediscover my authentic self. It’s too noisy everywhere else. In fact, the only time I can truly reconnect with the real world – the world that genuinely matters – is when I’m alone, disconnected from everything else, traversing those trails. That’s what trail running is to me.