Trail Running: The Best Race I Never Ran


I ran a 25k (15.53 mile) trail race last weekend, one of my favorite races of the year. I look forward to running it every January. I like everything about it. I like the funny emails that I get from the race director before the race, the pre-race indoor bathrooms, the varied, rolling course, the aid stations stocked with typical (awesome) trail race fare, and the great after-party with thumping music, hot food and adult beverages.

Unfortunately, this year I did not get to run the usual race course. Instead of the race winding through woods on single track trails, the majority of the race was on gravel roads and pastures. The course had to be altered due to melting snow and heavy rains. Race Director Carl sent out an email before the race assuring us that the new course would be between 15.5 and 15.8 miles. Here is a picture of my husband’s GPS watch from the run. Note the actual mileage on the bottom right.


Trail race directors have a hilarious sense of humor!  I enjoyed every step of the race except all of the steps after 15.8 miles! I whined for the last .7 miles (ask my husband), but I still loved the race.

Here is one difference between road races and trail races: when a road race is advertised as 25k, it is actually exactly 25k. When a trail race is advertised as 25k, it is 25k-ish. Road runners, often Type A personalities, want to know that the distance they are running is precisely the advertised distance. I get it. Road runners are chasing PRs (personal records), comparing their times to other races of the same distance, maybe even trying to qualify for  Boston if they are running a marathon.

One time I ran a mostly downhill 10k (6.2 mile) road race. I was running really well at the time, and expecting a great time for the race. When I looked at the finish line clock as I was finishing, I couldn’t believe how slowly I had run. (Side note: I do not run with a GPS watch, and never look at my time during a race.) As I stood catching my breath next to the finish line, I heard many of the runners complaining about the “long” course.  The first-time race director, who was not a runner, had measured the race distance with his car odometer. Rookie mistake! Most road races are wheel-measured for accuracy.

I just checked the official rules.  Race distances are not allowed to be shorter than the advertised distance at all (-0%); they may be up to +.2% longer than the advertised distance.  For a 10k, that would be a maximum allowable overage of .01 miles.  Racers were upset, because the distance showing on their watches was 6.5 miles, a difference of nearly +5%.

This fall, I ran a 50k (31.1 mile) trail race.  The director told us before the start of the race that the course was long, and in fact, we ran 31.8 miles.  No one was upset.  Everyone was joking about getting more miles for the same price.  Trail runners are a different breed. I love them!

Trail runners like to run in the mud, but we don’t want to wreck the trails that we love to run on.  That’s why the course of the trail race was changed last weekend. Some people thought that it was to protect the runners, because the footing was compromised. Pffffft, please! Trail race directors love that kind of stuff! One early spring trail race that I run advertises itself by stating on its website “You’ll almost certainly get wet and muddy, you’ll likely get a boo-boo or two and you might even be sore the next day, but hey – that’s half the point of it!” Part of that race course is so steep I usually slide down it on my butt. I am just grateful that I can do those types of races at my age (a phrase I never thought I would write!)

The proceeds from race fees of many trail races are used to preserve natural areas. Trail racers are some of the most conservation-minded people I know. Many are passionate about environmental issues. I see discussions of everything from pipelines to the Bears Ears National Monument controversy on trail running social media pages. It is no coincidence that the outdoor retailer Patagonia, who sells clothing and gear to runners, hikers, rock climbers, and other outdoor enthusiasts put the following quote on their website when President Trump reduced the size of Bears Ears by 85%: “The president stole your land. In an illegal move, the president just reduced the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. This is the largest elimination of protected land in American history.” Locally, some of my running friends have been arrested for protesting construction of a pipeline that runs through part of our county. People love and protect what is dear to them.

It is easy to love the flashy, the lush, the beautiful. A colorful desert sunset is splashy in the same way as a movie star in a low cut dress. When Bears Ears National Monument was reduced, millions of protesters signed petitions, spoke out on social media and decried the president’s actions. This was not just local news in Utah, it was in the national news for weeks (before we moved on to the next shiny thing).

Do people love just the beautiful, or is the ordinary also lovable? Annie Dillard, one of my favorite authors, writes in her book Holy the Firm “People love the good not much less than the beautiful, and the happy as well, or even just the living, for the world of it all, and heart’s home.” Yes, “heart’s home”. We love what is in our heart. We love home, wherever that is.

I live in Southeastern Pennsylvania. The scenery here is pretty, but not in the grand, sweeping manner of some of the natural areas out west.  The beauty here is quieter, subtler. In the winter time, the beauty of the landscape is spare.  It is It is home.

When you come home after being away for a time in a different environment, does your heart jump just a little bit when you see the familiar landscape of home? Can you see the beauty when everything is gray and brown and white? What land do you love?  Where is heart’s home for you?20180110_095910.jpg




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