I’ve noticed a recent phenomenon that I feel compelled to address, because it’s a topic near and dear to my heart. And because I have an opinion about everything. But it may sound like I’m being an elitist bitch (if the running shoe fits…), so I brought my Colorado-based ultra running superstar runabler, Heidi, into the fray for a slightly different perspective. Warning: we’re both talkers – snag some coffee before settling in!
There appears to be a mass exodus from the roads to the trails. More importantly, there seems to be a significant increase in the number of runners wanting to do ultra marathons.
Which is great! There is always room for one more in the woods (if not, we kill them and leave them for the coyotes) [#truth], and I’m so glad that runners are expanding their goals and wanting to run previously-unfathomable distances.
And, how can we blame you. The trails are awesome. They aren’t the end-all-be-all of running, but they do come with nature and mountains and dirt and cool people and Rice Krispie Treats and more dirt and scenery and hot chocolate and rocks and wild critters and…a lot of awesome things! Get your butt out on the trails, take it all in, enjoy every moment you have out there [except the ones that suck…wait until your selective memory kicks in to truly enjoy those moments]. Mother Nature is the bomb dot com, scope her out on your feet. You [probably] won’t regret it.
I love the trails. I want you to love the trails. I also want you to survive on the trails without hating me or yourself. More selfishly, I absolutely do NOT want you to make any silly mistakes or over/under calculations that will keep me off the trail, for any reason. Trails will rock your socks off [literally, if you’re lucky] but they are NOT easy peasy, lemon squeezy!
Ultras are not nearly as simple as they appear to be on social media. Don’t be fooled by the cheesy grins and finish line leaps—it’s one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Ultras command a lot of time and dedication and blood and tears and respect. Mostly respect. We work our asses off to make it look (somewhat) easy. Like those new Under Armour commercials circulating right now. We do it for the Insta.
Don’t quite believe me? My buddy Chris has one of my favorite “trail newbie” stories—he’s become kind of a legend in town for his innocent ignorance and idiocy on his first trail run. Long story short, here’s how he described his run:
Ran up hills like I thought I was some sort of King and then bonked hardcore mile 12. Howard Greg was out there too. Nursed me back to life with water & Gu.
I think I ate a pickle before the run.
I had done Tough Mudder before, so obviously I was ready for ultras.
Boom. That’s the mentality that is a no-no in the woods. That’s what will get you hurt, or worse, laughed at. That’s what I want to try and fix.
So, being one of the ultra-loudmouths in the ‘Ham, I decided to bring you this handy cheat-sheet/wake-up call/come-to-Jesus moment:
Change your mindset
If you’re used to a serious training regimen, pay close attention. Trails are a totally different animal. Yes, it’s still running. But it’s not about mileage or pace or PRs. It’s about effort and time on feet and having fun. You may bust your ass for two hours and only get 7 miles. That’s ok! That’s two hours on your feet and a healthy dose of reality about how trail miles + road miles are NOT the same thing!
Also, it’s perfectly fine to walk. In fact, practicing power hiking is encouraged, and will often allow you to blow past stubborn slow runners on a race course. Walking on hills isn’t weak, it’s smart because you know you need to save energy for those remaining 40 miles of hills ahead.
Unless you’re an elite [if you are…I can’t help you, I’m so far from an elite I don’t even get to admire the asses + hamstrings of the slow elites!] you’re not going to give a flying fuck about your numbers when you’re out on the trails. Okay, that’s a slight lie—you might care in the beginning, but when things go awry, [don’t worry, they eventually will] the only number you’re truly going to care about is the cutoff time at the next aid station or the percentage of battery you have left on your headlamp when you’re in the middle-of-nowhere at dark o’clock.
This is very different from the average road runner’s view on running—and yes, I think I’m allowed to make that generalization; I ran exclusively on roads for years and every single 0.02 counted, damnit! At first, it was weird to ignore the numbers, but now the lack of regard I have toward the numbers is a huge part of how + why I love the trails. Plus, the best part of trail running how easy it is to become a plain ol’ hiker if the trail is kicking your butt when there’s someone there to see you struggle…a great cue to reign it in + perfect the power hike!
Choose trails wisely
So while your weekly runs may look different than what you’re used to, you still have to train. Arguably way harder than you train for road races. But it’ll be a different kind of hard. A harder hard. A morning wood hard (blah, road running) vs drunken wood hard (yay, endurance trail running!).
A road is a road, whether it’s hilly or flat or cambers to the right or has potholes. However, not all trails are created equal. Dirt ≠ trail. Gravel roads ≠ trail. Unless that’s the type of terrain you’ll be racing on, then it actually does = trail. But you get the gist of it. Select a variety of trails that best mimic the race course you’ll be running, so that come Race Day you’ll be confident in your abilities to not kill yourself.
And if you’re not training for a race but just trying to get your booty out on the trails because it sounds badass…wander around on the trails close to you; you’ll find a few that really challenge you. Those are the trails that’ll change you as a runner! Or so I’m told; I’m still running down technical, rocky trails in an attempt to become a faster descender. The jury is still out…
Let’s be honest—outside of purposely-tough workouts and races, road running isn’t all that uncomfortable. It often allows you to blissfully zone out for the duration of your run, where nothing matters but the sound of your breath and the pounding of your feet and the sleepy chatter of your friends. We have all shuffled our way through early morning runs without being fully awake. Hell, half the time I’m able to crawl back into bed as if my run had never happened.
But try doing that on a trail, and you’ll be eating a mouthful of dirt for breakfast. Trails require you to be hyper-present in the moment, with your mind going full speed watching for every single rock and root and snake that can roll your ankle. They require you to problem-solve as you’re figuring out the best way to power-hike a hill while taking in calories while not throwing up your intestines. They take your body to an entirely new level of discomfort. Your legs scream and your upper body aches in ways you never thought were possible, and you’re hungry and nauseous and delirious and more tired than you have ever been in your life. Yet you keep moving forward toward that finish line, because that’s what ultra runners do. They suffer through the most miserable conditions and emotions, and come out on the other side alive. Barely.
Well, now Heidi wants to know what the hell she’s doing wrong with this marathon training thing she’s attempting. My brain gets so bored on road runs that my feet fall asleep + give up on life! Okay, slight exaggeration, but seriously, since I started running more trails, I seriously struggle on the roads…and I’m pretty sure this is a two-way street. You’ll also struggle with the aspects of trail running you don’t get on the roads. That’s okay! Own the struggle, strengthen those stabilizer muscles [or own those trail-tumble scars] + cut yourself some slack! Oh, and open your mind to the sufferfest; it’s a painful bitch but it is precisely what keep us coming back for more. The human mind is weird. The ultra mind is a tiny bit broken.
Put in the time
Yes, physically you can tackle the mileage of an ultra. No one doubts your abilities. But can you handle it potentially taking twice as long as you’ve ever been on your feet? Do you know what to do when your legs say, “Nope. I’m done.” but you still have a long way to go? The secret to ultra running is that it’s 80% mental. You need to build confidence out there in them woods. Where to put your foot. How to navigate roots. How to bomb a downhill. How to eat without puking. How to finish when every fiber of your being wants to sit down and quit. And you can’t learn that any other way than with a shit-ton of practice. It requires countless hours and miles of successes and failures and trial and error to train your body both physically and mentally.
Revise your hydration and fuel plan
You will eat approximately 5 times the calories and drink 5 times the water on the trails. Plan accordingly. A single Gu tucked into your pocket won’t cut it anymore. You’ll find yourself either munching on a handful of those Hunger Games berries or sacrificing your calorie-depleted body to a pack of wild turkeys. Who apparently eat humans? Embrace your inner sherpa, invest in a water bottle or hydration pack, and stuff it full of enough food and water to survive two weeks in the woods. Yes, aid stations look close on a map, but it may take you 1.5 hours to go those four miles. And you’ll be happy you carried all the things when you bonk in-between said aid stations.
Buy the shoes
Yes, you already have a closet full of smelly sneakers. Yes, you should get another pair. A trusty pair of trail shoes will drain quickly and efficiently after your water crossings. They’ll offer you the right amount of stability and cushioning. They’ll make you strong like a bull. Do you need them to successfully run an ultra? No. But your banged-up and swollen piggies will thank you for your purchase. Especially since as a noob you’ll be looking more like a newborn fawn and less like Sage Canaday out there.
You’re running in the woods. Woods have dirt. When it rains, dirt becomes mud. What do you do? Run through the mud! Outside the fact that being covered from head-to-toe in mud makes you look badass, running on the trail itself instead of tiptoeing like a ballerina around the puddles prevents trail erosion. Because, believe it or not, these trails didn’t just appear. People worked hard to create them, and by stepping off the trail itself you’re both damaging the delicate forest ecosystem and giving those trail volunteers a big Eff You. If you don’t want to get dirty, stay out of the woods.
Don’t even get me started on this one…I have no room for cutesy sass here. Stay on the damn trail! I don’t care how new your shoes are or how prone you are to blisters [this is where that pack-all-the-things mentality comes in handy – throw in a pair of extra socks or blister pads…yes, you have room!]. I don’t care what the 10 people in front of you did, do NOT be that person. Instead, show the 10 people behind you how feasible it is to preserve the trails + respect the wilderness by going THROUGH the mud. It’s a basic Leave No Trace principle and, quite frankly, if you’re committing to spending time in the wilderness then you need to commit a little time to perusing lnt.org. #endrant #sorrynotsorry
This hurts my insides to write. It seems so obvious, but yet apparently it isn’t. When you’re out in the woods (or anywhere, for that matter), practice Leave No Trace principles and do.not.litter. Don’t leave your banana or orange peels on the ground. Don’t throw your Gu packet over your shoulder. Don’t leave your poopy toilet paper under a rock. Don’t hang onto your cup of Mountain Dew and then drop it when you’re done drinking. There is no magical Trash Fairy flying around picking up after you. There are volunteers, but they’re keeping you alive, not picking up your shit. Shove your trash into your handheld, vest, pack, bra, shorts, socks, and toss it as soon as you can.
Or, make yourself a “bio bag.” It’s simple—snag a resealable bag from your kitchen + a roll of fluorescent green duct tape from the junk drawer then force them to become besties. Wrap the duct tape around the resealable bag and blammy, you have a place for your TP + tampons + gross things and no one is the wiser. Well, I’ll know what it’s for but I’ll also know not to touch it because I’m only cool with my own gross when it comes to bio bags. Just keep it easily accessible and use it, always!
Respect the sport
The trail community as a whole comes across as being pretty chill. And hell, we are chill. But don’t mistake that for laziness. It takes a lot of fucking hard work.
On paper, the jump from a marathon to a 50k is fairly simple. More of a hop, really. And the difference between a 50k and 50-miler looks more difficult, but manageable. But stop for a moment and consider the actual distance you’re about to embark on. You wouldn’t tell a new runner it’s “easy” to go from a 10k to a marathon, would you? You’re putting your body through a hell of a lot physically and mentally with each passing mile. Respect the distance and go in as prepared as possible.
And if you’re a seasoned runner looking to go from a 50-miler to a 100-miler, that’s a whole separate beast. And blog post. Because something happens at mile 51 where your body goes, “What the actual fuck, dude?” and starts to fight you in every way possible. So when you start thinking about a 100, you better pull up your britches and get on your sufferfest, because it ain’t going to be pretty, kids.
Don’t forget to keep in mind ultras have their own set of “norms.” For example, miles. Sure, you signed up for a 50K which is technically 31.06 miles, but do not be surprised when you end up running 32 miles. Or 34 or 35 or 36 miles. When you’re running on trails, you can’t just stop randomly when you hit the “finish” distance, you have to go to the next trailhead…so courses run long. And what about that time you took the wrong turn and got lost? There is no lead biker or cheering spectators to keep you on course; you’ll be on your own more than once and getting lost is a real possibility. Be prepared for extra miles, both mentally and physically. Really, it’s just one more excuse to buy that running pack you’ve been eyeballing…
Run these races
Man, if only there were some way to train for an ultra safely and locally…Oh wait! There is! David and Marye Jo Tosch run the Southeastern Trail Series from April to November, where the races increase in distance and difficulty, culminating in a 25k, 50k, and for the first time ever this year, a 50!
I love these two to death, and I love their races in a sadistic way. I’ve been running and writing about these races for the past three years, and they don’t ever get easier. David is a seemingly innocent-looking man with flowing white hair and rosy cheeks. Who also happens to revel in making runners suffer as much as possible in as few miles as possible. But just when you’re using your last ounce of energy to curse him, you cross the finish line and come upon Marye Jo’s smiling face and cheerful demeanor. And you forget how much the race sucked. And you do it again next month.
So if you want to build up to 25k, 50k, or 50 miles by the end of the year, do this series. It’s the perfect gateway drug into ultra running.
If you’re a badass female in the Southeast and want to dip your toe into trail running, come on out to our Women’s Trail Running Retreat on April 16th. It’ll be a full day of all-you-can-digest trail running madness. With the coolest gals in town.
Trust me, I get it. Road running is hard and competitive and mind-numbing. Trails are relaxed and fun and breathtaking. And hard (and sometimes dangerous) as fuck. Don’t ever forget that. This all comes down to one thing—safety. You are no longer in Kansas, Toto. There is no air conditioning to escape to and no one to flag down and drive you back to your car. Most of the time there’s not even cell service to call your knight in shining armor for help. I have seen multiple times what happens if you have an emergency in the woods. Spoiler alert—you are royally fucked. And accidents happen to the best of us, me included, but not being prepared is a bad reason to send EMTs looking for you.
At the end of the day, you be you be you be you, but for the sake of everyone else out there, please be a responsible, self-aware version of you when you’re out on the trails living up life. Make mistakes, but learn from them. Be that person that does that thing, but acknowledge it. Poop behind a tree, but don’t leave TP. Puke on a hard run, but hydrate + eat after resetting that pissed off tummy of yours. Set some kickass goals, but be realistic when your body plays its nope card. Have fun, but don’t be a jerk. No one likes a jerk. (Especially not Tanya, who may purposely try and trip you).
So check your ego at the trailhead, and we’ll see you out there!