What I Learned from My First Trail Race

Happy Monday! For some of us, it’s back to the grind. I spent the weekend in New Hampshire with my family, including my brother and cousin whom I hadn’t seen in awhile. I always find it tough getting back to the bustling world of work and the city, so am slowly adapting this morning. Hope you all enjoyed your summer weekends wherever you were!

My time up north included a lot of outdoor activities and micro-adventures on either side of a tremendous storm that hit the mountains on Saturday night. Losing electricity and water for a few hours following the storm was fun, but I was happy for these amenities later in the evening once the power returned.

Post-storm view:IMG_0326

Other than that excitement, we were able to squeeze in a run on Saturday and a hike on Sunday on my favorite little mountain, Cardigan.

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And watch some amazing sunsets over Newfound Lake:

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Saturday’s 5 miler was the first run since last weekend’s trail race. I usually take a full week off from running following a race, so this was routine. But this was the first time I have run a marathon in the middle of a training cycle so I treated the race as I would any other. I plan to ease back into training again this week and will most likely cut my next long run down by a few miles before piling the miles back on in early August. I think having a cool-down period (both mental and physical) and avoiding overuse is one healthy recipe for preventing injury and burnout.

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Feelings of mid-training cycle burnout are not at the front of my mind right now though. The trail marathon last weekend was an adventure that reinvigorated my enthusiasm towards marathon training. It’s been over a week since the trail race and I am still feeling excited about the experience- and I can’t wait to sign up for my next one!

Here are some things I learned during my first trail race:

  • The scenery is more beautiful in a trail race compared to a road race. In the North Face Endurance Challenge, we were in the middle of the Blue Mountains overlooking Lake Huron. Some sections of the trail were through acres of open fields- and I felt as free as a bird running through them. There were also many shady sections, which were a relief for a summer race. I have run several scenic marathons, but they haven’t compared to the Ontario trail race.
  • People are more social during a trail race. It’s easier to chat with fellow runners during a slower-paced trail run when there’s only a few of you together in the woods compared to normal marathons teeming with focused runners. But also, it seems as though trail runners are a close community, eager to learn about each other’s’ backgrounds and thoughts on the trail. I am always surprised by the amazing camaraderie between runners of all events- but this seems exceptionally true for trail runners. I certainly got a few “tell me about yourself” and “so where are you from” questions throughout my race last weekend.
  • The race tends to be broken up by the time of day/hour on the clock as opposed to mileage. During the race, I was more concerned by the elapsed time on the Garmin and didn’t pay as much attention to the mile marks (which are far and few between in a trail race!).
  • Pace does not matter in a trail race but can be very important in a road race (if you are concerned with a goal time or PR). Given the grade variety on the trails, it’s difficult to maintain a consistent pace- and it’s difficult to compare paces and race outcomes on every race given the variety. I walked most of the uphills in last weekend’s race whereas I attempt to keep a consistent uphill pace during road races.
  • Trail race aid stations are buffets with every kind of candy, salty snacks, junk food, and many types of drinks. Since aid stations are more spread out than road races (last weekend’s race placed stations every 4-5 miles), it is important to carry water in a handheld or camelback.
  • Sunscreen, bug spray, and glide are essential on the trail, as you’ll be out there for longer than a similar-distance road race. Minor issues can be exacerbated over time, so you want to prevent them as much as possible.
  • Every mile can be vastly different in a trail race, which results in an exciting adventure! Be prepared to get muddy, make sure you maintain quick feet, and enjoy the journey!

Regardless of whether you favor trail or road running (and there are pros and cons to both), consider this: “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt”.  

One more sunset of Newfound Lake:

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What was the highlight of your weekend?

Do you prefer trail or road running? 

How do you maintain motivation in the middle of your race training cycle? Are there specific things you do to “spice up” your runs? 

Have a happy Monday! Xo

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51 thoughts on “What I Learned from My First Trail Race

  1. Great Post! My weekend was highlighted by a 15 mile training run, on a local Trail. I do prefer trail running for longer runs. This is the first time I have logged more miles on trails than roads, so I am anxious to see how it pays off this October on Marathon Day. -Happy Running!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great to hear that Trail running has inspired you Jane, or at least, reinvigorated you. Gotta say, I love the trails more than pounding black top. Easier on the joints and mind too.

    Weekend saw me do a 22k trail over some hills (1100m of ascent) for our group of 4. Weather wasn’t too kind and we had to cross a bog area. Wet feet for the majority of the 22k but it was FUN.

    I’m in the ‘taper’ phase now as have another race, just 42miles this time, a week on Saturday. But, to keep me motivated, I just get outside and run. Listen to my body and if it doesn’t, or can’t do what I ask, I let it know “it’s ok”.

    After all, we want to do it all again :-)

    Keep, keeping on.
    Train hard. Happy trails.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi, Jane! I love your post. I use to live in the Boston area and travelled to New Market, New Hampshire on the weekends quite frequently. I am a huge fan of trail runs. I get lost in nature and the surroundings keep me going. To answer your question about burnout mid-training, I normally would try to find a different route, or trail, something new, and stop and smell the roses. My training partners and I would sometimes pack up the car, hit the road, and go upstate to explore different trails. I always say its about the journey. Don’t get so lost in the training that you fail to see the beauty around you.

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  4. Sounds like the race was a ton of fun! I’ve never done trail running, and considering I live in a place with a ton of great trail running opportunities, I feel like I should give it a shot. It’s just so much more convenient to step outside and start running than it is to drive somewhere to run!

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  5. Nice post. I love the story of youŕ trail adventure. Thank u for an inspiring story. I usually change scene to avoid plateau in my mid marathon training. The least thing is going counter direction of my usual loop. Otherwise I will look for routes where I can see many people or animals, or if I have enough time, going for better countryside scenes. I sometimes run through a market or chasing parks.

    I would love to try more trail run. It’s yet to happen. Soon… real soon…

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  6. Oh my gosh those lake photos!! So gorgeous. Being lakeside is my absolute favorite place in the world and I feel so fortunate that my parents live on a lake and this city gal gets to spend her weekends there…and I am determined to live on one as well one day! The boy and I have been talking about going to NH sometime this fall so I’m hopeful that happens as I have it in my mind that Portsmouth is calling me. Love your trail race recap and it totally makes me want to run one!

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  7. I loved reading this! I totally agree that the focuses are vastly different when trail running from those when road running, especially the pace part -kind of hard to wrap your mind around at first. I definitely enjoy going slower and being able to take in the scenery some days and mixing it up by working on speed while road running other days.

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  8. Motivation is so hard during a long training cycle. When I trained for a single race for 6 months, I was reinspired in the middle by the Olympic marathon trials. I also looked forward to the small things I enjoy on certain runs like podcasts, friends or my favorite post-run breakfast. I take runs day-by-day and try not to look too far ahead. That makes it seem longer.
    I try to limit trails when I am training for road races. There is a higher injury chance and I don’t want that. However, easy trails like dirt roads and paths are wonderful for my feet :-) Do you have trail shoes?

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    1. Thanks for your note! I have hiking boots that I use for more grueling terrain but don’t have separate trail running shoes. For my last race, I just wore my regular Brooks sneakers and they worked well but the terrain wasn’t too rocky. But I think I will invest in a good pair of trail running shoes if I keep this up– any suggestions?

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  9. Welcome to the dirt side! Everything you mentioned in this post are reasons why I prefer trail marathons/ultras to road marathons. If you keep it up, you’ll enjoy the extra perks like mud, rain, rocks, face plants, and the constant anxiety when you haven’t seen a flag in a while. Nothing compares!

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  10. fabulous recap Jane and stunning pictures…congratulations on your trail race – will be running my first next month as a timed ultra which should be interesting!!

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  11. That sunset over Newfound Lake is amazingly good! What fantastic scenery! I agree with you – trails are a perfect diversion from road running. I’ll never give up road running but I really love a good trail every now and then.

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  12. Everything you mention about trail running is spot on! The people (and those well supplied aid stations) really make for a different experience from road. More comfortable, in some ways, from road. Trails will get those ankles, though! Did you have any tumbles? Learning to roll out of a fall becomes a handy skill.

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  13. Trail Running, every time but I’m guessing you predicted I’d say that. Road races are fine but for me they’d better be somewhere pretty fantastic to even try to beat a local trail.

    Good lessons learned. I’ve said before the best advice I got was to “Walk the Uphills”. Sure you may be able to run or shamble up a few but who knows what’s next? Also great advice to carry enough to get you through to the next Aid Station. I’ve run a couple where they are as far as 7-9 miles apart. That can be rough late in the race.

    Thanks for the excellent post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your note! What hydration gear do you bring when you race? I just brought my handheld but lots of other runners wore vests- some simple, some seemingly complex. Curious what you favor. Thanks in advance!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have used both. I’ll run for maybe up to two hours with a handheld. Longer than that and I’ll take the vest.

        I use the Osprey Rev series race vests. I use the Rev 1.5 currently and I love it. Minimalist with a great fit. I occasionally wish I had a bit more room for food though. I used the Rev 6 first which has the same water capacity but more storage and then I found I wasn’t utilizing it effectively. Now though I could certainly use a larger pack on some days. What do you know? The Rev 6 is on sale at REI……

        /wanders off whistling….

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      1. I have a few road 5ks coming up as I’m really a 5k guy, but I will look for some trail runs in September or October. I need a trail that’s a little less rough, so I may hit some of the Ohio or Indiana races…FLAT!

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  14. Love this post, Jane! Good info as usual. Like some others, I am training for my first trail run – Ragnar McDowell Mountains (AZ) in November. The first several trail training runs are definitely educational experiences – discovering new muscles and how much more difficult it is than road running. Wondering if you did any additional core work in training. It seems like it would be beneficial and I am considering it. Also, did you do much speed work or intervals since pace isn’t as big of a concern. Happy trails to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Doug, how’s the Ragnar training going? Hope it’s not too hot for you these days! As far as core work- I typically mix in some core work 1-2X week, and often add in planks post-run. Most runners would agree that a strong core is very helpful, especially on the trails as you’re using many different muscle groups. Apart from planks/other core exercises, I add in lunges and squats as well as pushups, mountain climbers, and bridges, among other strength exercises. I try to mix it up each day. Regarding speedwork- I do add in workouts that are greater than 800m in length geared for road marathons, but that I can apply to any trail running. Speed work/intervals are always a good idea to add in at a certain level. Let me know if you have any further questions and good luck with your training!

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