A Year on the Trails or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Numbers and Love the Experience

It’s been a little over a year since my wife (Triathlete Dr. G) and I took up trail running. I wasn’t exactly a newbie. When I lived in Chico I regularly ran on the trails in Upper Bidwell Park. After all, it’s the Chico Tri Club’s regular Saturday LSD run. However, as Gloria signed up for one ultra-trail marathon, then another, and then the North Face 50, we spent more and more time on the trails in Auburn, Coloma, and Mt. Diablo. We love the variety, challenging hills and technical terrain, and opportunity to experience nature. Our runs have become only more beautiful since California started getting rain again! However, I learned a few things along the way –

Let go of the numbers. When we first tried going out I hated it. I went nuts, because I could not stick by X pace, Y miles, and Z time. Trail running was too unpredictable. I could go by time or by distance, but I couldn’t maintain any sort of consistent, predictable pace on any sort of hilly or technical terrain. When I let go of the numbers I finally started enjoying the experience. I still care about my pace, especially when I hit a good flat straight away, but by “letting go” I don’t let it control me or dictate whether I enjoy the run.

When you get to Cardiac Hill you have to let go of the numbers.

Dirt trails are easy on your body. One of trail running’s oft-cited benefits is the reduced impact of running on dirt, but…

Rocks can really beat you up. I finished a lot of mornings and at least a couple races with sore, beat-up feet. Rocky trails can be really brutal.

Wear taller socks. I usually wear no-show socks, but especially in mud taller socks or gaiters are really nice for keeping your feet free of debris. They also offer some protection from thorns and poison oak.

New gear is fun. We got into some new gear – chiefly trail shoes and hydration packs. You don’t “need” either of these any more than you need a triathlon bike for triathlon, but they make trail running more enjoyable.

Trail shoes – The first main thing is a pair of trail shoes. You really notice a difference in footing running downhill, through mud, and over rocks and technical terrain. The outsole is probably the biggest feature. Most trail shoes have a rock plate. These features ten to make the shoe stiffer, but give you more secure and more confident footing and protection from rocks. In our experience, this is a must-have feature, unless maybe you’re running in something as thickly cushioned as a Hoka. Some have hooks for gaiters and protection from rocks around the toe. However, for the most part they’re as different as regular running shoes – some have traditional heel-toe drops and some have low drops, some are light and minimal, while others are heavier, but have more aggressive treads, more cushioning, etc. Some have outsoles geared for “hard surfaces” (i.e. rocks) and some have outsoles geared for “soft surfaces” (i.e. mud). Some have a waterproof upper such as Goretex. If you’re running a lot of miles on a lot of rocks, there is something to be said for a more substantial shoe. In road shoes, there is a major distinction between neutral and stability shoes, but you don’t see this much with trail shoes, since they’re more substantial and supportive regardless. There are a lot of great choices. You tend to see a lot of outdoor companies in this space, like Merrell, Salomon, and La Sportive, but the big one I see more than anything at every race is Hoka. Gloria current runs in a Nike Wildhorse 3. I’m on my second Saucony Peregrine (now version 6). If you’re like me and you use the Kinvara as a trainer, chances are the Peregrine will work well for you (or the Xodus if you want something beefier).

Saucony Peregrine 6. It’s been a while since I got excited about a new shoe.

Hydration pack – Although we bought them for trail running, we started using our hydration packs for our regular training runs. We can carry more water, so we don’t have to stop to refill bottles and we can run with a natural stride. Most importantly, the packs freed us from the need for water stops and drop offs. This created new training opportunities, because we could support ourselves. However, packs are like shoes – they all fit and adjust differently. Some are light and minimal, while others can pack enough for 100 miles. Some are one size fits most, some come in 2 or 3 sizes, and some come in male or female specific fits. Some work only with bottles, some only with a bladder, some with both (we like having a bladder). Regardless, you want something that fits and feels comfortable, has pockets you can easily get to, and has enough room to carry everything. That can mean nutrition (gels, bars, etc.), water (1-2 liters), an extra layer, arm warmers, sunblock, an action camera and/or cell phone. Like shoes, there are a lot of great choices. Salomon, Nathan, and Ultimate Direction are the ones I see the most. Gloria has been using the Ultimate Direction Jenny Ultra Vesta. I’ve been using the Nathan Elevation.

A hydration pack was a game changer, freeing us to train in new places.

And in case you’re wondering about the blog title –

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