I learned a lot about myself and trail running this past weekend at the XTERRA Big Elk Trail Marathon outside Baltimore in the Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area.
In short, in all my prior marathons, I had never come as close to a DNF as I did in this race. It was a 2 loop 13.1 trail course, and after just a few miles of ankle-twisting switchbacks, steep inclines and declines, log jumping, stream crossing, and rock hopping, I was ready to downgrade to the half marathon when I finished the first loop.
As I crossed the line to complete the half, I pulled into the aid station for a few cups of Gatorade. Before I could find the race director to state my downgrade or DNF, a volunteer told me: "You're in 3rd, keep going!" There were at least 5 people ahead of me running the half marathon but I didn't realize only 2 people ahead of me doing the full. I pulled it together, mentally and physically, and kept going, reminding myself that I could keep a steady pace and be stronger the 2nd time through the technical course.
Here are 3 reasons why you should try trail running:
1) The Escape: Immersing myself in nature by running through oxygen-rich, shaded woods made me feel raw, energized, and connected to something bigger - Mother Earth. It's extremely humbling to escape the bustling city life and find yourself sidestepping rocks and running through mud. The constant variety of trail running has actually been shown to increase endurance, strengthen the core, and burn more calories than a comparable road run.
2) Lower Impact: While the obstacles will be challenging, the surfaces of trails are softer than typical asphalt or concrete on daily runs. I created less impact on my body while building more strength in muscles to stabilize the core and legs. Your connective tissue becomes stronger with each step and less prone to injury.
3) Better Technique: All the dodging forced me to shorten my stride and increase my turnover. Even though my pace was a bit slower than an open road marathon, my cadence was about the same, and I felt myself landing more on the forefoot than the heel. Shorter and faster strides and mid-/fore-foot landing require less energy and result in more efficient running.