Confessions of a Non-Trail Runner

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I’m not a trail runner. At heart, I’m not even a road runner. I don’t know if, deep down inside even the most hardcore trail runner secretly shares this feeling with me, but here it is: I love the track.

I love training on a track, I love watching track meets and above all, I love racing on the track. It is undeniable and perhaps cause for ridicule in such trail running circles as this one. The track is flat, predictable, (hopefully) accurately measured and (usually) soft.

I’ve had my share of frustrations dished my way by this running medium and certainly I’ve run some unnecessarily long interval workouts and races around a track that left me yearning for the variation of a muddy path in the woods, but every year as the winter intensifies leading up to spring a Pavlovian response kicks in and I start trying to plan some 5x1000m and 6-8X800m repeat workouts with 90 seconds jog rest in between intervals and a 1.5 mile cool down. Really, such specific plans come up in my imagination. And I usually give in and make them a reality.

2006 was my first full year as a trail runner. I have always run on trails from time to time, but they were often only “trails”, as in rail trails or the like, with very little resemblance to the deer paths (or ATV tracks) in which I have found myself miles deep this year. It has been an enjoyable year and a refreshing new way of going about this sport of running which I have associated myself with for so long now. The WVMTR Race Series provided ample opportunity to meet and re-meet lots of funny, sociable, odd runners just like myself.

Beyond the races, trail runs have spotted my training log with increasing frequency as the months go by and my Eye-Foot Coordination might be at an all-time high. Over Christmas I had the opportunity to do a fantastic 14 mile run on the Appalachian Trail in central PA. The course started out with a nice 1000′ climb across several talus fields before leveling out to a rolling technical trail along the ridge top. The cool, rainy December morning held me close and my pace slow as I skirted the rocks and roots along the trail. The appeal was obvious. But then it happened, about 10 miles into the run, I was almost overwhelmed by the desire to be on a flat even surface, to open up my stride, put my head down, stop paying attention to everything – stop paying attention to anything – and just run.

I used to try to see how far I could run without opening my eyes. I never made it very far on the roads, common sense takes over pretty quickly when you can hear cars nearby. But once, late at night, on a deserted track, in the dark when there was little reason or excuse to worry, I made it a whole lap before I lost patience and wanted to run full speed again. Even when my road running route doesn’t allow me to physically close my eyes, I often have the opportunity to figuratively close my eyes to the world around me, feel the wind rushing past my ears and through my hair, hear my breathing and the regular, strong beat of my heart allowing me to keep moving and sense the almost imperceptible shift as I increase the pace from running 7:00 minute/mile pace to 6:50 pace.

Perhaps a trail runner can reach this point of comfort on the trail, letting go of tension throughout the body, loosening the stride, swinging the arms free and just running, without a care for an upcoming rock, tree branch or stream. Perhaps a well-seasoned trail runner could reach this point on an oft-traveled trail. But as I imagine it, its that point at which a true trail runner heaves a loud sigh of frustration (although there is no one there to hear it but the trees) and turns left to blaze a new trail – this one has gotten boring.

But that’s not the role that running plays in my life. I don’t always want my running spicy, extreme or mentally demanding. Some days I am up for exploring that enticing abandoned lumber road up the mountain, or racing around a fall-colored WV state park, but many times, a boring run is just fine with me. Often, a race consisting of 12.5 consecutive and identical loops is my top choice.

I promise that my next article will not be about myself. I just thought that before we really got rolling with these articles, and in the interest of full disclosure, I needed to be clear with you, my audience and fellow runners of trails, so that you are not misled by my presence at trail races and trail racers’ meetings into thinking that I am a true trail runner.
by Katie Wolpert
January 17, 2007

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