Racing: Trails vs. Roads

May 19, 2013 – Today some of the MRC crew decided to do a trail race put on by the Shenipsit Striders – the Soapstone Mountain Trail Race. Appropriately named, it took place on Soapstone Mountain which is near the Ellington, Stafford Springs, Tolland (somewhere around there) line here in Connecticut. This race was tough, and got us thinking we should really write a little piece about the difference between trail races and road, and perhaps most interesting – the difference between trail racers and road racers.

The Shenipsit Striders do a great job putting the race on, it’s well organized and the trail was marked as well as we could expect. The course was 24k, or about 14.5 miles, over very rocky terrain, your typical New England forest. Ups and downs, rocks, sharp turns, all that good stuff – but they had a good crowd this morning. This post is not so much about the actual race this morning but just some info on the race today to get you thinking. Also, I think I’m going to start typing in the first person, I hope you don’t mind.

Now I’m no stranger to trail racing, that doesn’t mean I’m a huge fan or do more than one or two a year – so maybe that does make me a stranger to them. In either case just to give you a background I have done the Pikes Peak Marathon along with the 7 Sisters Trail Race (though I didn’t finish) and we also put on the Finally Spring 5k trail race and there is just something completely different about trail and road races. Each are wonderful in their own way but here are a few observations.

Do Trail Racers Care if They Get Hurt? Seriously, there was a group of three of us today who are pretty good road racers and love to train on trails, but this was out of this world and we all agreed. Folks who are really good at trail racing (the ones that win these types of races) fly down rocky, rooty, suicide-type, downhills with absolute reckless abandon and I honestly could not fathom how they were doing this. We all agreed after the race that they just must not care if they get hurt. Us “roadies” (I’ll get to that term in a minute) as they call us, like our legs and ankles in particular and our way of getting down was relatively quickly but most important plant your foot and be stable. The trail racers were running down these hills like there was a fire at the top, along with a rhino chasing them down. Don’t get me wrong, we were beyond impressed, it’s just not something we were willing to do.

I don't want to race down this ever again

I don’t want to race down this ever again

Running Style – One of the other big differences we noticed was that on the roads, we go hard all the time and generally keep one pace. Now obviously we slow down a touch on the uphills and speed up a bit on the downhills but the pace of trail racers is vastly different. On the trails, taking it easy up the hills seems to be the way to go and on the flat parts it’s not so much picking it up as it is maintaining; of course you must also then run down hills like the Taliban is chasing you. This seems bizzarre to us, but effective. We would catch a number of people on the flat portions and on the uphills we were passing people frequently, but the downhills are the great equalizer. I don’t know if this is good, bad, or indifferent, but it makes for interesting racing.

Toughness vs. Speed – Now I don’t think too many trail racers are blessed with amazing speed, and I certainly am not either, but as far as speed goes I look like Usain Bolt compared to some out on the trail – that doesn’t mean I can beat them on the trails. Had today’s race been run on the roads, the three of us from the MRC crew probably would have all been in the top 5, but on the trails – not a chance. Brian Nelson did get second overall, so maybe I shouldn’t quite say not a chance but it’s just a totally different ball game. The trail racers have so much toughness in them to deal with the trails. Now of course road runners have plenty of toughness as well but it is a different kind of toughness to continue on these trails week after week. I personally never want to run this race again, and believe me that’s not a knock on the organization or anything like that, it’s just not my thing. Bottom line, these trail racers are tough and we have the utmost respect.

Recovery – I have a feeling all the trail racers from today are going to be right back out there on the trails tomorrow morning going the same pace they did today. Meanwhile, I’ll be icing my ankles for the next three and a half hours. I had to stop for a few minutes today after I rolled the same ankle over 3 times in a 1/4 mile span, meanwhile some of those who are used to it just have rubber ankles and keep on going. Now maybe they are just so much more savvy than I when it comes to the technical running, and that’s probably part of it, but ankle sprains, falls etc., I know they’ll all be out tomorrow or the next day right back on the trails. I’ll be hitting the roads tomorrow I think.

Terminology – The folks that participate in these trail races refer to road runners as “roadies”. I doubt it’s a negative term at all, but it’s just for those of us who don’t run the trails that much.

All in all it is a very interesting study in speed, strength, specialization, and characteristics of running on the trails versus the roads. This was a great experience and many should try to do trail races but know what you’re getting in to. There are easy trail races (Finally Spring 5k), or the rail trail, and then there are grueling races like today’s.

Just because you’re a good runner on the road, doesn’t mean you’ll be a good trail runner. And don’t worry, it works both ways, just because you’re a great trail runner doesn’t mean you’ll be a great road runner – it does mean you’re nuts though.

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