Trail runners are an illusive lot. Trying to characterize the typical advocate of the sport is like trying to give a small child a haircut or searching for fireflies during the day—you don’t get much cooperation and spotting them can be tricky. They are not joiners, and they often run trails to get away from it all.
With 6.2 million individuals in the United States identifying themselves as trail runners, and with a reported 38 percent growth rate in trail-running enthusiasts between 1998 and 1999, you’d think the outdoor industry would know who these people are, or would want to.
A simplified profile might describe trail runners as folks who run on surfaces other than streets. But even that characterization is flawed because there is a substantial crossover among trail and road runners. Then there is the question of whether adventure or cross-country runners count as trail runners since they often run off-trail.
Trail runners might also be classified by their choice of footwear. In contrast to road-running shoes, trail shoes have aggressive treads, or “outsoles,” that enhance the traction for dirt, mud, snow, ice, rock, grass, gravel, and other off-road surfaces. Trail shoes also tend to feature protective uppers that prevent trail debris from entering the shoes, and buffer against encounters with sharp objects along the trail. That said, one frequently sees trail runners with road shoes and vice versa, so choice of shoe is not that great a clue.
Understanding who trail runners are requires going beyond issues of running surface and gear. Just as the separation between “roadies” and mountain bikers in the cycling world is a distinction in attitude — as is the dichotomy between alpine skiers and telemark “pin heads,” sport climbers and traditional climbers, flat-water kayakers and white-water kayakers, track skiers and ski tour types — the difference between road runners and trail runners boils down to a psychological one.
One distinction in attitude between a road runner and a trail runner is the quest for speed and distance versus pursuing something for an intrinsic, yet immeasurable, experience. Road runners tend to be into measurement. They are often aware of their pace; heart rate; time above, in, and below their heart-rate zone; the distance they have run; and perhaps the elevation they have gained and lost, or calories they have burned. In contrast, while trail runners might know the day of the week, they rarely know how far they have run, much less their pace, because they normally measure their runs by time rather than distance.
Trail runners tap into the off-road running experience as a freeing escape that allows them to recharge their emotional and spiritual batteries while they commune with nature through physical exertion.
Road running by definition requires a road, which translates into a connection with what some call civilization. Road runners are often forced to maneuver their runs to contend with auto traffic in what are often hostile encounters. Those stressful interactions are not the best way to unwind or recharge.
Trail runners are people who like adventure, variety, challenge, and excitement. The essence of trail running is the ability to deal with constant change. No two steps are the same on the natural obstacle course of off-road terrain. Even if you run the same trail day after day, you will soon learn that the trail has a life of its own. One day it may be dry and hard, the next it may be wet and sloppy. There are also the seasonal changes and the effects of temperature, erosion, foot traffic, and plant life. Of course, there are also the flowers, trees, birds, insects, squirrels, rabbits, deer, and if you are lucky — or unlucky, depending on your aversion to risk — the chance encounter with coyotes, bears, mountain lions, moose and other big game.
It is this constant change that brings the trail-running experience to life. Some of the best trail runners hale from a background of alpine or freestyle skiing, or mountain biking. Like chess masters, talented trail runners are able to have their mind three or four steps ahead of where their feet are at any given moment. This anticipatory running style allows trail runners to “set up” for turns, rocks, roots, or other variations that lie ahead, which is crucial to staying upright while maintaining downhill speed.
Trail runners also tend to run alone. Which explains why you seldom come across a pack of runners on the trail. While there are literally hundreds of road-running clubs throughout the U.S., there is only a handful of trail-running clubs. Of course, there are more road runners than there are trail runners in this country, but the lack of trail clubs speaks more to the nature of trail runners rather than the number of trail runners. Trail runners are hard to count. Whereas road runners tend to flock together, trail runners maintain a solo spirit, which says something about the width of roads and narrowness of trails. Perhaps the road runner’s desire for companionship is explained by a sense of boredom that comes from running on unvarying terrain.
Trails offer the opportunity to retreat from the masses, and to escape to a place of tranquility where your mind may wander without any concern for traffic. The distraction of having to scout each footstep can lull you into a peacefulness that cannot be found in a paved and populated environment.
Many more ultramarathons are run on trails than they are on roads. The ultra community is a more mature, experienced crowd that has learned that the road to injury is paved, especially in races longer than 26 miles. Ultrarunners are often characterized as aficionados of natural beauty, which is why the biggest and best ultras are run in some of the most awe-inspiring places where runners are more likely to come across wildlife than they are vehicle traffic.
Although many trail runners tend to hale from adventurous athletic backgrounds - such as rock and mountain climbing, triathlons, mountain biking, and backcountry and cross-country skiing - others are road-running converts who have turned to the trails to revitalize their athletic lives. Many converts appreciate the forgiving qualities of the trail, and have learned that running trails decreases the chance of suffering overuse injury in comparison with the pounding of pavement that offers little variation in stride length or foot strike, mile after mile.
Many trail runners never race. For them, it is enough to just enjoy the activity for its own sake without testing themselves by running with other trial runners. For some, “trail racing” is an oxymoron. They run trails for the sake of running trails, and don’t really care to cross paths, so to speak, with other trail runners while out on a run.
Trail events, however, are different from road races in that the atmosphere tends to be supportive rather than competitive. Every participant in a trail race has his or her own story, and there is usually a lot of encouragement for everyone amongst the field, regardless of the runners’ speed. These events may be called trail “races,” but a more proper label would be that of a trail “celebration.”
For more information about trail running, check out the website for the All American Trail Running Association: www.trailrunner.com
Adam W. Chase, a resident of Boulder, Colorado, is the President of the All American Trail Running Association. When he is not being a husband, father, tax lawyer, or product tester, he can probably be found running on mountain trails. He is a sponsored ultramarathoner and snowshoe racer, and he has run more than 50 marathons and ultramarthons, most of which were on trails.