Have you ever been strolling along a mountain trail enjoying the peaceful serenity of nature, only to have someone in running shoes blast by you and speed ahead into the forest? If you aren’t a runner, you may very well have been irritated, or at least puzzled, by this outdoor over-achiever. After all, isn’t the whole point of being out in the woods to slow down, to quietly observe nature, to get to know the forest and its creatures on their own terms?
However, if you are a runner who has heretofore confined herself to the streets and sidewalks, the sight of the lean, strong athlete quietly disappearing into the woods ahead will no doubt pique your interest. What is it like, leaving the streets behind? How far are they going? Could I do that?
I have been running on trails for years, and I can attest to the fact that once you have started running in the woods, you will never go back, only venturing onto concrete and asphalt when absolutely necessary. There are practical benefits – the softer terrain is easier on weary joints, and you no longer have to dodge cars or inhale exhaust fumes.
Ultimately, the real appeal of trail running is the same attraction that draws anyone to the outdoors, be they a hiker, climber, paddler, or birdwatcher. Trail running gets you into the woods, and it gets you there often. After I started trail running, I found that I was visiting my favorite trails three or four times a week, instead of three or four times a month. The more I ran, the farther and faster I could roam, so I began exploring new areas. And because trail running can be done all year, I began getting to know the places where I run in all four seasons, from blankets of wildflowers to blankets of new snow.
Or maybe I just do it for my dog, Huck. Trail running is easily his favorite activity on the planet.
Regardless, I am one of the thousands of people in the southern mountains who runs every week on the many trails that we are blessed with in our region. Everyone has a favorite trail running season, and mine is the summer. But my good friend and running partner Miriam Stewart swears by winter running and merely tolerates the summertime heat and humidity.
Taking it to the “Extreme”
As different as our opinions on the best season for trail running might be, Miriam and I are even farther apart when it comes to levels of experience. While I am a fair weather runner who does my best to get out for an hour-long run three times a week, Miriam has crossed over into the realm that I would consider extreme. As one example, each year she competes in a race called the Promise Land 50K near the Peaks of Otter that features an 8,000 foot elevation gain.
This seemingly insane feat is just one of the many extremes to which trail runners regularly go in our region. Another is the Black Mountain Marathon and Mount Mitchell Challenge, an early spring, forty-mile trail race up to the top of Mount Mitchell in North Carolina, the highest mountain in the eastern US. Two women from western North Carolina, Annette Bednosky of Boone and Ann Riddle from Ashville, are making a name for themselves on this circuit that is know as the “trail ultra series,” a sign that our region offers some of the best trail running opportunities in the nation.
Of course these extreme races are not for everyone, and fortunately our region offers numerous trail running experiences for runners at all levels. Trail running clubs across the South sponsor races of every possible length and level of difficulty, from 5K runs to events like the Virginia Creeper Marathon that takes place every spring along the gently rolling Virginia Creeper Trail near Damascus, Virginia.
Born to Run
Regardless of the type of run that best suits you, if are a runner who is tired of the traffic and pollution, if the fluorescent lights of the gym remind you too much of going to the office, if you are a lifelong hiker who has always wanted to push yourself just a little harder, then trail running might be perfect for you.
A recent study in the journal Nature found that one of the main evolutionary factors that shaped the human body was long distance running. As a runner I feel this instinctually, and through the many hundreds of miles I have covered, my feet pounding out a timeless rhythm, I find that the sense of peace, strength, and clarity that comes from running is even greater when I run in the woods, in the same way my ancestors have been running for millions of years.
If you’d like to experience it for yourself, I would highly recommend setting yourself free from the concrete and giving it a try this summer. Maybe I’ll see you on the trail.