Thoughts On Trail Running As A Non-Athlete

People who don’t run – or who have never run – often struggle with believing me when I say that I am not a natural athlete. “You ran 68 miles in one day. You’re an athlete.” And yes, I’ll agree that now I am, but it’s not NATURAL and it’s DEFINITELY not the “athlete” anyone is picturing in their head. I earned my athleticism as an adult and it’s clumsy and awkward and slow and…did I mention awkward? My form is textbook TERRIBLE. I was told once that I “over-pronate the SHIT out of my right foot” and I hunch terribly. My form has gotten better over the years (in the beginning my husband told me once my form made him HURT) but I am PROOF that ANYONE (without physical limitations) can become a runner.

If my Dad were alive right now he would stand up and shout to the world, “TRUST ME. SHE WAS TERRIBLE. THIS IS NOT NATURAL FOR HER.” I had times in both soccer and basketball when I scored for the wrong team because I mixed up the goals. And the basketball time? WAS IN MIDDLE SCHOOL. It wasn’t a cute 5-year old thing, it was an embarrassing tween thing. I also tripped running across the finish line trying NOT to come in LAST at a track meet. Everyone in the crowd groaned simultaneously, YET I STILL HEARD MY DAD THE LOUDEST.

The only reason I played sports at all was A) playing for leagues where everyone played or B) playing in high school where we didn’t have enough people to be too picky. I even got put on a co-ed soccer team in middle school SOLELY based on the school I came from. They didn’t say that, but I’m 100% certain it was true because it was a new program bringing two Catholic Junior High schools together and only 3 of us came from the other school and I’m convinced they put me on the team because of that, as several players from the bigger school were MUCH BETTER and didn’t make it.

So, yeah. I WAS TERRIBLE. Not an athlete.

But the other thing I have to convince people is that I firmly believe trail running is better for non-runners than road running. They look at Trail Running as NEXT LEVEL running but – to me? It’s so much better than road running, and in many ways…easier.

Let me make start by making one thing abundantly clear: I have everything working against me when it comes to trail running. I am a TERRIBLE klutz with DIAGNOSABLE weak ankles. I was born with my feet pointing off center and had to wear special shoes to pull them together. This made my ankles rubber and I even had a trick I did in high school where I could point them backwards. LITERALLY. I’m not talking about “far off center” I’m talking about BACKWARDS. It made my Dad CRAZY.

So, WAY CRAZY WEAK ANKLES + WAY CRAZY KLUTZ and I still stand by that trail running is better for me as a not-natural-runner. Let me tell you why.

BUILT-IN WALK BREAKS
I walk the uphills. Everyone who knows me knows that’s my method. And sometimes my definition of “uphill” loosens as the miles wear on. But here’s the thing, if you’re on the road and you take a walk break? It feels weird. People do walk/run intervals and if you’re not officially doing intervals, then you feel like you ARE and if you ARE doing intervals you feel like you’re less of a runner than people who DON’T. There’s a huge psychological factor to walking/running when you’re on the road.

But on the trail? Nope. Because there are some hills/climbs that EVERYONE walks. Walking while running trails is just a given. Everyone does it. And you know what? You’re still “hiking” then and that’s still a badass activity. It’s all mental, I take a walk beak on the road and I feel like I’m cheating. On the trails? Just a walk break. Everyone does it.

So if you like taking walk breaks? (Which I do.) Then trail running is GREAT. There’s always an uphill nearby to give you a walk break. Also, I’ve learned that since I started walking the hills, I’m actually stronger/faster on the flats because I know walk breaks are coming. This means I still have gotten faster some years! Even with the constant walking! (I will admit: I also walk STRONG.)

TRAILS ARE SO SO SOFT
Running on the soft surface is SO much easier on your legs. I say this often: If I do a 20-mile long run on the road? The next day I’m in all sorts of pain. But on the trails? I can actually get up and do it again. I’m struggling right now because I don’t have time to do trail runs on Saturdays as it’s our “overlap” season and Donnie is running too. So, I’m doing long road runs on Saturdays and then trails Sundays and it’s HARD. It’s so much easier if it’s trails first because I don’t need as much recovery time as I’ve not been pounding my poor joints on concrete for hours.

TRAIL RUNNING IS NOT AS BAD FOR KLUTZES AS YOU THINK
I have fallen while road running. I just want to put that out there. I’m not immune to falling on flat surfaces, so obviously I was worried about trails. And for good reason, I can list like 5 people right now who have broken bones running trails. I often point them out as I’m running, like a map to the stars…but with broken bones.

BUT! Here’s a few factors to consider that make it less terrifying.

1) I’m slow so the falling is not as forceful. I often have time to catch myself because I’m not going full-speed. Now, last year I had a bad fall WALKING, so it doesn’t always work. BUT, I’ve had TONS of near-misses where I’ve caught myself on my way down, something faster people can’t always do.

2) I’m a klutz so I’m good at falling. Even when I’ve hit the ground, I usually hit in a “smart” way because I’ve had a long history of falling – WITH STYLE! I often fall, but roll somehow in the right way so it’s my hands that hit first…in a way that catches me before something more fragile hits. I just seem to always walk away from a fall knowing if I hadn’t landed in the EXACT right way, I might have been in trouble.

So, when you fall (everyone does) it’s often not as bad as you think it’s going to be.

Also? I roll my ankles at least once a mile and I was counseled early on to just KEEP MOVING. It hurst like hell when you do it and it’s scary, but I was told, “Walk it off, or run if you can.” If it still hurts 1/2 mile later? You might have actually hurt yourself. But rolling ankles is like stubbing your toe, it hurst like HELL at first (I’ve cried before) but often it doesn’t hurt if you keep moving. I’ve rolled my ankles hundreds of times, some times to the point of tears, and I’ve only had ONE time where I ended up running in a brace the rest of the season. It’s one of those things that feels TERRIBLE and you panic and think, “I’m never running again!” but you’d be surprised how quickly the pain dissipates. (It does tend to make your ankle weaker though, so you might roll it again on the run a few more times.)

TRAIL RUNNING MAKES YOU FEEL BADASS
I know that’s silly, but if you’re not a natural adrenaline junky or athlete you don’t get that “I AM A BADASS!” feeling often. But if you finish a run covered in dirt or mud? You just look at yourself and think DAMN. I’m a badass! and it feels great. Even if it’s just 3 miles! If it’s 3 muddy miles where maybe you had to even jump over a tree once? You can’t help but bask in pride over your own awesomeness. Even if you fall! Once you get over the embarrassment (EVERYONE falls, even the winners) you realize you now have a war story. You can take pictures of your busted up knee. You are an even BIGGER BADASS now! I have so many falling stories now I could write a book. And they all make me feel pretty badass, even the walking one.

TRAIL RUNNING IS A REAL-WORLD ESCAPE
This is the part I talk about the most. My token speech: “The only thing you can think about when running trails is where to put your foot so that you don’t die. You can’t worry about dinner or bills or rotten kids or work.” And that is 100% true. But it’s more than that. I went running by myself on the trails yesterday and it was an “easy” trail so I wasn’t so worried about where to put my foot, yet I still felt the same effect. I wasn’t worrying about anything I had been worrying about driving up the mountain. And I realized why. When you are surrounded by nothing but nature, there are no Stress Triggers. You don’t see the grocery store and work on your shopping list in your head. You don’t see that person’s perfect lawn and remember you have to mow yours. You don’t pass the daycare and remember you still haven’t found a sitter for that event this weekend. There are no Stress Triggers in the woods.

And in opposition? There are soooo many Relaxation Triggers. Yesterday I heard woodpeckers, saw an armadillo, caught the sun rays shining through the slowly yellowing leaves. So many things that trigger thoughts of peace and relaxation. It was EXACTLY what I needed yesterday. It was soul-charging.

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I just worry that people think that what I do is something they couldn’t do and I just want everyone to get the joy out of running through the woods that I do. I think that’s why I take my No Runner Left Behind trail running group so seriously. I just want people to have their lives changed like I did when my Coach Linda took me on my first trail run in 2011.

The mountains are calling.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts On Trail Running As A Non-Athlete

  1. Beth says:

    You got me thinking. When I first ran it was on a path through fields. A friend of mine had invited me to run with her and her friend. We all had 6 month old babies and the younger sisters of one of the girls had volunteered to watch then while we ran. Win- win situation till the sitters went back to school.My next venture was on the roads near the YMCA. They had sitters for exercise classes, so I would run/walk and then do aerobic dance. – But there were beautiful trails behind that Y and there were measured trails (goals). The longest was 3 miles and I soon fell in love with the trails. Then it snowed and they were tracked for XC skiing, so back to the roads. As soon as the snow melted I was back on those trails. If I ran from home, it was roads, but I preferred trails. We moved to Alabama and I ran roads. That Summer we discovered the Summer runs and the trails!!!!!!. We moved out of town to a small subdivision that had a pool and trails. But the developer went bankrupt and the pool is no more and the trails are overgrown They were all mulched. There is still the pond. Its grassy and quiet and there is a nice stump to sit on an be at peace within yards of homes. I can walk at the pond and sit under the tree. I agree. Trail running is best for beginners . I have had 2 big falls while running , both while running roads. 1 required stitches and the other a new watch. Sorry Kim, I think I just hijacked your blog.

  2. Kerri says:

    Great post! I consider myself a hiker, not trail runner, because I, too, only walk uphill, but where I live many people run ALL the uphills. When I did the Dipsea I paused at the base of cardiac and the runners kept asking if I was ok as they blew past me. I routinely see a guy running up the really long fireroad that I’m inching down just trying not to bust my ass because it’s so steep. I’m there actually considering scootching down on my butt and this guy gives me a breezy “hello” as he runs (not jogs) up the hill. It’s crazy!

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