Trying to characterize the typical advocate of trail running 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.
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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 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.
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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, so 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, and road runners and trail runners.
The difference between road runners and trail runners boils down to a psychological one. One distinction in attitude 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.
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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 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.