The Elusive Trail Runner

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.

More: 5 Reasons to Try Trail Running

Some of the best trail runners hail 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.

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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.

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.

More: Your Ulitmate Guide to Trail Running

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, 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 and there is usually a lot of encouragement from everyone in 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."

More: The Ins and Outs of Trail Running

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