Ticks and stones: Runners hit the trails

Trail running is more of an adventure than  a workout.
When most people get home from jogging, their shoes aren't covered in mud. Their socks aren't soggy. No one's checking for ticks.

These people are not trail runners.

Trail runners jog, run, scramble, walk -- even wade -- through their workouts and return exhilarated not only by the exercise, but also by their connection with nature. Which is why they head to the shower and exfoliate their ankles: Was that poison ivy crowding the trail?

Trail running is big in places such as California and Colorado. Photos of the sport in running magazines always feature a mountain for a backdrop, unless it's an ocean.

Runners use hiking, mountain-biking and equestrian trails for outings that can last 30 minutes or literally hours on end. They see wild turkeys and bobcats and sometimes have to call out to deer blocking the trail ahead.

Taking the trail instead

Mark Jacquez, 26, of Overland Park, Kan., was a regular road warrior until a buddy last year suggested the two hit the trails for something different. Now he's hooked.

"At first, you get kind of dizzy, because you're looking at the ground, trying to avoid rocks," Jacquez said. "I took some spills. But your legs start to get used to it."

There are other things to get used to. Once, a squirrel fell out of a tree and almost landed on Jacquez's head. He has stepped on more than one snake. And ticks, always a pleasant thought, seem to be worse in dry weather. His highest tick count for one trail outing: 22.

Trail runners say there's plenty to recommend the sport. The nature aspect might have draw backs, they say, but the positives of off-road running far outweigh them. Jacquez knew it on that first run as he jogged past deer rather than parked cars. "There's something new every time you run," he said. "It's exciting."

Trail runners might crave a little fear factor -- the potential risks in nature -- but they also say a big reason to run trails is to help reduce the kinds of chronic injuries endemic to regular pavement running.

Ben Holmes is a trail advocate for that reason, among many others. He doesn't exactly have a marathoner's build at six feet and 200 pounds, but he's run 38 marathons. Now he does almost all his running off pavement.

"I used to get injuries, the knee pain, the chronic foot problems that runners have," he said.

Trails, he said, require a variety of body movements to make your way along curvy paths. "You're using different muscle groups, changing your pace. You're tired at the end but not sore or injured."

Holmes, too, gets a kick from the notion that mild danger might lie ahead.

"We just use gravity to zoom down hills like nobody's business," he said. "I'm a 48-year-old grandpa, so I don't get too many thrills. I'm thinking, 'Hey, I could get hurt here!'"

Trail running tips

Go with a running partner. It's good to have a buddy along in case of a twisted ankle or other mishap.

  • Bring water. Carry bottles (get ones with handles) or wear a waist pack that has bottle attachments.
  • Get a trail map from the park department to help provide orientation on the trail. A compass is helpful if you get lost.
  • Wear sun block and insect repellent.
  • Use Bodyglide or other skin lubricant to guard against friction and blisters on your feet, underarms, etc.
  • Stop periodically to check for ticks.
  • Wear socks (not cotton) that wick moisture.
  • After running, scrub your legs with soap or a product such as Tecnu if you brushed against poison ivy. Remember that poison ivy oil clings to shoes and socks, too.
  • In icy conditions, screw short sheet-metal screws into the bottom of your shoes for extra traction.
  • Enjoy the ambience while focusing on each footfall. (It takes practice.)

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