Well, it had to come and here it is: the article telling my story of why I think trail running (in all its forms) should be the crowning achievements of the running elite, the finest measure of an athlete's skill, and the upper-most of all the running disciplines.
First, I owe all of you an explanation into what Trail Running is.
The First Sport - Trail Running
Well, if you consider throwing rocks, hiking or the scouting of attractive females sports, the above may be an overstatement.
What we can know for sure, though, is, that running trails would have been one of the first core physical activities of our most ancient ancestors (those that we would recognise as humans at least).
Trail Running is basically the sport of running on any kind of unpaved trails, a definition adopted by Adam Chase and Nancy Hobbs in the only dedicated book on Trail Running: "The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running" (pick it up!).
Trail Running consists of the following sub-disciplines:
Cross-Country Running: A more controlled, or tempered, version of Trail Running. Focusing on team events and conducted on longer wider tracks in the wild. Avoids high obstacles, deep ditches and other similar impediments (booo!).
Mountain Running: Sponsored by the WMRA, Mountain Running is simply Trail Running that features significant ascents and descents as part of its routes. In the UK, this is referred to as "Fell Running" (from the old Danish word: "Fjeld" roughly meaning "mountain side").
Snow-shoe Running: Arctic races conducted in terrain that makes normal running impossible (such as the North Pole and Antarctica Marathons).
Sky Running: Sky Running is any Trail Running event conducted above 2000m (6000ft).
Ultra Running: Any Trail Run that goes beyond the traditional Marathon distance of 42.125km (26.2miles). These are usually, but not always, cross-country or trail races.
There are other related disciplines such as orienteering, but for the purposes of this discussion, I'll focus on these more "purely" running disciplines (which also happens to be the one's I am most personally interested in).
As you will know my main personal experience so far lies with Trail Running (some 20 years) and Mountain Running (only some 10 races!) as well as a bit of exposure to Snowshoe Running/Hiking.
The "Inner" Advantages of Trail Running
As Mike Stroud repeats beautifully (and inspirationally) again and again in his book "Survival of the Fittest", Man is an endurance machine, even more efficient than horses over long distances. Running muddy tracks, rocky slopes, and sandy beaches, jumping logs, dodging branches, and weaving over rocky impediments, is in our nature. It is the core of our physical programming.
To deny it, is to deny our nature.
This topic is something I have a fairly comprehensive view on, so I will save it for a later article, while focusing on some more "Tangible" and simple aspects today.
Trail vs. Road
Ok, you're saying, enough personal rambling about the "spirituality" of Trail Running, provide some concrete examples of why I should abandon the "Road" and opt for the "Trail" (well, the Sales Director of Salomon has told his customers so!).
Here's what I think Trail Running offers beyond Road Running that should make it the jewel of the sport of Running and the focus of all the world's best runners:
1. Its more natural: Our bodies are not designed to pound endlessly against hard concrete surfaces. No wonder there's many running injuries when you combine that surface with the general populations poor running technique.
2. The terrain is more challenging/difficult: When you're running on a road (unless you're prone to jumping out an dodging traffic), all you must concentrate on is staying awake and make the right turns. You can shut your mind mostly off and enter a meditative state. Trail Running, especially Mountain Running, offers no such relief. You have to focus on every single step when rushing down a scree or you'll be sent hurtling into a set of rocks the next moment.
3. The physical strains are harder: The variation in the terrain requires the engagement of a far bigger amount of muscles than running straight ahead. Running up requires strong thighs and very strong calf muscles, especially the lower calf around the achilles tendon, to deal with the amount of stretching. Running down requires strong balance, quick reflexes, and can put extreme stress on your knees if you need to brake too much. Finally, heart also needs to be stronger, as you will need to operate at extreme heart rates to fight gravity (not to mention thin air).
You will also be unable to settle for very long at a steady pace, meaning you'll be switching between long and short muscle fibres continously, leaving the body smaller time to adapt to the "shock", and also putting extra stress on your heart from the constant fluctuations in BPM (Beats per Minute).
Trail Running requires a much more complete, and less specialised, athlete than Road Running.
4. The view is better: A small point perhaps, but the encouragement gained from looking back at a beautiful vista when you feel like throwing in the towel for the umpteenth time is not to be underestimated.
5. The air is better: See above (try running downtown in a big city, *cough*)
6. It requires more tactical nous: Even though I'm fairly new to Mountain Running myself, I know my lessons from Trail Running (forest running in my case), KNOW WHEN TO SAVE YOURSELF!
Don't let your pride get to you if someone older (or female!) passes you by on a slope or on the flat, especially early in the race. At Ballyhouras a racer fought his heart out to pass me by on a long slope leading up to Seefin mountain. He was sounding like a locomotive as he passed by, but as I knew the mountain was waiting beyond the next hill, I let him pass me by without resisting, took it easy and gathered my strength. When we had reached the top of Seefin, that racer was almost out of sight behind me.
You need to employ the same strategy as Tour-de-France riders in Mountain Running. Gather your strength where you are a weak (e.g. ascent), attack where you a strong (e.g. descent), and don't overdo it early on! (e.g. on the first 3-4k of a 10k) (I'll talk about my general strategy later on).
In Road Running, you can program your watch, follow the time and just run along as a happy slave. If you can follow the route, you'll get exactly the result you wanted. Trail Running has more of the randomness of the real life problems all of us face every day, putting our adaptability, flexibility, and ability to improvise to the test.
7. Its more entertaining: Both for you and for spectactors. The varied terrain combined with the different strength of the runners, mean that you'll see plenty of overtaking and plenty of interesting running on different terrain! Just get those video cameras out there! How can it not be more fun than watching Olympic Marathon! (they are running straight ahead, ahead, and they are rounding a corner....2 hours later...they are running straight ahead, still straight ahead, ahead).
Ticknock 3 Rock was a memorable race for me for all those reasons, I was overtaken and re-overtook a few racers several times during the course, and managed to overtake some 12 on the last kilometer as a was flying in the snowy slope. That's what makes it fun, and there's room for banter between rivals on the track as well.
8. More camaraderie: This is a very subjective opinion, but from what I've seen so far, there is an almost unique air of gentlemanship and respect for your rivals on the track, even with the fierce competitiveness. A quality sadly lacking in most modern sports. The niche status of the sport, and the unique shared experience, surely creates this.
Personally, I'll never forget Eoin O'Brian, a racer I had just beaten on the snowy slopes of 3 Rock at the finish, giving me an encouraging push up the last hill of the Trooperstown race as he passed me by (and he kept his lead for the remainder, beating me with 20 secs, after I took him with 9 secs on 3 Rock). It reminds me of the the respect between the old Tour-de-France legends, or the gentlemanship of the football games of the 30-50s (now long gone, and replaced by a tendency for whining, diving, and unsportsmanlike behaviour).
These eight points (I'm sure there are more, if I find them, I'll post them here), is my defense for Trail Running, and the sole reason I believe it should be the "Royal" discipline of all running, and definitely part of the olympics. In case you're not convinced, here's another:
9. Its cooler! What story would you rather share with your friends? How you were running a trip past Orwell Park down to Sandyford and back, or how you took on Sugarloaf in a rainstorm?
When I told people about my normal running, the best response you can hope for is: "Oh, you're so healthy". When I tell my colleagues about Mountain Running, I usually get: "You're mad!"
I know which I prefer!
Next: Race Review (Donard - Commedagh)