Making Friends with Trail Runners

I did not grow up running and when I started running, it was all on the road. I still remember my early days of joining road races – first 10km, progressing to 12km, half and later full marathons.

It was a time when running grew in popularity in the country. More and more running events were organised each year and the participation grew substantially in each race. Parking at race venues became a hassle and starting lines were getting congested.

Then one day I decided to take my running into the trails instead. Something different. Partly because I love the nature and don’t mind the adventure. I figured it will be a good combination. I get to exercise and enjoy the great outdoors at the same time.

Again, I started with mini trail distances such as a 15km trail race in the neighbourhood forest. One event led to another and after about two years discovering the beauty of trail running, I was taking on the 50km or more trail ultras.

I made many new friends who are also into trail running. But the runners amongst my existing circle of friends and acquaintances are mostly roadies. Trail running is quite different from road running for the uninitiated. Sometimes I get questions from them that are funny that reveal just how novel a trail running experience can be for someone who does not.

You see, trail runners are a different breed. We are friendly and inclusive, always ready to share the trails with you. But we don’t always fit in with the regular society. Our idea of fun includes charging on trails and climbing steep mountains. We spend a lot of time exploring wilderness while contemplating the meaning of life.

Here are some fun information if you ever want to understand a trail-running friend and how it is different compare to the experience running on roads.

1 – More than just the distance

Trail running is not just about running the distance. The elevation gain that comes with the distance is a more important factor. Running on flat trails is easy, and even enjoyable. For a trail runner, the verticals is the main challenge to conquer, not the distance. The total elevation gain that comes with the distance will determine the difficulty of the race.

Take for example, a 50K trail race with 3,000m elevation gain will definitely require more effort and time to finish compared with a road race run on relatively flat ground. The verticals and terrains will dictate how much ground is covered within a given time. On technical trails, distance does not really matter. A race with a big climb, even though it is short in distance, will be a real pain and suffering in the making.

2 – Personal Best is irrelevant

You often hear people asking and talking about their personal best for a 10km, half marathon or full marathon. The question about your personal best timing is irrelevant for any distance on the trails.

Even for a trail race that is organised on exactly the same route, the weather, trail condition will alter the experience on the trail. And you cannot objectively compare any same distance ran on different trails, even if they share the same elevation gains in total.

3 – Effort is more important

In trail running, it is all about effort. Effort is more important than pace. How many minutes you need to cover a km is not important on the trail. On roads, you just run and your focus is to cover as much distance possible in the shortest time. This is not the case for trails. Some trails can be very technical, with climbs, rocks, trees and roots and even river-crossing to negotiate. Some terrains are not even runnable. You can throw pace out of the window and be grateful just to finish the race within the cut-off time.

Oh by the way, cut-off is the maximum amount of time for a trail runner to leave a check point or finish a race. Cut-off times are implemented for safety reasons for longer-distance trail races.

 4- Eating is part of the race

Unlike road runners, trail runners actually carry a portion of their water and fuel requirement in their race. We run with what is called a running or hydration vest that doubles up as a body hugging bag to carry other essentials such as basic first-aid, head lamp, whistle and other essentials besides drinks, food and snacks.

But there is so much a trail runner can carry. That is why in good races there are checkpoints or aid stations with buffet spread of food, snacks and beverages for us to consume and replenish our supplies. Fueling is essential and trail runners are not picky eaters. We just need calories and we need to consume them often.

Someone actually printed such a T-shirt, LOL

5 – Toilet is the least of concern

The biggest concern you may have in a road race is toilet availability should you need one in the middle of the run. For the trail runners, the bathroom is the least of our concern. We are more worried about bumping into wild animals (snakes, wild boars and if you are really lucky, the ferocious tiger). We also worry about sustaining injuries from any accidental trips or falls during the run in the jungle (remember that the aid stations and help is not as accessible deep in the woods).

Yes we are scared of wild animals and accidents. But we are likely more fearful of staying indoors all day!

6 – Time alone is not uncommon

Unlike road runs where you have seas of participants starting and running together, ultra-trail races are intentionally kept small for safety and logistical reasons. For a trail that is 50 or 100km long, runners can spread out far and apart. It is not uncommon for you to be tackling sections of the trail alone, with no other runners in sight.

That is why navigation skill is important so that you don’t lose your way or wander off the track. Also, imagine running on a trail alone in the dark of the forest. The night cannot be avoided because a 100km trail ultra will take amateurs over 24 hours to complete, unless you are an elite trail runner that can run anything within daylight.

7 – Our idea of fun

For the trail runners, our idea of fun and fulfillment is blood, sweat, and tears in the forest for hours. Trail running is tough, yes. Unless you want to listen to us for the next three hours, avoid asking us why we do what we do!

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