hy run ultras, or any kind of trail race? I mean, all those lonely miles in a forest, and you could take a wrong turn and get lost, or turn an ankle. Sounds like a New Yorkerís idea of the third circle of Hell! Why venture off the safe streets and smooth pavement of Central Park and the Road Runner events to do that?!
And what is an ultra anyway? Sounds like a type of beer! For that matter, whatís trail running all about?
hen thereís the issue of surface. Ultras began as longer extensions of road marathons, often involving multiple short loops for the ease of logistics. There are a few famous point-to-point road ultras, such as the storied Comrades "Marathon" in South Africa (which Flyer Scott Cohen is training for now, and which Flyer Tim Decker has run and is training for again in 2010). These days in the US, perhaps 10% of all ultras are run on roads. Most are run on trails. Of course, trail races come in all distances, from 5Ks on up to ultras.
ut that begs the question, whatís really meant by a trail? You may mean the bridle path, right? Yes, some races or sections of races might have such well-groomed surfaces, where you donít have to pay careful attention to every foot plant. More common are narrow footpaths designed for hikers ("single track") in a state park or national forest, complete with roots and rocks, or more gnarly roads not fit for normal cars which might be called fire roads, logging roads, cross country ski trails, or something like that. Of course, the curves, hills, and grades can get just as nasty as the uneven, rocky, rutted surfaces. So, trail running can encompass a wide variety of different types of non-paved surfaces and terrains. Oh yeah, and throw in some stream crossings, maybe copious mud, a little sand, some downed trees, some scree slopesÖ. You get the picture! Races, such as the Transrockies Run in Colorado fall into this category, and Flyer Brice Wilson and I just signed up for another in Colorado this July, called Mountain RATS (approximately 100 miles over four days, mostly self-supported)
hat do I mean by that? Since the childhood cross-country car trips my family took, I always loved the outdoors, travel to national parks, hiking and stuff like that. As a road runner who had started with junior high and high school track and cross country, I had rekindled that love of cross country as an adult runner and Flyer with jaunts through the beautiful fields and over the tough hills of Van Cortlandt Park in the great fall and summer races held there. That wide-open feeling, the sensation of dirt and grass under your feet, the giddy rush of flying down those super-steep hills — so unlike the kinder hills you find on roads made for cars! The Flyers who havenít taken the #1 train up to Van Cortlandt Park for one of the many cool races year round up there just donít know what theyíre missing!
ast forward a few years to about 2005. My dreams of running trails continued to be nourished by the stories and images I took in when my monthly subscription to Trail Runner came. But I was so tied up with my racing goals for marathons and triathlons, and besides, those events were only "out west" in the open spaces, right? So, "who has time to hit the trails, and theyíll surely slow me down anyway," I was thinking. Well, it must have been on one of those trips to Van Cortlandt for a cross country race (or on one of the great organized training runs up there John Ward used to organize) that I discovered that they held a trail race ó billed as NYCís only "true trail race" ó in that same park in April called the Urban Environmental Challenge. A 10K.
hat a revelation that was! I loved it! Straight up steep hills with grades youíd never encounter on the roads. Then straight down them. Over rocks and roots that made it imperative to watch every step. And then those straight-aways with good footing in between where you could really open the throttle!
o make a long story short, that led to some web research, and I discovered this scary and awesome-sounding race called the Escarpment 30K, held in the Catskills. This is a 30K that requires you to have run a marathon in 4 hours (now 4:10 I believe) in order to just qualify!
heir official time limit is 6 hours! Straight up and down the steepest, most rugged trails that the hardiest hiker could hope for. My marathon fitness, coming off a spring marathon a few months before, was pretty useless for these climbs, and especially for navigating the rocks underfoot on every step. I was totally blown away with how unprepared mentally and physically I was for this challenge. I had the wrong shoes, too much gear, no ability to navigate rocks, no climbing or descending technique and tripped over rocks and fell a couple times ó a total fish out of water! And here I was this supposedly fit marathoner and triathlete!
he natural response might have been to turn away after this intensive encounter with the unfamiliar. But instead somehow I felt challenged and exhilarated by an event that had so humbled me (I slowly walked the last few hours at Escarpment, and finished a half hour over the official cutoff, totally demoralized at that very moment). It also dawned on me that if you want to do more of these events, youíve got to train specifically for them. Around that time Dean Karnazesí book Ultramarathon Man came out. About all I knew about ultras previously was from reading Tim Deckerís articles in the Flyer newsletter (back in the good old print days) about these bizarre events, where you might run through the night with a "minerís headlamp" on or some such crazy thing! "Fat chance youíll ever catch me doing that," I thought at the time! (Tim, of course, is the true Flyer pioneer in all things trail and ultra, let the record state clearly).
etween overhearing conversations among runners at Escarpment, reading Trail Runner, and devouring that amazing book, ultra-distance trail events started appearing on my radar screen, and looming ever larger. So, I did some research, learned that the nationís oldest 50 miler was held every November near Hagerstown, MD, called JFK. I decided to forego a fall marathon in Ď05, and instead train for it as my "big fall race," following a training schedule for "running your first 50 miler" Iíd seen in Runnerís World. I loved that race, and was amazed to not only be able to run most of the last few miles, but even finish strong, with a huge grin on my face.
o 20-plus ultras later — including one 100 mile finish and ten 50 mile finishes in races from Virginia to the Catskills in the East and on the West Coast, desert Southwest, and Rockies---the rest is history! Iím hooked completely and hopelessly on trail and ultra running, and itís just kind of taken over that space that road running (and, sadder to say, triathlons) occupied in my life just a few short years ago. I never imagined the journey I was embarking on when I innocently signed up for those first trail races.
ow just to clarify, you donít need to become a crack navigator like in adventure racing (a multi-discipline sport centered on overcoming navigational challenges) or orienteering. But it helps if you can read a map, and to pay careful attention to trail and course markings when in a race. Missed turns have consequences (as I know only too well from one 100-mile misadventure in one upstate race last September).
hereís also the attraction of the whole new set of physical skills you get to develop and try to master. I embraced that part, I guess, because road running always made me feel so one-dimensional, and the diversity of hitting the track or cross country course and doing triathlons always felt like it rounded out my athletic world. Anyway, it helps with trails, I discovered, if you work on balance and ankle stability (neither of which comes naturally for me). Develop the ascending and descending muscles through trail-specific hill workouts and strength work. Of course learn how to powerwalk the steep climbs and speed efficient down the descents in true trailrunner fashion. That only comes through the muscle memory you develop by hitting the trails as frequently as you can, especially for weekly long runs. Do longer, slower runs that beat you up less, as your legs get a much greater range of motion and you recruit a greater variety of muscles. Run, walk, glide down, powerwalk up, sidestep over, around, and under, bend to go under low-hanging tree, run some more, watch that mud patchÖ.you get the picture
o are you one of those serial runners, who would ideally do a marathon every month if you could? Hereís the good newsóultras (at least on trails) actually beat you up less than the repetitive motion, each foot plant the same and each stride the same as the one before it, of running marathons on the unforgiving man-made (and some might say unfit-for-man) surface they call pavement! Running trails is not just back to nature, itís healthier for your joints and body/ I dare say, it is running more as nature intended it, and as our ancestors did it.
ut hey, isnít it really all about the distance with ultras, after all? Well, like I said, itís the trails that led me to ultras, and not vice versa, but everyoneís journey is different. What I mean is, for me the thought of doing multiple loops around a paved loop (like the inner four miles of the Park Drive that they do nine-plus times for the Knickerbocker 60K in the Park) just doesnít hold as much intrinsic appeal to me as a running experience. Lots of people, not much new scenery (if you train in the Park regularly at least), no real "loneliness of the long-distance runner" romance. You donít really "get anywhere" — and as one famous ultrarunner and race director, famous for his point to point events in the Virginia mountains and end to end expedition runs on the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Coast Trail, puts it, "I like races that take you somewhere."
s much as I thoroughly respect and deeply admire the folks who do such road ultra events (like the nine intrepid and strong Flyers who completed the 2009 Knickerbocker 60Kóhoorah!), and which I come out to support enthusiastically every year. But different strokes — thatís just not my thing, at least for now (never say never!). So I have to say, if it were the distance alone, and if the trails werenít there, I honestly donít think Iíd be doing ultras today. But if itís the distance, per se, that draws you in, and you prefer tackling it on familiar surfaces and terrain, then by all meansÖwhatever it takes, youíll feel rewarded for breaking out of conventional running molds and daring to be just a little different. ?
o hey, got an empty space in your calendar without any compelling races coming up? Looking for a change of pace and a little more primal experience of running? Go check out some of the listings below, or join our Yahoo group of over 120 local trail and ultrarunners (many of them Flyers!!, and get out there! The trails beckon (and yes, even for New Yorkers)!
Some popular trail races in our region:
On-line & Print Resources:
"The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running" by Adam W. Chase and Nancy Hobbs, Lyons Press.
"A Step Beyond" Don Allison, ed., A Definitive Guide to Ultrarunning, available through the ULTRArunning site above.
"Running Through the Wall by Neal Jamison, Personal Encounters with the Ultramarathon, Breakaway Books
"Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall, Knopf, 2009
For a calendar of local ultras (mostly on roads):
Scott's running blog: