There’s been a huge boom in organized trail ultramarathons and its participants in the last five years. It may have slowed down ever so slightly in the last year but the popularity keeps on growing. And nowadays, everybody and their grandmother wants to finish a trail ultramarathon – And it’s wonderful. It gets a lot of folks off the couches, out in the open, moving, setting goals, and reaching further than they did before. It allows for an opportunity to meet new people, hang out with the like-minded, share common ideas, trips, chats, and memories. A lot of folks jump into pursuing that wonderful goal of running a trail ultramarathon with both feet and no prior shorter trail race experience or a long trail outing. But believe it or not, these kind of experiences are helpful, fun, and you may want to do more of it once the golden days and hoopla of your own, or country’s trail ultras subside.
Sometime before Dean Karnazes’ book hit the bookshelves in early 2006, trail lovers did two things: they participated in short local trail races and they hiked/backpacked/peak-bagged in the mountains. You knew they loved the trails for real, even if they didn’t really feel the need to share their experiences over the internet or other means with their friends. They just needed to be out there, short or long.
The first trail race I ever ran was a local running club’s 5k. I lived in The Bronx, NYC back then and the club I belonged to was Van Cortland Track Club and that club has a Summer Thursday race series of cross-country 5ks as well as the only (at the time) real trail 10k race in NYC proper. By then, I had already been an avid hiker and backpacker ever since I can remember myself and also had been dabbling in running roads for a couple of years participating in numerous races. Setting my goals on a 5k after I had completed a marathon seemed silly, and yet, intimidating. That 5k ventured into single-track over grassy fields, dense woods, over roots, rocks and mud puddles, elbowing slightly to get past or be passed, breathing so hard on the straight-up unlike anything I had experienced in a road race, and then dropping down however short but steep and crossing the finish line. That was so much fun the first time, much more so than a road race I had run! Lucky for me, that turned out to be an indication that I am also a true trail runner – my time for a cross-country race was better than my personal best in a road 5k by a wide margin. The same happened in the trail 10k, and a trail runner was born.
It’s been a decade and a half since that first trail 5k and 10k, and I continue to dabble with the short distance races from time to time, not very often, but keeping the interest alive. This summer I decided to see if a short trail race can be as fulfilling and fun as I remembered it.
I had been quite a prolific ultrarunner in those years past, and even with no training I could manage to pull off a 50 miler off the couch quite well as I did this past June at Bryce 50 mile. Long trail races do not scare me anymore. A long time ago, as a race junkie myself, I promised that if lining up for a race doesn’t give me butterflies in my stomach I’ll stop doing it. While it was a recent illness that took me out for so long, the last couple of years I also felt way too calm at the start of each of my ultramarathon races.
Not so at Taos Up and Over 10k in New Mexico. Beginning at 9,200 feet at the base of ski lodge, it gained just over 2,600 vertical feet in the first 5k and topped off just shy of 12,000 feet. Can you feel me gasping for air? This race had served as a Skyrunning event and La Sportiva short trail series event although it had always had a home-grown feeling and was rather small in number of participants (135 this year was their biggest) while never lacking the quality of the front runners. In a short event you don’t have the luxury to start slowly, settle into your breathing pattern and running gait – especially when this event goes straight up. You have to GO from the gun (literally!) and never let your foot off the gas pedal! Whether it was running, jogging, shuffling, power-hiking – whatever one’s body was capable of – it was red-lining for each and every one of us! No friendly chit-chatting, you’d be lucky to squeeze half a smile! The top never seemed to come, but when it did, by then I wasn’t sure if my legs can get the turn-over enough to roll off the other side. Once over the top, it was exactly that – rolling over, because now we had to drop all of those 2,600 feet in 5k and since the last mile was more or less flattish (by mountain standards), most of the “drop” was happening in those first two miles down. Screaming quads, eyes focused one step ahead not to trip over or slide on the gravel and wet grass. It was exhilarating and scary at the same time! And then just like that – it was over. Until you decide to repeat the fun the next day at the La Luz 9M Uphill Challenge! 4,600 feet of gain ending at 10,710 feet, anyone?
Oh, the joys of a short trail race! All the glory of hard work, super-push way above the limit I thought I could, and be done before breakfast.
You may discover you are better in a short trail race than you are at a 50k – or, you may get humbled and realize this lactic-acid building effort brings you to your knees. Want to spend more time on the trails? Well, then head out for a hike! Just be aware that after the post-race anaerobic effort your legs will be by far more sore than they are after a 50k of precisely measured effort!
There are varieties of short races around our TALON (TX, AR, LA, OK, NM) region alone. Of course Tejas Trails and Endurance Buzz Adventures events all offer a shorter version along with an ultra, but since it almost feels and seems as a “little brother”, try and find a real short trail race – the crowd is different, the vibe, the setting, and so is the challenge. Find them in the Endurance Buzz TALON race calendar or the Trail Runner calendar for a variety around the country! Line up, and as the gun goes off – go after it!
On the other spectrum of trail love is long (and not so long) hiking trips and backpacking adventures. With the experience you gained as a trail ultrarunner, all those may very well turn into what is called fast packing, or through-hiking. If you look at more “normal” backpackers as you venture onto the mountains, you see humongous backpacks, long pants, heavy duty shirts and jackets, hiking boots and poles. And then there is this newer breed that comes from running 50 and 100 mile races – shorts, tank-tops and trail running shoes.
The packs are smaller too because we can move faster. Which means we can carry less food and gear for the same amount of miles, we don’t get as cold since we don’t sit down much, our food may very well be gels (at least half of it, when traveling between campsites). As we get more experienced in the backcountry, we can cut down on water carrying and purifying since nature provides far more than we need.
While we as ultrarunners travel much faster during backpacking trips, those are still, obviously, much slower than our trail ultra races so we can actually “stop and smell the roses”. We claim to do this during a race, but really it’s just not the same. You see so, so much more when there is no clock ticking! Even if one power-walks a lot during a trail ultra, the daunting “ticking” gets to you and makes you look down a bit more, push a little harder, talk a little less. Try traveling not for a race but for a vacation through-hike! Pick a loop, 20 or so miles at first and make it a day trip. Venture into 50 mile category with a sleeping bag and a bivy.
How about a 100 miles one? Imagine Wonderland trail around Mt. Rainier (something my husband and I are about to embark on in September of 2014), parts of the Colorado Trail, Green Mountains in Vermont, sections of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), or Appalachian Trail (AT)!
Split it up into as many or few days as you wish depending on your own time constraints and your partner’s ability. No aid stations, nobody catering, nobody to brag to about it, and nothing to show for it but your memories. Take pictures, hear the birds, sing, lie down and stare into the sky, dive into a lake or a river naked and as the sunlight fades away, start up a fire, and enjoy the best soulful conversations that ever existed on this Earth.
Imagine the places you’ll get to see – places the race directors would never get permits, places uninhabited by people but by wildlife, places you’ve never heard of before until you decided to flip pages of Natural Geographic magazine.
And then as you line up yet again at your next trail ultramarathon race, the experiences you gained pushing hard in a short trail race and going long in a backpacking trip may help you at one stage or another as you race against the clock in your 50 or 100 miler.
Try it. Go short and extremely fast, or go long and very slow. Keep the challenge, curiosity and love for nature alive.
– Olga King