Health & Fitness

The sublime pleasures of trail running

Michael Selby of Sacramento runs up a hill along the 8.6-mile Olmstead Trail in Cool in 2010. Trail running is seeing a surge in popularity, and trail runners say they can appreciate the natural environment just as much as hikers.
Michael Selby of Sacramento runs up a hill along the 8.6-mile Olmstead Trail in Cool in 2010. Trail running is seeing a surge in popularity, and trail runners say they can appreciate the natural environment just as much as hikers. Sacramento Bee file

Last July, a famous ultrarunner (well, as famous as you can get in this niche sport) named Scott Jurek set a speed record on the Appalachian Trail, covering the 2,189 miles from Georgia to Maine in 46 days, 8 hours and 7 minutes.

This prompted the merest blip of publicity amidst the summer death march of baseball season and the Wimbledon men’s tennis final. NPR’s “All Things Considered” took note because, of course, they consider all things. Velvet-voiced host Robert Siegel interviewed Jurek, who spoke humbly and mostly in platitudes, saying his motivation for wanting to set the fastest known time on the famous trail was to “find a new level of adventure.”

What seemed a nice, quirky end-of-the-hour NPR story turned into a minor controversy – more of a kerfuffle, actually – among the tote-bag types. NPR aired several listener responses tsk-tsking both the segment and Jurek’s feat.

This comment from Barry Pritzker, of Greenfield Center, N.Y.: “Why on Earth would you waste our time, and yours, telling us about some idiot who raced the length of the Appalachian Trail? My goodness, the whole point of walking in the woods is to enjoy nature.”

I heard that response and sighed, knowingly. For four years, I have written a monthly hiking feature, “Fresh Tracks,” and have sometimes mentioned in print that I run, not hike, the featured trails. On those occasions, I, too, hear from the Mr. Pritzkers of the reading public, taking me to task for failing to fully appreciate nature by not slowing down and stopping to smell the star thistle. Others have even suggested that trail runners fall into the nuisance category of trail users alongside mountain bikers, who are routinely vilified on hiking and equestrian websites.

Mostly, I’ve kept quiet in print about actually running the trails about which I write. I employ a thesaurus full of verbs to avoid the R-word. I traverse. I gambol. I slog. Heck, sometimes, I even scamper. Yes, I’m an avid scamperer.

But I’m here today to come clean and out myself as a trail runner. I’ve been trail running, almost exclusively, the past five years, following decade after decade of pounding the pavement. And, risking the wrath of my cliché-hating editor, I am not alone. Figures released by the American Trail Running Association show that 400,000 people participated in 2,702 trail races worldwide in 2012, the most recent statistics available. That’s a big jump from 2000, when 90,000 runners took part in 450 races.

Why the surge of trail-running popularity?

Sure, you get your running dilettantes who have checked a road marathon off their must-do list and heard that you can even go longer and uphill (!). And you get those swayed by movies and books about trail running, one of which (“Born to Run”) features the aforementioned Jurek. You can also place credit, or blame, on increased corporate marketing by outdoor shoe and apparel companies, who lure people with glossy advertizing shots of incredibly fit and good-looking people in midstride in lush forests or on bluffs overlooking oceans. Trail porn, it’s called.

But it also might have something to do with societal pressures, according to ultrarunner Andy Jones-Wilkins. Writing in his blog on, he mused: “(T)he pace of life has increased tremendously as a consequence of improvements in transportation, technology, and communication. In that context, it’s no wonder that more people have been seeking ways to ‘get away from it all.’ Perhaps for those with the means, the interest, and the training, running an urban marathon is simply not as attractive as running a 50-miler through the Rockies or a 100K along the coast. Maybe the stresses of life are pushing people out of their comfort zones and onto the trails.”

Valid points. But I can just hear the Mr. Pritzkers crowing that you don’t need to make nature into a competition, that you should try for the “slowest known times” on the trail instead. Their thinking is that one cannot fully appreciate the grandeur of the Sequoias, the geologic wonder of the Grand Canyon, the impossibly blue water of Lake Tahoe if you’re huffing and puffing and by in a blur.

Not true, from my experience.

I find that, by running, I experience more of nature while still engaging all the senses. It makes sense, really. The faster you go, the greater distances you can cover on a day outing. That’s more nature, not less.

And it’s not as if trail runners are automatons ruled by the watch, obsessing over time splits and worrying about the pack closing fast. OK, maybe in competitive races that’s the case, but on training runs, I’ve been known to stop and stare for several minutes at a banana slug, say, or swerve off the path to take in a killer view. Just because I’m traveling at 8 mph, not 3, doesn’t mean I don’t notice, and appreciate, flowering fields of mule’s ear on the Pacific Crest Trail in Tahoe.

Even when I’m straining, even when I’m hypoxic climbing the sadistically steep Goat Hill in Auburn, I’m totally dialed in to my environment. I feel, acutely, the rocks and roots and shifting duff under my feet, breathe in the loamy smell of oak trees after a rainstorm, hear the rustle in the manzanita – could be squirrels, could be a mountain lion.

You can’t dissociate, can’t totally zone out, on the trails as you can running on the roads. You must be alert and engaged, lest you face-plant or careen down a ravine. Granted, sometimes it’s nice to mentally check out and let the mind wander while the body does all the work. But I find the alertness you must maintain on the trail erases nagging OCD-like thoughts that intrude upon road runs.

As for the stress of the run itself, I have found that, by necessity, you let go of hard-and-fast notions of pace. Each course is different, with wildly fluctuating elevation profiles and degrees of technical footing. You might, for instance, average 7-minute miles running on the fire roads on the Olmstead Trail in Cool, then, a few miles away, average 14-minute miles climbing what trail runners ruefully call K2. But you’re actually getting a better workout, not to mention more of a sense of accomplishment, running the 14-minute pace.

And here’s a bonus to trail running: When you return to the roads, the effort seems much easier. My 5K road race times, in my mid-50s after stopping specific training for the distance, remain within 15 seconds of my 5K road times in my late 40s. Hills, I’ve found, are a form of speed work. Much more fun, too, than repetitive intervals on a track.

So, for the Mr. Pritzkers out there, we trail-running “idiots” aren’t missing a thing. And we’ll be sure to be polite and yell “on your left” when passing you on the Appalachian Trail.

Sam McManis: 916-321-1145, @SamMcManis

Trail running do’s and don’ts

  • Do: Take a hard copy of a trail map with you, particularly if the trail is new to you.
  • Don’t: Rely solely on your smartphone for navigation. Service often is spotty on the trails.
  • Do: Time yourself and/or use a GPS watch to gauge distance so you can follow trail instructions or know when to turn around on an out-and-back course.
  • Don’t: Obsess over times. Because of hills and terrain, minutes per mile vary wildly.
  • Do: Bring more water than you think you’ll need as well as some quick carbs and protein (gels, bars, etc.).
  • Don’t: Carry so much that it affects your stride and gait.
  • Do: Bring identification and tell someone at home where you’ll be running.
  • Don’t: Stray off your course on a whim, lest you get lost.
  • Do: If you must listen to music while running on the trails, only use one ear bud. You need to listen for, you know, other runners, bears and mountain lions.
  • Don’t: Listen to music. Really, the sound of nature is much more soul-soothing than Nine Inch Nails.
  • Do: Take seriously the signs at trailheads warning of mountain lions in the area.
  • Don’t: Freak out; mountain lion sightings are rare and attacks even rarer. If you encounter one, stop and look as big as possible.