The Novice Trail Runner

Breathtaking views courtesy of the Centennial Cone trail just 10 miles or so from my home.

Breathtaking views courtesy of the Centennial Cone trail just 10 miles or so from my home.

I will just start this blog by saying that I am not an experienced trail runner.  Sure, I am an experienced runner (even a running coach), but the trails and I only started having a serious relationship a few months ago.  I do remember walking into a running store many years ago (back when I lived in the Bay Area) and told the running shoe expert that I wanted a pair of trail shoes.  Did I ask for trail shoes because I had started running on trails in the local area?  Um, I guess if you count that one trail race I did.  I was the idiot who bought the shoes for no reason and then I never wore them (at least I never wore them on any trail).  

Then I moved to Florida.  The thought of running on trails and getting attacked by a snake or alligator just seemed scary.  Yeah, I never really considered it.  All my friends ran on the road or paved trails.  Well, I moved to Colorado after that.  A wonderful place full of many trails within and right outside the metro area.  I actually live right down the street from a trailhead that goes up and over the mountain right behind my house.  Still, it took me over a year to get my feet on the real “get yourself dirty” trails.  

Now that I am roaming wild and free, I figure I will pass along a few tips I have learned within the past few months.  Here they are:

1.  PATIENCE is very important when running on trails.  If you are used to zooming along on the road, achieving personal records and finishing a run in time to get the chores done, then you will be extremely disappointed with yourself when you hit the trails.  I had a friend just ask me what my pace is on the trails.  Um, somewhere between 8:00 min miles and 18:00 min miles.  Don’t expect to be fast and don’t try to run fast or else you will not be able to make it up that last hill.  If it normally takes you 60 minutes to run 6 miles on the road, then you can expect to be on that 6-mile trail for an hour and twenty minutes or more.  

2.  If you can’t embrace HILLS, then the trails are not for you.  Sure, some people might argue that the flat dirt trail running through downtown is a “trail,” but that is not the kind of trail I am talking about here.  Trails take you someplace where you can witness nature firsthand, scale summits and explore new areas.  Those types of trails usually include hills.  There is really no escaping them.  

3.  Be prepared to battle the elements and trail conditions.  If it starts pouring, you can’t duck into your friendly neighborhood convenience store.  Watch out for the wind that might knock you off the summit or the warm, sunny day that suddenly turns dark, cold and menacing.  You just have to suck it up and roll with it.  You never know when you might encounter a sheet of ice, a foot of snow or a puddle of mud.  And you can forget about any bathrooms out on the trail.  Find a tree and pop a squat (but this is really nothing new).  

4.  In the city you might need to be worried about getting mugged.  On an isolated trail you need to not only worry about crazy humans, but also about wild animals that call that place home.  I still have a fear of running certain trails in the summer because “Beware of Rattlesnakes” signs are posted everywhere!  I have seen deer, rabbits, elk, snakes (supposedly harmless ones), prairie dogs, coyotes and other random living creatures.  I carry a knife with me on my runs.  It wouldn’t hurt to have a can of pepper spray.  If you have a fear of encountering wildlife, then trail running is not for you.  A trail running buddy is ideal, but not always possible (or always wanted… sometimes it is nice to run in peaceful solitude out in nature).  

5.  Stay off the trails if you don’t know how to navigate.  Sure, you might find a few trails that are one loop or only have one trail, but honestly, these are usually the trails meant for the out-of-towners who are looking for a quick hike near the city.  Yep, that means that they are usually pretty crowded.  If you want to really get out there, see wildlife and explore new territory, then you will have to delve a little deeper into the forest or climb a little higher up the side of that mountain.  That takes some navigation skills, whether you can read a simple map printed off the internet or use landmarks to find your way.  Remember, if you get lost, then you are adding on some extra miles you probably didn’t intend on.  And did you bring food and water?  Maybe not if you are used to running through the park downtown where drinking fountains can be found every mile.  Dang, you are totally screwed if you are lost without food and water.  

6.  If you were a hiker back in the day and just recently started running trails, then you probably won’t be able to look at trails the same again.  Why hike a trail when you can run it?  If you try to hike again, then it will be very LONG and SLOW and take all day.  Might as well run it and get home in time for dinner.  

I think that is enough information for now.  If you haven’t tried trail running, then you should because I am pretty sure that I made it sounds like lots of fun!  I am not quite sure why I waited so long to try it…  

 

Running and Wildlife

The loop around Table Top Mountain

The loop around Table Top Mountain

My biggest concern about running here in Colorado is encountering a rattlesnake.  Even though I freeze my rear off in the winter and have to deal with running on snow and ice, I am happy about the fact that I don’t have to worry about snakes.  They are asleep in places that I can not see (and I try not to visualize treading on their homes and waking them up).  I enjoy running on Table Top Mountain during the winter because I refuse to run on it during the summer.  I have heard stories about people jumping over rattlesnakes.  You might as well call it “Rattlesnake Mountain.”  No thanks.  I will stick to the sidewalks before I set foot on “Rattlesnake Mountain.”

Today I was kind of enjoying (okay, not really) a run around Table Mountain.  The trail was packed with hard snow and ice and, in areas where there was no snow or ice, there was mud.  I made every effort not to twist my foot, get stuck in a footprint hole or trip over a rock.  And it was not a level effort.  There were the ups and downs.  Some of the ups were so steep that I just couldn’t catch my breath.

So, I was struggling around a corner when all of a sudden I saw something moving out of the corner of my eye.  I swear to you that my first thought was “wolf.”  But then I realized that wolves are extremely rare in Colorado.  Then I thought it had to be someone’s dog. The dogs around here bark when you come to close.  No, it didn’t look domestic.  I swear it looked like a wolf.  It was the size of a wolf.  Whatever it was, it was heading in my direction.  Fortunately, there was a barbed wire fence between me and the wild dog.  Yet, I still felt my heartbeat speed up as it trotted towards me.  This wild dog had a mission: to get through the fence.  I didn’t want to be around when that happened so I continued forward on the trail. I didn’t want to turn around because there were no houses back where I had come from… only vast open fields.

I tried to tell myself that it must be a coyote.  There are thousands of coyotes in this area.  We hear coyotes howling at night and my husband has seen them in our neighborhood.  For some reason I still didn’t feel any better.  It was just me and the coyote and a lonely trail.  It continued to follow me along the fence line and then I started to panic slightly.  Okay, so I did what you shouldn’t do… I ran faster, nearly tripping over my feet in the snow, ice and rocks.  I passed the area where the fence met another fence and there was no chance that the coyote could go any further without passing through a hole in the fence.  I didn’t want to take that chance so I ran faster.

I considered jumping over the fence into someone’s property and running to their house, but then I imagined myself slicing my legs on the fence or crashing down the hill that led to the houses.  It was pretty steep and rocky.  I decided to stay on the trail.  At one point I forced myself to glance back, but I didn’t see the wild dog anymore.  I wasn’t sure if I could continue at this pace all the way around the mountain.  A few minutes later I encountered a trail that went down into the neighborhood.  I figured that it was better to be safe than sorry.  There was not point running around on a mountain with a coyote.  Who knows what he was doing.  I thought they usually traveled in packs at night.  It was the middle of the day.  And I did not see one soul on that trail while I was running on it.

I ran down to a road and couldn’t decide whether to turn left or right.  If I turned right then I would have a very long ways to go around the mountain back to my car.  If I went left I would pass by the area where I had seen the coyote, but I would be further down and next to the houses.  I wasn’t sure if it was smart, but I headed back in the direction of the sighting.  I figured I could run up to someone’s house if I saw the coyote coming down to the road.  When I got close to the area, I stopped and looked really hard.  I couldn’t see any signs of movement.  I continued on and ended up running an extra 3 miles just so I could stay on roads within the neighborhoods.

By the time I got back to my car I realized that I had probably overreacted.  When I googled “coyote encounters” the Humane Society’s website stated that issues between humans and coyotes is extremely rare.  And the encounters usually only occur when another animal is present (like the family dog).  Funny enough, the website emphasized that you had a greater chance of being killed by a flying champagne cork.  Lastly, it mentioned that you should stop and make yourself big in order to scare it away or slowly walk backwards until you are out of sight.  You should NOT turn your back to it and run.

What was I thinking about when my adrenaline spiked?  Making sure I turned my Garmin back on as I started running.  Okay, maybe that has just become a subconscious habit.  I thought about what the teachers would think if I didn’t pick up my girls on time.  I also thought about the knife on my running belt.  I was suddenly thankful for that little device.  It’s funny because just the other day some members of my running club were asking me about it.  I am not sure what they were thinking, but I told them that you never know when you might need one.  They just gave me an odd look.  Unpredictable wildlife is one good reason to carry a knife.  Unpredictable humans is the other reason.