When you leave pavement behind and opt instead for the trails your body enters a new running arena, one of heightened awareness, varied muscle use and an incomparable way of connecting with yourself and your surroundings.
For our most recent challenge as Columbia Sportswear’s Directors of Toughness, Mark Chase and I were given five weeks to train for El Cruce: a 3-day, 100-kilometer brute of a race across the Andes. In the lead-up to race day, and on the trails, we learned a lot.
Below are some of my trail running takeaways:
TRAIN YOUR QUADS!
Over the course of three days we gained more that 13,000 feet and ran more than sixty miles. If you aren’t ready for it, high-intensity hiking and uphill running can really do a number on your legs. The terrain often means using muscles you do not regularly engage and if your quads seize up from cramps midway through a run you might be in trouble! So if you are hitting the trails, you definitely want to include quad strengthening exercises in your training plan.
FUELING AND STAYING HYDRATED ARE SUPER IMPORTANT AND EVERY BODY HAS DIFFERENT NEEDS.
In longer distance running events, the items offered at fuel stations vary and when you’re running for hours on end you have to consume a lot of calories. As someone used to short distance races and minimal fuel, it was fun to have a bit more excitement in this area during the race. At one aide station a doctor encouraged us to drink cold Pepsi and at different points during the race, I had pockets filled with energy gummies, handfuls of peanuts, strawberry filled cookies and granola bars. Since the inconsistent terrain is tough on muscles, cramping is a constant fear. I relied heavily on salt tabs before and during the race and was happy to avoid experiencing any debilitating cramps during the experience.
NOTHING IS STABLE.
There is nothing quite like the thrill of bounding unhampered downhill, but caution is of the utmost importance when trail running. You need to keep your eyes on the trail and constantly scan ahead to think about your next step. Elite athlete Pablo Ureta, who completed his tenth El Cruce this year, coming in second after a heated battle that ended in a 90-second overall time difference, warned us not to assume that any piece of land is completely stable. The most important thing, he said, is not to get hurt. Trail running can bring you to some incredibly beautiful places, but if you want to stop and take a picture, he said, STOP, take the picture and then move on, it’s not worth getting injured.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO SWITCH UP YOUR PACE.
Leading up to the race I asked multiple experienced runners about using trekking poles, power hiking techniques and how to attack tough inclines. Preferences vary. During El Cruce many people brought their poles from home while others grabbed sticks for uphills and discarded them later in the race. Still others stuck to tried and true hands–on-thighs power hiking. Mark and I found the poles were a great help and that most people alternate running and walking throughout the race. I found myself tapping out a little rhythm in my head to keep the pace and the energy up.
CHAT IT UP!
Whether you are on a training run or in a race, there is a lot of camaraderie on the trails and I found it to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of this race. You can encourage yourself and other runners and be sure also use good trail etiquette by being verbal about passing.
The most important phrase I heard during the race experience was, “Hay que disfrutarla,” which means, “You need to enjoy it.” While I battled with injury and the time wasn’t what I wanted, I met amazing people, was able to experience an absolutely breath-taking environment and at the end of the day was able to complete my most challenging course thus far. Taking the advice to enjoy the experience was what made this such a special adventure.