Since entering back into the running world a few years ago, the majority of my training has been on pavement, or at least the stretch of soft dirt that lies just next to the hardened surface. Sometimes I’m running on asphalt roads, sometimes it’s the paved Monon trail, and other times it’s on a track. My races have also taken place primarily on leg breaking roads, inflicting deeper muscular damage the further and faster I run. I hardly give it second thought. Running on these surfaces and in these environments is just a part of the culture and I enjoy it immensely.
But nothing, absolutely nothing, can compare to the sensation and familiarity of flying down an undulating and twisting dirt trail deep in the woods, the trees flying by you in a blur of green and browns, chipmunks flittering in and out of sight like flashes of lightning, inclines pulling the lungs from your chest, descents threatening to throw you down unforgiving ravines, rocks and roots hiding in waiting to end your previously seamless run. It’s an absurd picture I’ve painted and not very enticing I’m sure.
Still, no matter how accustomed I’ve come to toeing the line at road races, throwing down mile repeats on our local rail-trail, mixing it up with the big boys in Chicago, and road racing culture in general, nothing ever compares to the sense of comfort I have when I step into the woods.
I’ve had a history with the woods from a very young age as my childhood neighborhood was lined with a deep and seemingly endless wooded area that served as my best friend and my go to when no one else was around to play. It was our untouched haven to write our tales of victorious battles, discover unchartered lands, make daring rescues and all sorts of other exaggerated imaginings kids our age came up with. It also gave us a familiarity with an environment others grow to fear as they get older, absorbing tales of bugs, bears, getting hopelessly lost and just losing the creature comforts of more deliberately created territories. The mislabeled “chaos” of the woods really messes people up.
We, however, embraced it. We became comfortable exploring endless pathways through low-hanging branches, soaking our shoes during errantly stepped creek crossings, wearing virtual veils of spider webs that strung across our trails, knowing the pain of both a nettle sting and wasp alike. Getting lost was our intention and finding our way back out was ultimate victory. We became so comfortable and knowledgeable of our woods that we had to stay out longer and longer in order to get lost, coming out of the woods in areas of town that our parents would have grounded us for finding, which began happening when we started missing dinner times and other events as we lost sense of time and direction. The woods became part of me as much as running did at that age.
Which might explain why I run so well in the woods. I remember always looking for the woods when my high school cross country team warmed up on the course before our races. As I began to learn more about courses the more I ran them, I became more excited and ran better when I knew a course contained a portion in the woods, no matter how short. And it just so happened our home course had a quick little jaunt into the trees. As much as I enjoyed those quick runs in the woods, they were still so fleeting I was always left wanting more.
It was only when I started running again as an adult that I had the opportunity to experience those feelings of getting lost in the woods again, but I’ll tell you, the second I started up the mile long climb on my first trail training run…it all came back immediately. The silent trail under my feet, the tree trunks blowing by my face like stoic spectators, the spiderwebs veiling my face, the forced breakneck pace of rolling downhills and overall the sensation of being completely alone while doing something physically amazing. My emotional state towered over my physical.
It’s easy to describe trail running as euphoric or epic and those are certainly genuine descriptors, but primarily it’s just FUN. Just plain fun. It doesn’t matter how depleted I may feel on the trail, how destroyed my quads may be, how much further I may have to go before I can fall to the ground in exhaustion, I’m ALWAYS having fun. The extra challenges that come with finding sufficient footing (by the way, I didn’t do that yesterday, which is why I’m NOT on the trails right now and nursing my tweaked ankle), climbing when you think you have nothing left to climb anymore, staying upright while blasting downhill on rubbery quads, no matter what they are all tempered by a foundational sense of FUN, even though you may be getting a better and more brutal workout than you initially intended.
In September I’m running the Vermont 50 Ultramarathon Trail race. 50 miles in the woods (mostly), with 8900 feet of climbing and although that distance is incredibly intimidating and I’ve never done anything like this before, there is an odd sense of comfort and familiarity in the decision too. Doing something like this doesn’t feel as unfamiliar as I thought it might, because I know it’s in an environment that feels as much a part of me as distance running does. If this was a 50 miler on the road, well, that would be something entirely different. I would probably be approaching it with a level of excitement that closer nears dread than the excitement I’m going to Vermont with.
I have run so many road miles that I stopped counting years ago and I’ll continue to run so many more, experiencing both massive highs and depressing lows, but they’ll never compare to what I get when I’m in the woods, feeling both liberated and whole. It doesn’t matter how comfortable I get on the roads, in the big races, or lacing up my bright racing flats, whenever I put on my trail shoes and take those first steps onto the dirt path that will take me away from everything else, wandering and winding into a world most familiar, I always know where my heart is most at home.