Why I Don’t Want To Run A Road Marathon

by nomeatbarefeet

It was on a rather lonely stretch of I-89, in between Colchester and Georgia, Vermont that I decided that I no longer wanted to run a road marathon. It was a bit of a shock to me, since just the week before I had been going on and on to Katie about how we should do the Montreal Marathon this September. (NB: Katie has been leaning away from wanting to run a road marathon for a while now, so I need to credit her with planting this seed in my mind.)

So while I’m driving I am listening to a podcast by Trail Runner Nation, and as I listened to the commentators talk I suddenly had an epephany:

I have no desire to run a road marathon.

The entire concept suddenly seemed sour in my mind. Now this may seem a strange statement coming from as dedicated runners as we are. Isn’t running a marathon (read: road marathon) the goal every runner is supposed to have? Isn’t is what we, as runners, are supposed to strive for?

Having a road marathon under your belt is supposed to be a runners badge of honor. Or at least that is what I thought. Katie and I have trained for a marathon before (Lake Placid) but wound up getting injured, and this year was going to be our year to run one. The more we have been running trails, and now with the prospect of a trail system in throwing distance, I feel like I have caught a rather serious bug. It started slowly, subtlety shifting my gaze away from the pavement towards the trees and hills overlooking the concrete sprawl; Katie dropping hints in my ear about her convictions; and eventually my road runs began to be, well, sour. I wanted roots, rocks, switchbacks, climbs, ducking under branches.

These are the images I want on my runs. Take the shot of me (above) putting on my pack. That was taken by my Dad after I had slogged a brutal up hill climb to the summit of Virgil Mountain. I was perhaps 3 miles into a 13.1 mile race. My legs were jello. I was thirsty. But it felt wonderful to be out in nature, completely enclosed by trees, leaves, streams and (yes) quad-busting hills. I would take a brutal mountainous trail over a sidewalk any day; a dirt path or a snow covered hill over a paved city street.

This is not to say that I won’t run on roads at all. They offer a generally flat running surface on which to get some relaxing runs in. And there are some really fun races that we have done on roads (e.g., The Running of the Green and the Father’s Day 5k) and those we will we doing soon (e.g., The Running of the Green and the Kaynor’s Sap 10k). Also, there are some obvious advantages to running longer races on pavement:

  • Crowd support – most road races are staged in populated areas, so friends, family, and strangers can scream support to the runners. This can be indispensably uplifting at later stages of a race, or when you find yourself struggling. I remember on the Lake Placid Half Marathon when we came around a turn and saw our friend there (who was cheering for his wife) but who yelled for us as well. It was a wonderful feeling. On trail races you are often alone: no crowds to boast your confidence, and sometime no people at all (especially if you get separated from the other racers). It requires a great deal of inner motivation to run up another hill when the only voice you hear is the one in your head, cursing your choice to be running the hill in the first place!
  • Volunteer help – this encompasses aids stations, medical staff, and volunteers to help keep you on the right path. Katie knows all about the problems that happen when you look up and realize you are lost. This will rarely happen in a road race—with the course being clearly marked, and the path going down public roads—but it can be a common experience even on well marked trails: you look down to watch your footing, or you check your watch or grab something from your pack, and suddenly you aren’t sure where you are. “Was I supposed to take that turn?” “Where are the runners that were right in front of me?” This can be really, really scary. There is also the medical help. Getting stung or scratched, falling and breaking or twisting something—there are medical staff close by on road races, but for trail runs you are often far from any help. Should you injure yourself you might have to rely on other racers for help, but if you are running alone then there is the possibility of having to solve the situation on your own. Again, scary.
  • You know where you are going – running roads can be “comfortable.” That is, you can easily map distance, time, and location when you run roads, and this can make things simple and easy when training or when you are in a new place. Also, for most people running roads is easy: step outside and you are on the way. Unless you live in a place where trails are close by, you will have to travel to them (we have been blessed in this regard) and this can be time consuming for people.

So why be a trail runner? The answers are most certainly subjective, introspective, and varied from runner to runner, but here are a few:

  • You can go where (almost) no one else can – Run a trail for a little while and you will find yourself at a point where most of the population has not been. You will see untouched wilderness—nature in its (almost) unadulterated state—and you can count yourself among a small group that has been there.
  • You get to be a kid – bounding like a deer; skipping downhill; muddy feet (and ankles and legs and, maybe, your whole body!); crashing through a stream bed. All of these let you run like a kid, if only for a little while. Also, you get to explore: wanna go right at the next trailhead? How about we try down this way? Go somewhere you’ve never been—you never know what you’ll see around the next bend in the trail (just make sure you keep track of where you are going).
  • Nature – the other day I heard, like a massive singing congregation, the wind moving through cattails in a marsh. It instantly made me smile. Running trails let you see technicolor leaf covered paths; whole forests blanketed with snow; animals (e.g., a pair of foxes; a mother turkey and her chicks; countless deer, squirrels, chipmunks, geese, and woodchucks); the sky; sunsets and sunrises, with no one else around; quiet (the absence of sound is overlooked until you are surrounded, literally cocooned in quietness—it can stop you in your tracks with its power).
  • Walking – I didn’t learn the true importance of walking until I ran trails. Katie was the first to walk the climbs that I was plowing up. She was keeping up with me, and when we got to the top I was usually spent while she had her breath. Why run when you can basically make the same time by walking? Our experience on the Monster Half Marathon cemented this edict in my mind: if you can’t see the top, walk. (Thanks Katie.)
  • Everything is sore – after a trail run our entire bodies can hurt—but man do we love it. You climb with every muscle in your legs, but you also pull yourself up (sometime literally) with your arms. So very often when you wake up the next morning your arms and shoulders are gonna ache. The lateral movements you make on a trail—hopping from rock to rock, up and over fallen branches, around curves and switchbacks—are a great way to work all the muscles in your hips. In my view trail running works every part of you—sole to soul.

This is just what I could come up in the few moments I took to sit and write. A lot of why I love trail running is ephemeral, intangible—its hard to put into words the joy, fun and unsparingly grueling effort needed to become a trail runner. It can be hard work, but I have found a deeper joy and happiness in my running since turning to trails. They always revitalize and renew me.

Will I really never, ever run a road marathon? Probaly not. I’m sure that at some point I might change my mind. Perhaps I will want a different adventure, or maybe I will find a local race that really speaks to me. For now, though, running roads is a necessary evil that I will endure. I am blessed to live in a state that surrounds me in nature, so any and every chance I get I will look to the trails.