The Dirtbag’s Guide to Trail Race Travel

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One elite runner shares her top tips on how to race on a budget.

I crawled out of my cave at 6 a.m., deep in a dark Moab Canyon as a herd of deer sprinted past my orange Half Dome tent. The cave overhang protected me from a light rain as I lit a fire and prepared my pre-race coffee and breakfast. I stayed close to the fire for warmth as I changed into my race gear and pinned my racing number to my jersey. I braided my hair, did some light stretches, and hopped into my Jeep to get to the starting line of the Moab Trail Marathon. I felt prepared and stoked to race against the best trail runners in the U.S., fully knowing that I was likely the only one that smelled like campfire at the U.S. Trail Marathon Championships.

Trail racing grants you access to some of the most incredibly beautiful and remote race destinations, but getting there—and staying there—can add up. Running isn't a gear-heavy, expensive sport, but even as an elite runner, traveling to races adds up. Unless you have a major sponsor, the reality is that many of the pros still have to foot the bills themselves just like everyone else. That is unless you are willing to travel like a dirtbag: Sleep outside or in your car, fuel on wholesome homemade foods, and get creative with your race preparations. Whether you’re looking to cut a few corners or want to embrace an extra dusting of dirt on your skin at the start line, follow these running-bum-approved tips, acquired from my own dirtbag stay in Moab for my most recent race.

Sleep Under the Stars... or Stalactites

To avoid the stress of hotel bills, I contacted the Moab Trail Marathon race director about options for camping. She was super helpful and allowed me to camp in a cave on the race course! Most races will probably not allow this but it’s easy to find a campground through websites like Reserve America or search to find private campgrounds and public lands. Although I lived in my tent in the Eastern Sierras for good chunk of 2013 and continue to camp regularly, I was initially uncertain about how well I would rest in the great outdoors before a race. The verdict: I slept like a tired puppy. It got dark early, and without the distractions of the internet, cell service, or a TV, the most natural thing to do each night was to fall asleep.

Kicking back in the cave | Photo courtesy of Morgan Sjogren

Have a Backup Plan

On the way to Moab, I picked out a sweet campground outside of Las Vegas—it turned out, a lot of other people had the same idea and all of the sites were full. It was late, windy, and my husband, Sergio, and I had no cell service or backup plan. Thankfully, my Jeep is equipped with a sleeping set-up (designed for our dogs) and we were able to cram ourselves in for the night. Lesson learned. For our next trip, I’ll reserve a campground ahead of time, but it's nice to know I can sleep in the Jeep if worse comes to worse.

Set Up a Dirtbag Palace—and Dress the Part

If you’re going to spend the nights leading up to a race outside, you'll want to make your camp set-up as comfortable as possible. I used a very insulated sleeping pad, a high-quality sleeping bag, and extra blankets to ensure I stay warm and cozy all night. Think in layers so you can add more as the weather changes. I like to layer up before my core temperature drops so that I never get too cold, which wastes energy and keeps me awake at night. Bring an eye cover and ear plugs to shut out extra light and noise. To keep my body in tip-top racing shape, I packed a yoga mat and my favorite massage tools to set up my own outdoor gym for stretching and working out any kinks in my muscles.

Eat Like a Champion

Cooking for yourself versus going out saves a ton of cash. Plus, you know exactly what you're eating the night before the race. Pre-race is not the time to experiment with weird foods (as Alexi Pappas learned the hard way), and sticking to what your body is used to will help ward off stomach problems mid-run. This can be done at a campground or in a hotel room with a kitchenette. (I’ve even made quesadillas using a hotel iron!) The night before the Moab Trail Marathon, I ate a steak cooked over the campfire with cheese tortellini, roasted red peppers, French bread and a glass of wine. I reheated the leftover tortellini for breakfast on race morning and paired it with a big mug of cowboy coffee. Both meals left me well-fueled and confident to crush on the trails.

Sergio, Mo's husband, cooks up dinner | Photo courtesy of Morgan Sjogren

Be Safe and Leave No Trace

This goes without saying, but always be aware of your surroundings in wild places. Make sure somebody knows where you are in case of an emergency. Pack along a first aid kit, extra food and  water, and double check your shelter. Most importantly, leave your campsite better than when you arrived. Pack out all trash, put out all fires completely, and if there aren’t any toilets, bury all waste several inches down and away from water sources and curious dogs.

Clean Up Your Act

I don’t mind saving water and skipping a few showers, but before a race (and especially after), I like to be clean. I bring along Action Wipes or baby wipes for daily maintenance and scope out the area for a YMCA or community pool for pre- and post-race showers. You can use their facilities to wash off the grime, sweat, and the dirtbag smell for just a few bucks. I even dried my hair under the bathroom hand dryer machine so that I wouldn’t get cold outside—and I’ll admit, my hair looked damn good on the podium.

Embrace Your Surroundings

Racing aside, trail running is a way to explore the mountains, desert, and wilderness. Camping near your race location provides an opportunity to immerse yourself deeper into that new environment ahead of race day. After spending three days in the cave in Moab, I knew the exact time of sunrise, what temperatures and precipitation were like in the morning, and additional course beta I picked up from walking around on the trails with my dogs. I also came across unique plant life, watched hawks soar overhead, and even found petroglyphs on my pre-race run—things I may have flown past when pushing myself hard in the actual race. On race day, I remembered the treasures of the landscape and used them as focal points to pull me through tough sections on the course.

Mo running | Photo courtesy of Morgan Sjogren

With some calculated planning, an open mind, and an adventurous attitude you can not only save money by traveling like a dirtbag to your next trail race, but you can completely transform the racing experience into a trip you’ll never forget.

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