What Makes a Trail Runner?

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Forget mandatory sufferfests and distance obligations. Becoming a trail runner requires only one thing: a love for exploration.

The other day, a friend asked, “So how long have you been a trail runner?” Her simple question sparked a feeling of uncertainty that surprised me. I shrugged off her question with a noncommittal answer, but it got me thinking. Was I a trail runner? And if so, how did I know it?

Running has always been an intrinsic part of who I am. I have been running steadily, and for the most part competitively, since I was 12 years old. More often than not, if people ask me what I do for fun, the answer is “I am a runner.” But being a trail runner, in my mind, seems like an entirely different beast.

In my mind, true trail runners were those folks who regularly endured a self-inflicted thrashing on the trails. And not just any thrashing, but the seriously long and tortuous demands of ultras.

I recently wrote about what I considered to be my first true trail run. My 16-mile excursion into the Indian Peaks Wilderness was new and remarkable, a genuine first-time experience. It turned a page that made me brave enough to brand myself a “sort of” trail runner, but even that gave me pause. Was that really enough?

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In my mind, true trail runners were the folks who regularly endured a self-inflicted thrashing on the trails. And not just any thrashing, but the seriously long and tortuous demands of ultras. They were the Leadville 100 finishers, the Hard Rock 100 qualifiers, the Western States warriors, the people who could run for over 24 hours straight, conquering miles and miles of trails with a headlamp, trekking poles, and an indomitable will that I just didn’t have. In my head, that was the spirit of a trail runner.

 

I always considered myself more of a speed-oriented runner, preferring 5K and 10K races, and (I know, how boring) the track. When the local trail running crew in Boulder talked about training, I would cringe at mention of the Skyline Traverse or lapping Sanitas. All that sounded like to me was a recipe for really, really tired legs. While I definitely enjoyed my easy runs on the trails, I didn’t possess a yearning to run trails every single day.

So I never really thought that I was much of a trail runner until I stopped to think about one other type of racing I love: cross country.

Cross country was where I found my love for running. In seventh grade, I joined the team and I won my first race, a flat, dusty 5K on rocky doubletrack in Buena Vista, CO. I still remember that race: the strain of trying to push myself while navigating the tight turns around the scrubby pinion pines and daggers of yucca. The awareness of having to pick up your feet to clear the rocks even as you grew more and more fatigued. The way the dust formed a fine layer of grit on my lips and on my teeth. The snap and strain of uneven footing. The amazing way your brain can calculate where your feet will land—even with your eyes on the horizon.

Cross country is my core; it was foundational to the runner I am today. And I don’t doubt for a minute that cross country is, pure and simple, trail running.

My next race was at the Snow Mountain Ranch in the mountains of Fraser. I remember chasing after the lead biker and rolling down a hill through a stunning grove of aspen trees, peaking in an amazing show of sun-splashed gold and orange. The trail was narrow and the downhill steep. It was like floating or flying or being lifted from the ground by the incredible turnover of your own legs, the rhythmic patter of my feet the only thing retaining my connection to the earth. I can still see that section of trail if I close my eyes.

Over the years, through cross country races, I ran on a variety of terrain in an abundance of conditions. From dirt, rocks, and mud to sand, wind, rain, and sometimes snow, I ran. I ran solo and in packs of women vying for place and position. For 10 years, from seventh grade until my final year of college, the changing of summer to fall meant cross country season. A feeling of nostalgia still nags at me the first cool October morning when I can smell the decay of fall on the breeze. Cross country is my core; it was foundational to the runner I am today. And I don’t doubt for a minute that cross country is, pure and simple, trail running.

Trail running isn’t about the surface you run on, what type of gear you wear, or how many miles you log.

My perceived stereotypes about the sport were holding me back from embracing a part of my running that I've always loved. I had been a trail runner all along without realizing it. If you have ever stepped off the road to catch a patch of sun-soaked dirt, found yourself on a shortcut through the woods, or had that breathtaking moment of being caught up in something much bigger than yourself, you are a trail runner. Because trail running isn’t about the surface you run on, what type of gear you wear, or how many miles you log. It's about that touch of something that sparks your curiosity and inspires you to explore a little bit more of the world that you couldn’t have seen unless you laced up your running shoes.

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