More and more pros are trading in the track for the trails—and they're coming out on top.
Sitting inside a dimly lit dive bar in Moab, Addie Bracy and I chatted over Uinta Black IPAs and celebrated the finale to our rookie seasons on the U.S. Trail racing circuit by bookending the podium of the Moab Trail Marathon/U.S. Championships. (Bracy had just won her second U.S. trail title and I sprinted to 10th). The morning's race was a dramatic shift from our typical focus on fast, flat track races and included ridiculously technical terrain: down climbing, boulder hopping, dodging cacti, climbing ladders, and even roped sections. The adventurous course, gorgeous desert landscape, and racing alongside some of the best trail runners in the world was enough to whet our appetites for more. I looked at Bracy and asked, “Well, are you still going to run track?" to which she paused, took a swig of beer and said, “Part of me wonders what results could happen if I committed myself fully to training for the trails.”
While not strangers to the elite level racing scene, several trail rookies dipped their toes into trail racing for the first time last year and made a splash. At the sub-ultra distances, three out of five U.S. National Trail Championships were won by women in their first season of trail racing. Here's a brief overview of trail noobs dominating in 2016:
- Bracy won both the USA Mountain Running Championships/Loon Mountain Race and the Trail Marathon Championships. She was also named USATF Mountain Runner of the Year.
- Renee Metivier won the Trail Half Marathon Championships at Lake Padden in Bellingham, Washington.
- Julia Webb placed 3rd at the Half Champs.
- Daniela Moreno came in 4th at the Half and 10th at the Mountain Running Champs.
- Kelly Wolf claimed 3rd overall in the Moab Trail Marathon.
- And I took 6th at Lake Padden and 10th in Moab.
Many of these women will continue to race on the track and roads, using these trail races as “off-season” opportunities to build strength and enjoy some variety before spring track and road races. However, for some, the past year has served as a bona fide rookie season and the next chapter of their careers. Here's how so many women managed to show up and crush their first season on the trails.
With a Stong History on Pavement
Though they may be new to trail racing, these women are far from genuine rookies. Veteran trail racers like Maria Dalzot were not surprised that some of the newbies on the scene were serious competitors. “Renee is a two-time National Champion [in track and roads] and has competed in five World Cross Country Championships. The Lake Padden Trail Half Marathon course is relatively nontechnical. Somebody as talented as Renee, and likewise those with leg speed and a knack for climbing, is going to excel.”
Bracy is also a five-time Olympic Trials/U.S. Nationals Qualifier (track and marathon) who competed twice in the World Cross-Country Championships, making trail and mountain running a natural transition. Yet at the longer and more technical Marathon Trail Championships in Moab, seasoned trail racers were surprised by her victory. “I definitely expected an experienced trail runner to win,” said U.S. Sky Running Champion Sarah Pizzo (7th at the marathon champs). “The field was stacked with very talented trail running veterans and the course was tough, both technically and because of the amount of climbing.”
By Learning to Focus on Technical Terrain
The technicality of trail racing seems to present the biggest obstacle to newcomers. Clare Gallagher, who's so fast she almost set the record on the Leadville 100 course in her debut 100, said, “Shredding downhills well takes lots of experience. Any former track runner converting to trails will find that they are so slow going downhill compared to a runner who’s only ever known trails. It takes actual focus and skill—which isn’t required in track [minus the steeplechase].”
(Worth noting: Two of the five rookies in this story, Bracy and Webb, are also steeplechasers.)
One way to master more technical terrain? Keep your focus on the trail. “When running far on the trails, you can't really zone out," said Bracy. "Zoning out even for a second can mean taking a fall.”
Metivier admitted she was afraid on the downhills of the muddy Lake Padden course. Mastering that fear is key to taking on rocky, winding trails. “You have to embrace being out of control and turn the mind off," she said, "Which is very hard for a track and road racer who is used to being in charge of her body.”
They Mastered New Fuel Regimens
Other techniques on the learning curve for newcomers include fueling and hydration for longer races. I experienced the worst of this by bonking in Moab. I was beyond grateful to find tasty energy boosting snacks at the aid stations. Cocoa-Cola, Pop Tarts, pretzels, and beer? Sign me up!
For longer races, like the ones that make up so much of the trail scene, pacing and energy management at varying distances and terrain is a major concern. “It was unique to be hurting so bad, so early on,” said Bracy of her first trail races.
However, learning to fuel and pace yourself properly is something that Camelia Mayfield (5th at the Half Champs and world mountain running team member) assures the rookies will come with experience. Looking for some fueling tips? Track Olympian and trail enthusiast Alexi Pappas has you covered, and Yitka Winn, contributing editor at Trail Runner Magazine, breaks down the best eats for longer distances.
With New-and-Improved Training Plans
As for preparation, there were two distinct approaches to training for newbies on the scene. One group favored a structured plan, while the other focused more on fun and cross-training.
The Loosey-Goosey Training Plan: Many of the last year's new trail runners took on an experimental approach, blending their typical track/road racing programs with ways to callous their bodies for the demands of trail racing. Bracy said, “While the results were great, my preparation was a little bit of an experiment. I have pretty much been coaching myself while getting some advice from my coach, Brad Hudson, and my strength coach, Randy Hauer. I have no clue what I'm doing and have kind of been making things up as I go!”
Surprisingly, this wasn’t much different from the running philosophy followed by the more experienced women. Gallagher and Ladia Junkins-Albertson (2nd at Lake Padden and NACAC Mountain Running Championships) both adhere to a style they describe as “loosey-goosey” or “whimsical and unstructured.” Basically, they have fun. The two tackle workouts when they feel like it, but blend their runs and exercise with weekend mountain adventures that sometimes even include skiing.
The Systematic Training Plan: Meanwhile, Dalzot, Pizzo, and Megan Roche (U.S. 30K Champion and NACAC Mountain Running Champion) both see huge benefits of a structured training plan guided by a coach. Moving forward, Bracy sees the value in both approaches. “I’ll definitely need to get some more structure in my training, but I think the major catalyst to my success was just that I was having fun again," she said. "While I think I need more structure, I also want to remember why I started running on the trails again in the first place, to be reminded why I love to run, and to enjoy every step.”
So what direction will these women run towards in 2017? After all, both Bracy and Metivier proved their ability to compete at a high level in almost any running discipline they chose. Roche cautions these women to select their races with care. “My biggest piece of advice is to understand what your goals are and what you want to get out of the sport," she said. "There are so many options in trail running. You can race 100-mile races, mountain races, 10Ks, 50Ks, flat races, and sky races. If you just want an adventure, go ahead and try everything but if you are looking to be competitive, pick one area and focus your training.”
Fueled by a flexible outlook and a love for the mountains, Bracy said she'd waste no time getting back on the trails. “My next race will most likely be the 50k Trail Championship in February," she said. "However, there is still a desire in me to run fast. So, unless that desire fades, I'm not sure my time on the track and roads is completely over.”
Metivier is hard pressed to see running in such black-and-white categories. “Do I have to choose? I love racing and challenging myself, and the trails are definitely a new challenge for me," she said. "But I will still continue pushing myself on the roads. I think limiting oneself does not lead to growth as an athlete, and I always want to keep pushing out of my comfort zone in order to get the very best out of myself."
That said, Metivier is already signed up for her next trail race—also a 50K. If these women take on the new challenge of ultramarathons the way they conquered their rookie trail seasons, they certainly stand to shake things up on the race course, and ultimately the podium.