They adeptly thread their way along roots and rocks. The uneven terrain is a challenge, often filled with stream crossings, log bridges, and even stone steps. Moving swiftly, they venture into mountainous areas usually the domain of those with bulky backpacks.
In essence, they run where most hike.
They are trail runners.
Running through the woods offers its own satisfaction. No cars or crowds. There’s quiet among the alpine beauty. It’s easier on the knees than pounding pavement, and runners can inhale clean mountain air away from the fast-paced cities.
So, how does one begin? Well, one foot in front of the other.
“Just look for your local park and try to find something relatively flat and not too technical,” said Kevin Tilton, 31, a two-time member of the U.S. Mountain Running team. “Just get out there and explore. See what you enjoy. Some people like trails that are rocky and rooty. Some people like stuff that goes up and down hills. Some people like the flats.”
Tilton of North Conway, New Hampshire also has good words for running clubs as a way for a novice to ease into mountain runs.
“A club helps big time,” he said. “Especially if you can meet up with different people who know the trails. They will be able to show you all the cool places. They’ve spent years running trails that dead end and don’t go anywhere. They’ll tell you the places that are good and which ones aren’t.”
Larisa Dannis, 25, of Stratford, New Hampshire, is a trail runner and endurance racer with a wealth of hiking and trail running achievements. She recently was the seventh female finisher in the foot race up Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England.
She also suggests a park start.
“Look up some trail maps and start on some easy terrain to get yourself adjusted,” she said. “Trail running is very different from road running. You have to pay a lot more attention to your footwork and things like that. You want to start out slow to give your body time to adjust.”
A key to trail running to being able to look ahead, say 10 to 15 feet, and pick out a line to run. Work up to it.
“You really just have to ease into it,” she said. “At first you are going to feel a little bit off base. You are going to want to look at your feet a little more.”
Dannis suggests new trail runners be sure to bring essentials that ensure a safe experience like carrying a map, water and food, and telling someone where you are going.
“I think if you have the drive go and do it but do you research, be prepared and be responsible,” she said.
Meghan Skidmore, 27, works and lives near Mount Washington and incorporates trail running in training for September’s World Sprint Triathlon Championships in London.
“Trail running is much easier on the joints,” she said. “I try to mix up my training with some trial running. For me it is more enjoyable than running on pavement. I like the scenery, being in the woods kind of off the grid there and checking things out in the woods.”
As part of her running regime, Skidmore also enters into local trail running series.
“You can compare your time from week to week,” she said. “It is sort of competitive, but not too overwhelming.”
When it comes to making those first strides, it’s okay to start with the running shoe you already have, even if it’s for the road.
“Easier trails can definitely be run in a road shoe,” said Dannis. “As you get on to more technical terrain most people will feel more comfortable transitioning into a trail shoe.”
Then when it’s time for that first race, take it easy.
“Start out with something shorter, that way you can get the feel of what it’s like to be in a race,” said Tilton, “Maybe start with a race that is on terrain you are familiar with. Then you can build more distance and tougher terrain with hills.”
So, take one step at a time.
“Don’t put yourself through the ringer if you really don’t enjoy it,” said Tilton.
Images by indicated photographers, used with permission from the American Trail Running Association