Trails 101

Trails 101

HorizonWhat’s a trail?

Before I start telling you all about how to enjoy running trails I think I had better answer the question “What the heck is a trail, anyhow?”

I realize that some of the things I say and talk about when I discourse on trail running may not make any sense unless you can put yourself in and appreciate the environment that I’m experiencing.

My typical trail is a unpaved farm road that was cut into the forest over 100 years ago.  The road was cut without the assistance of surveyors and modern earthmoving equipment.  These roads cum trails follow the contour of the land.  They meander along the tops of rocky ridges to avoid ponds and swamps.  They cut up and down rolling hills following the natural lines.  They end up at stream crossings where the rivers are shallow for ease of fording, or at narrow points where a bridge of logs or rocks can be thrown across.

In my trails here in New England the forests have grown back and close densely and closely in on the trail.  Wild rose bushes and raspberry canes lean into the trail throwing exploratory vines into the gaps that tear at and garrote the inattentive runner.

The trail surface is pine needles and packed, mulched leaves.  The old roads are 3-4 feet wide with two wheel grooves straddling a centerline peak.  Random large and small rocks push their way up through the wheel tracks, exposing obstacles of all shapes, sizes and distribution.  These rocks are mostly half exposed and rounded from the action of the glaciers.

When it rains and during the spring melt the depressed concavity of the old wheel tracks fill with puddles and mud.  The roots of the trees are exposed and run at crazy angles to the trail, spider-webbing away from the trees on the edges.

The trees themselves are 40-50 years old and close in the trails completely with a dense canopy 80 to 100 feet tall.  On the forest floor all manner of bushes and immature trees compete for the filtered light in a mad scramble of underbrush.

Most of the woods I run used to be farmers’ fields.  Old stone walls run in delineating patters all around and cross the trails in places.  These walls are not structured walls with mortar.  They have been sitting unattended for over 100 years and are basically long, straight rock piles, but they are wonderful.

That is what I mean when I say I went trail running.  What do your trails look like?

As it turns out several of the organizations that use the trails have rating systems.  Typically these rating systems are a 1 -5 scale with 1 being easy and 5 being hardest.  What they rate is this characteristics that make a trail difficult for hiking, running or riding.

First thing they rate is the surface – and this may be the most important for you.  Some trails at the easiest end of the spectrum are paved – like many of the converted rail trails.  They are basically little roads in the woods.  The next level of difficulty is dirt roads, which are still quite a forgiving surface.  I would argue that a well-groomed and packed dirt surface is quite good for fast times. I qualified for Boston on a rail trail course just like this once.  As you progress up the difficulty scale you encounter various levels of rocks and roots and sand and mud and all manner of nasty difficult surfaces.

The second thing that they rate on trails is the width.  When you hear us refer to ‘single path’ that means the trail is only wide enough for one individual at a time.  The old farm roads I run would be technically double-path.

One of the common descriptions you’ll hear is ‘fire roads’.  These are roads that were cut into a forest so that in the event of a forest fire the equipment can get in and it forces the fire to have to jump the road, creating a bit of a barrier.  Sometimes these are well groomed dirt roads, sometimes they are not so well maintained.

The ultra-distance trail races that I have ridden and run have had a fairly large percentage of the courses on dirt roads and fire roads, with technical bits interspersed.  By the way, when we say ‘technical’ we mean ‘difficult’.  My point is that you shouldn’t train with the expectation of all technical trails or for all one type of trail.  Typically the longer races will have different sections of varying difficulty.

The other characteristic of difficulty that they rate when describing trails is the elevation.  Very mountainous, steep uphill and steep downhill sections are more difficult than running on a flat road.  The steep bits tend to have more challenging surface conditions due to wash outs and slides and other conditions.

Sometimes trail rating systems will speak to the number of obstacles on the trail, like things you have to climb over or through and some will consider the number and difficulty of water crossings.  Those are the fun trails!

Finally you might want to consider the exposure on the trail you are running.  My trails are quite protected by the trees.  I don’t worry about the glaring sun of the desert or the whipping wind of a Highland ridgeline.

That’s what we mean when we smile and say the course is a bit technical.  You do want to consider this when you are just starting out running trails.

An example would be the 18 mile Wapack Trail Race that my club organizes.  If you only consider the distance you might think that this is a nice little 18 mile training run for your next marathon.  This course is quite difficult.  It is mostly single path over broken rock fields and traverses 4 mountains twice.  What does that mean for your training run?

Taking me as an example; I would run a 18 mile training run on the road in somewhere around 2-1/2 hours.  I’m an experienced trail runner and I know this course well.  It takes me just under 3 and a half hours to complete this race.  That’s a full 50% longer at the same or harder effort level.

Make sure you ease into it and know what you’re getting into.  A race like the Wapack can beat the hell out of you but it is also one of my favorite races because it is just a bag ball of fun for me.  To be out in the woods flying down a rocky mountain side, swinging from the trees and jumping from rock to rock – it doesn’t get any better.


  • ultrarunnergirl

    June 23, 2011

    Great stuff Chris. I know I often struggle to describe all that “trail running” encompasses.

  • Alyssa

    June 23, 2011

    Wow, this is great information! As someone who wants to get into trail running more and more, this is perfect… thanks!

  • Sheila

    June 25, 2011

    Great, informative article. While I have run some trails, the trails out here in SoCal didn’t develop in the same way (not from former farm roads). Still, regardless of how they developed, much of the characteristics are similar across the difficulty scale.