For our regular cross country runners out there—those athletes training to race on three-plus miles of gravel and dirt—the rise of trail running is something of a “told-you-so” moment in running. Training on trails is fun? Told you so. Planning out a race schedule where the courses are varied each week is fun? Told you so. Logging miles and scenic vistas is fun? Told you…well, that is where trail running is unique. What follows is a first-person look at the fastest-growing sport in the United States, one that had 6 million Americans racing in 2012 after 4.8 million participated in 2009—and one where racing up mountains is no hyperbole.
Firstly, why the appeal? Well, for as much as road racing (the other common series for many post-collegiate cross country runners, and Marx’s own Team Run) has its Grand Prix and local striders and pub runs, trail racing has its Mountain Circuit and weekend warriors and festival atmosphere. The Western NH Trail Run Series (WNHTRS), a group of nine different trail events occurring in the upper valley of New Hampshire and Vermont each summer, is one of several series in New England, the others being the North Shore Trail Series, South Shore Trail Series, Grand Tree Trail Series and, of course, USATF New England Mountain Circuit. (Tragically the founder of the WNHTRS, Chad Denning, passed away while hiking a section of the AT this past summer; the final race of that series, Lost a Lot, was run in his memory.) Trail running courses typically follow tight single-track, such as on old Mount Ascutney Ski Area’s mountain bike trails during WNHTRS’s “Frenzy in the Forest,” and often feature several calf-cramping ascents followed by quad-burning downhill sections into the finish. Indeed, it is precisely these elements that blur the line between cross country running and “fastpacking,” making for a unique racing challenge.
That’s not to say that trail running is its own bubble, however. Sure, there are those athletes who exclusively pencil in events like the Mountain Circuit and WNTRS on their race calendars, but more often the field is a meeting point for a variety of athletes; road runners from running clubs looking to mix up their season, high school Nordic athletes looking to improve their fitness before the winter, or veteran runners just having fun on the trails. This summer, while racing the WNTRS, it was not uncommon for the field to spread out to a 45-minute gap between the leaders and last finishers, with the leaders cheering the latter on to the finish line. And with course distances ranging between five miles and just under eight miles, a series like WNHTRS is feasible to race without half-marathon or marathon level of training.
So, all in all, if you have yet to try a trail race, time to mix it up. And get ready for some real hills!