In Praise of Course Maps

A beautiful morning for a run in Bear Mountain State Park.

Trail races are absolutely a different beast than your traditional road race. As a city dweller, I don’t get many opportunities to commune with nature in the great outdoors, so the chance to run a trail half marathon in a state park about 2 hours north of New York City seemed like something I should try at least once.

I will always love New York and Central Park, but I’ve often thought that one of the best parts of living in New York City is when you get to leave New York City. You’re reminded that there is the rest of the world off of the island full of space and greenery and quiet.  Bear Mountain State Park, located along the Hudson River in upstate New York, is certainly a world away from the hustle, bustle, and buildings of Manhattan. 

Back to the race. I’m comfortable with the idea of running a half marathon at the drop of a hat. Being well-trained is obviously better, but I know my body can handle the distance. It knows what to expect. A trail half marathon, on the other hand, with its different terrain and hazards, adds up to a lot more of the unexpected. It makes planning a race strategy difficult.

Enter the course map.

In the past, mostly for marathons or half marathons in urban areas, I have pretty much appreciated course maps only for telling me where the bag drop is and for a general overview of the race. Sometimes at the expo you can see those sped-up versions of the course and start to match neighborhoods with miles, and that’s kind of fun.  But, particularly when I’ve run races in unfamiliar cities or countries, I tend to gloss over the map of the actual course itself.

This isn’t to say that I don’t value maps, RDs! I’m a visual learner, so they work for me. It’s just that race courses in cities are either too familiar for me to care or too foreign for me to care, other than noting the start and finish.

But in preparing for this trail race, I found myself poring over the course map as much as I obsessed about how much water and nutrition to carry with me. This unfamiliarity was feeling uncomfortable. Other questions ran through my mind such as, “How much will my pace vary?” and “How can I predict my finish time?”

My roommate was going up with me and running the 10k. So in my tracing the route online, I checked to see how much of those trails overlapped. I even compared elevation gain. I’ve always been more of a “run and see what happens” kind of gal, so this level of attention to a course map was a new fixation for me. Losing myself in new sights and scenery, especially if they are a surprise, helps keep longer races fun for me.

Up and into the woods for 13.1 miles.
Up and into the woods for 13.1 miles.

On Bear Mountain, I had no landmarks to gauge distance like I do in a city. No city blocks to count. There were woods all around, woods going up (and sometimes straight up), woods going down, and the only sign of real notable markers on course were the little multi-colored ribbons tied to trees, each color signaling the course for a different race distance.

Most of the time, my eyes alternated from watching the ground for rocks and water to watching the person in front of me weaving their path around said rocks and water. The soft ground absorbed the footfalls of me and my fellow racers so that there was little sound in the woods beyond the birds and my thoughts of “I’m a gazelle! This is so beautiful!”

And then…


I fell to the ground without knowing how I got there. Not very gazelle-like, Honey. The left side of my body was scraped up, and pain shot up from my right ankle. Gone were the good feelings of lightly skipping across those rocks and streams.

This was at mile 8. Studying the course map had turned the trail into an image in my mind, and where I was sprawled out on the earth, red pin and a “You Are Here” caption hovered a few hundred meters shy of the next aid station. After that, it would be about another 4 miles.

With the help of other kind runners, I made it back to my feet, brushed myself off and hobbled to the aid station. Luckily, my ankle could still support my body weight, but the sooner I could get back to stable ground the better. I figured if I could make it to that aid station, I could make it to the next one, and then I could make it to the finish…where there were ice baths waiting.

It might have been a stupid move, a potentially veeeerrry stupid move, to keep going. It’s a week later, and my ankle is still swollen and bruised. I could have easily stopped at that mile 8.5 aid station and waited to take the van back. I could have freaked out and gone into shock. But neither of those things happened. Somehow, knowing where I was on that course map made the situation seem much more manageable. I certainly wasn’t physically comfortable for the rest of the race, but visualizing my little red pin advance across the course map towards the finish, I felt mentally more comfortable.

After all this, I don’t really know if I’ll obsess over every detail of every one of my future race courses. On Saturday, I’ll be running the Brooklyn Half Marathon (maybe still a little gingerly), but I haven’t even looked at the route. Granted, this will be my fifth time in this particular race, so there’s that familiarity factor. But at the end of my first time up to Bear Mountain, I’m grateful for a few things: a beautiful day for a beautiful race, supportive runners to pick me up off the ground, a friend to ice me down at the finish, and for race directors that post their large course maps in color. They are far more than a pretty flyer.

Triumph! (Swollen ankle and ice pack out of view.)
Triumph! (Swollen ankle and ice pack out of view.)

A Minnesota girl living in New York City. I'm a middle school teacher (by choice!), runner, bike commuter, traveler, and general do-er of things. My next goal is to change my finally crush my marathon PR of 4:01 to under 4:00.

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  1. The trail sounds beautiful — your description or it made me want to try it until your fall brought back my fears of trail running (I once suffered a groin injury from trail running that put me out of commission for a month). You rock for finishing despite your ankle. Hope you feel better soon!

  2. I ran my 5th trail race 2 weeks ago, and have decided that I may be too old to keep doing trail races that are billed as even a little aggressive. I have walked on with my daughter and had a great time-more of a trail hike. Last time, I fell (luckily, totally by surprise, so I did not try to catch myself and hurt my wrist), but ended up with a bruised jaw and cheekbone. As a runner who has some impressive scars from tripping over sidewalk heaves, I probably have no business with rocks and roots. Hope your ankle heals and you are back to running soon.

  3. yikes, tough race. I have friends who love trail runs.
    I know the ground is easier on your body, as long as only your feet touch the ground. 😉 It’s also great to be in the woods with only the sound of the breeze in your ears and not traffic.
    I’ve only done one trail race. It was ok. The one I did was very short, so maybe it wasn’t enough to hook me.
    Keep that ankle well iced and elevated.

  4. This race was definitely more of a hike-run that included parts where we had to go single file and sometimes straight up. It seems the secret is to take it slow and definitely keep you feet on the ground. 😉 You sure can’t beat the scenery though.
    I’ve been icing, elevating, and I have some KT tape ready for tomorrow. Thanks for all of your good wishes!