I Am a Trail Running Atheist

I wish I could believe.
I wish I could believe.

I might be unfriended by several of my best running friends by posting this one and maybe even Salty herself, but I’m going to just come out and say it:

I am a trail running atheist.

Don’t get me wrong. I love nature; natural beauty inspires me and makes me feel wonderfully insignificant, yet totally a part of something bigger than myself. 

But trails? They just don’t do it for me. 

And I like running in nature. I consider my Sunday run church. I meditate on the run, feel thankful and alive while I run, and do a lot of self-evaluation, plan change in my life, forgive myself. . . all as a result of surrounding myself with natural beauty and taking the sacrament via a big dose of my own endorphins. I plan my runs specifically with a pretty route in mind, however, they are always on paved logging roads, country roads, and the meandering miles of bike paths that I am lucky enough to have quick access to.

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Pretending to be a trail-runner, MRTR

It’s not the dirt either. I love getting dirty. I don’t mind smelling or having actual dirt and salt encrusting my body for days on a backpacking trip.

I gave trail-running a good, honest try. One of my favorite running ladies preaches the Gospel of Trails, and she made it so compelling that I actually raced three trail 50k’s in a year. I used up hours of my Saturdays to drive into the mountains to do 20-26 mile training runs on the McKenzie River Trail. Oh, the glorious scenery!

Before running on them, I’d hiked those trails. When my friend suggested we train on them, I imagined blissing out on waterfalls and old growth forests with floors of lava rock. I loved hiking, I loved running. Surely combining two of my favorite things would lead me to some serious salvation. Well. No.

When I run on trails I don’t even notice much of the nature going by because I am instead staring down feeling like I’m doing calculus to figure out where to plant my feet so I don’t fall flat on my face. Sort of like how I feel when I do yoga (grrrrrrrr). Or when I’ve tried snowboarding (my friends found me at noon drinking Jagermeister in the lodge).

The second I stop doing Calculus to look at the beauty around me … SPLAT. Down I go, onto a trail littered with and surrounded by cheese-grater rocks. I wandered around those summers in my sundresses with scabby knees encrusted with dirt ground into them. I even took pictures to document it. 

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Sexy. Very sexy.

Then there is the intimidation factor of the trail runners themselves, who I’ve come to call the Bad Ass Trail Gospel Runners. They all seem so wiry and tan, the men with huge Moses beards and everyone with veiny muscles. I swear they are part Prophet or mountain goat and have gone to some spiritual plane that requires less oxygen.

I will admit here that I am a wimp, overly self-conscious at times, and I can be clumsy, so being scared of falling and feeling embarrassed in front of all the Bad Ass Trail Gospel Runners makes me go SLOW. And here’s the real reason I hate trails. Going slow is embarrassing to me because I like going fast.

It’s a vicious cycle:

I am a wimp –> I go slow so I don’t fall so I won’t be embarrassed –> I go so slow that I am embarrassed.

And I fall anyway. Sigh.

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My friend, Taylor, who epitomizes the “Bad Ass Trail Gospel Runner” look. . .

There are some less technical trails that I’ve run on with my Bad Ass Trail Runner friends and I adored running on them. In that case, though, they were at elevation and I think I was so oxygen deprived from being over 10,000 feet that when we saw the second bear, we took off so fast my brain confused terror and elation.

Currently my running routine also requires pushing a jogging stroller about half my miles each week so I can throw that in as another excuse for my trail atheism. Admittedly, it is a poor one because I would figure out how to get in my trail miles if that was a priority.

To my friends who preach the Gospel of Trails: I am sorry, it’s not you or the trails. It’s me, the trails atheist. Trust me that I am really a good person love nature as much as you but I need to commune with it in a different way. I wish we could worship together because I really think you are awesome bad ass chicks. Please don’t excommunicate me because I find my nature-running bliss combo on the roads and bike paths rather than on a path.

I tried so hard, but could not be converted. Back to the pavement I go. 

Anyone out there a trails atheist too? If you are a die-hard trail lover, what am I missing?

I'm an elementary P.E. teacher with a long-term, ongoing marathon addiction.The next big goal? Keeping up my BQ streak while aiming for a 3:10! I write about the not-so-glamorous side of running and fitting in serious training with a family while staying sane(ish).

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30 comments

  1. Trail running isn’t for everyone. I hated it at first. The first time I was on true trails I thought that I would just stick with my roads. But then I went back, and back, and now I am a lover. Your analogy about Calculus on the trails is so spot on though. I do feel like sometimes I can’t enjoy the beauty of my surroundings because I am so focused on not falling. The biggest reason I love them is the challenge. It mixes things up for me. It adds some pulses of excitement in my sometime boring road racing and training schedule. I am racing a trail half marathon this weekend and I am beyond pumped. I have really gotten stronger on them (it is definitely an acquired skill) so every time I am back racing, I am also improving my times. I think the environment of trail races is more laid back. I don’t get as anxious or nervous at the start like I do any road race I enter. I hope to possibly complete a 50K on the trails this spring.

    1. I love that running lets me turn my brain off so I can take in my surroundings and think through whatever is going on in my life- every time I do that trail running (except a few epic times) I fall. I’ve done three 50k’s– highly recommend the McKenzie River Trail Run and SOB (Siskiyou Out-n-Back), both in Oregon, both lovely!

      1. I love that trail running lets me focus on something besides life/work! And trail running definitely kicks my butt into speed/endurance shape given the hills and technical footing. I also think trails have taught me patience as well. It’s hard to pace when gaining thousands of feet of elevation over the course of 10-20 miles.

        Also… yay for Oregon trails! I just did the Oregon Coast 30k and it was brutal but beautiful. I also think out in Oregon we are stuck with “mountain” trail running as opposed to the rolling hills of Ohio (wear I grew up trail running for cross country. Harder trails for sure.

        1. I had some friends do the Oregon Coast 30k- the views looked spectacular! There are portions of the PCT that I’ve had some amazing runs on, but the McKenzie River Trail is through miles of lava rock- big time ouch if you lose your footing.

          1. Doesn’t that one start on the beach for like, a long time. I looked at the pictures from last year when I was picking out races and it looked very. . .wet and slanty. Thoughts?

          2. The 50k does start on the beach for 6-7 miles. I only ran the 30k this year so luckily missed that part. This year the weather was pretty brutal for the 50kers because a storm came in. But the race is absolutely gorgeous otherwise. As an FYI it sells out within hours each year.

  2. I love trails but they don’t love me back. I get distracted and fall too – a lot. In fact, I’m currently recovering from an injury that was most likely die to catching myself one too many times on trails. I’ll get back out there though, I’m just going to really need to watch my footing.

    1. I’ve only ever gotten superficial injuries- scrapes/abrasions, luckily. A friend of mine overextended her knee on our last training run for a 50k and she ended up on the mend from that for over a month. . . Recover well!!

  3. I’m with you on this! I would rather hike the trails and run the roads. I feel like i take my life in my hands enough dodging bad drivers on the roads – I don’t need the constant threat of falling on my face and wildlife to complicate things even more :o)

  4. A few months ago, I totally bit it on a trail. I was looking around thinking, “Damn I feel like a woodland fairy,” and two seconds later I was skidding across the rocks and roots. I went back for more though. I’m “trying” to love trail running, but it also scares the complete shit out of me.

      1. The last thought I had before I hit the dirt in my last trail race was “I’m a gazelle!” I had a sore ankle for 5 months… but I had fun minus the falling!

  5. Bridle trails all damn day! Few roots, mostly smooth wide surfaces, but gorgeous scenery, easier on the legs while still being challenging terrain and way more relaxing than the road. While it’s definitely hard to do pace work on a bridle trail, they’re great for easy runs and effort based runs. Again, I’m talking level 3-4 on the difficulty scale between newly paved road and single track trail up a mountain.

    Here in our National Park we have the most glorious billions of miles long almost pancake flat crushed limestone path that is brilliant for all training – pace work on down. It’s so nice. All the benefits of the soft trail surface and the smoothness of road. Training perfection!

    Hard core trails can be fun, but it’s hard to get that intensity that you can get from a surface that allows you to just run without having to stop, start, tip-toe, climb, etc.

    1. PS trails are the perfect opportunity to run by effort and time over pace. I just run on bridle trails and assume 9:00ish/mile and call it whatever it is. That’s 30-60 slower than easy runs on the pavement. But I don’t care if the pace isn’t glaring at me on a GPS watch 🙂 With my little ol’ timex from Target I just say, run for a little over an hour and call it 7. Can’t recommend it enough!
      http://i0.wp.com/www.saltyrunning.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/chapin1.jpg?resize=307%2C230

    2. That does sound like perfection– a friend in Denver has those miles of crushed limestone I got to enjoy on a visit last year. I’m ok with hills even, but random toe-grabbing roots not so much.

      1. I know you’re not super close to Portland, but the trails in Forest Park are really well groomed and super easy to run on! .

  6. I have to disagree here – I love trails. They are my happy place. I get an adrenaline rush from having quick feet, leaping over rocks, logs or streams, and the out-of-control feeling of skipping/galloping down a hill where I might fall at any moment. I’ve wiped out spectacularly numerous times, and that sucks, but when I can get through something tricky unscathed it’s a huge rush. It’s the most kid-like I get these days. If I want to admire the scenery, I just stop, catch my breath, and look around me.

      1. Yes! I definitely got that. And I also agree with what Salty wrote that you’ve got to completely forget about pace, go by effort, and let the rush/challenge be navigating the terrain instead of running fast. You might wind up flying anyway if you do that – and hopefully not head over heels!

  7. I love trail running because it is so beautiful and really makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger, but I know what you mean. When I’m running along McKenzie river or Brice Creek, half the time I feel like I’m missing the beautiful scenery in order to save myself from a big wipeout (which has happened – hello stitches from a Brice Creek fall). So occasionally, I stop to stare and take a picture. I also really like that I just run by feel and don’t worry about my pace out there.

  8. I had a near-conversion-to-trails run this summer on the PCT up past the Rosary Lakes. They were even a little technical, but my feet were just prancing, up the hills I charged, and down them I floated (fast- my watch had some low-7’s!) A hiking couple yelled when I flew by “You’re an inspiration!!” If I could be up there a few times a week, I’d definitely be a trail-agnostic. lol

  9. I love both. But for super long runs I will always prefer trails. It’s just so much more interesting and goes so much faster. And I don’t worry about pace at all as my watch skips in the trees and the elevation changes don’t make for fast splits, so that’s relaxing. For me, it’s basically like fast hiking. I don’t treat it in the same regimented way that I do road running, but it still makes me a stronger runner overall : ) That said, do what you love. If you love road running, and trail running stresses you out, then by all means keep road running, I will not judge you! ; )

  10. Well written. Yes, calculus is a good analogy when running trails. Calculating the rocks, summarizing the root systems across the trail, navigating slippery slopes and dividing which glance at the lovely trees is safe or keeping your eyes on the trail dead in front of your toes. Alas, I LOVE trail running. I get bored pounding pavement paths lined with bicyclists zooming by or street crossing in my way. But, maybe it’s because I grew up logging and so I feel at home in the woods. However, I never liked math, still don’t. So I chose to ‘read’ my surroundings, identifying bugs, slugs and leaves across the path. Reading the environment to gauge my next step and completing a trail run with grace and ease! Happy running!

  11. I like trails but I am a klutz so sometimes it is a nuisance. I pick and chose them carefully and always run them by feel. Most of the time they are my recovery runs. I agree with Oregano that a long run on a trail goes by so fast and for that I really enjoy it!

    No worries though, to each their own.