Trail runners skip the road, head to the woods to get in their miles

Roots, rocks, creeks and low-hanging branches all part of trail running

A cold rain pours from a slate gray sky as four hardy athletes from Trail Roots Running scamper over rocks and beneath the leafy canopy of the Barton Creek Greenbelt.

I’m clattering behind them, splashing through creeks, hopping over logs and dodging low-hanging tree branches. I feel like a mountain goat picking its way along a boulder-strewn trail, or a kid who’s been trapped in a classroom all day suddenly released to the playground.

That’s the appeal of trail running. It channels your inner beast and then demands all your focus. Let your mind wander and you’ll take a spill, whack your head or venture down the wrong fork in the path. But when you fly, all the stress of the work day fades into the cloud of dust (or mud) that rises behind you.

People, it seems, are catching on.

In Austin, exercise groups are forming to train on woodsy paths instead of paved streets, new trail races are popping up and stores carry rugged, durable trail shoes alongside their regular running shoes. Athletes are planning trips to race in scenic places like the mountains of Colorado, the deserts of West Texas and the Hill Country around Austin.

“People are just looking for a more epic journey and experience,” says Erik Stanley, 29, a former All-American runner at the University of Texas who founded Trail Roots Running in early 2014. “They’re trying to get back to their individual roots, instead of sitting on a treadmill at a gym.”

As a high school student, Stanley ran in the mountains of Colorado. For him, it’s all about getting off road, away from the crowds and into the woods. This summer, he’ll lead a group of athletes to two famous Colorado races — the Leadville Trail Marathon in June and Pike’s Peak Ascent in August.

He’s nimble and effortless as we ramble alongside limestone cliffs and past moss-streaked stones. I stumble and catch myself more than once, slip a few times, and pause to walk when the going gets really rough. But I can’t wipe the grin off my face.

Pretty soon we’re capping our hourlong romp through the great outdoors with coffee and tacos at a restaurant across from the Spyglass entrance of the greenbelt. Water drains from our shoes and drips from our hats as we discuss the merits of running on trails versus roads.

At the top of that list? It’s easier on your body. When you run on a road, you repeat the same motions over and over, using the same joints and muscles. That can mean soreness. When you run on a trail, which is irregular and filled with obstacles, you land differently with each stride. You scramble, hop side to side and pop over rocks, using different muscles as you go. A trail surface is softer, too, absorbing more impact than asphalt or concrete.

If you’re used to logging 8-minute miles on the road, you might shudder a bit at your 12-minute trail pace. Most trail runners don’t care about personal records, or PRs, because times vary so wildly depending on terrain. While it might take a 5- or 6-minute-per-mile pace to lead a road race, an 11-minute scramble could win a trail run.

“Road running is very much about your time and exact pace — the numbers. Trail running is more free-form,” says Matt Fletcher, 43, an engineer at Freescale Semiconductor.

I think it’s more fun, too. In the heat of an Austin summer, you can leap into a creek or swimming hole midway through a trail run to cool off. You can zip beneath sun-shielding trees, avoiding heat that radiates off blacktop.

Most of all, though, it’s pretty. Who wouldn’t rather look at a spring-fed creek than another strip mall, or breathe clean air instead of car exhaust? In Austin you can explore trails that are close to downtown that many people don’t even know exist.

I ran a race in Big Sky, Mont., last year that required using ropes to navigate down steep sections of the mountain. Another, at Big Bend Ranch State Park, took me past cactus-studded mesas as the sun rose.

And aid stations at a trail race? Think tasty boiled potatoes, broth, pretzels and peanut butter sandwiches, instead of the energy gels and Gatorade offered at the typical road run.

“It’s a good community, too. Everyone’s supportive,” says Billy Satterwhite, 27, who plays stand-up bass in a jazz quartet and is training for a 100-kilometer trail race in Switzerland this summer. “There’s competition at the front end of races, but everyone chats with each other along the way.”

That’s not to say it’s not strenuous. I’ve smacked my head on a tree branch, tripped and rolled off a trail and fallen into a cactus, all while trail running. (I’ve never been hit by a car, though.) It’s like swimming in the lake versus swimming in a chlorinated pool — it’s freedom, it’s nature, it’s galloping through the wilderness.

You’ll need to do a bit of planning before you hit the trail. Don’t expect to find water fountains or garden hoses for hydrating; you’ll have to carry your own water (try a special hand-mounted sippie bottle). You’ll need a headlamp if you’re running before dawn or after dusk. Make sure you go with someone who is familiar with the trails, too, or you could get lost. Then again, that’s part of the appeal for some.

You don’t have to go it alone. A variety of trail training programs are offered through Austin’s running community to get you comfortable off road, including one that’s specific to women. Trailhead Running will launch sessions of its four-week Women on the Trails introduction program on April 1 and Aug. 5.

Mallory Brooks coaches the Spectrum Trail Running program at Rogue, an Austin running store. The group works with all levels of athletes, from beginners to elites — “anybody who wants to run in mud,” she says.

It all boils down to one thing: “Nothing is more important than where your foot is going to strike,” Brooks says. “You don’t think about anything else.”

She coaches runners to constantly survey their surroundings. She also encourages them to run without headphones and listen to their breathing and their footfall as they go.

She and her husband, Jason, direct the Spectrum Trail Racing series, a home-grown lineup of races that include live music, food trailers and dancing, plus films under the stars the night before each event. To create less waste, they don’t use race bibs or cups. Spectrum also sponsors a trail maintenance day.

Brooks says she likes the solitude of the sport. “It’s a way to just get away from everything,” she says. “You can feel like you’re a million miles away from your house and the city.”

In Austin, that’s easy to do.

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