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5 Things I Learned From Running A Trail Race Last Weekend

Emerson School Trail RaceIt’s been a long time since I’ve run a long trail race. I paced for about 7 miles last year at the Vermont 100 (my runner dropped), but the last trail race longer than a 5K that I ran for myself was the HAT Run 50K back in 2011. I forgot how much fun they are.

On Saturday I ran the Ralph Waldo Emerson Preschool “10-mile” trail race – I put the distance in quotes for reasons I’ll get to below. My two older kids attended Emerson when they were younger – we love the school, and they started a trail 5K last year as an annual fundraiser. I didn’t run the race last year, but when I heard they were adding a 10-mile option I couldn’t resist. Given my connection to the school, and the fact that the race was on trails I’ve run and hiked a bunch of times, I decided to make a donation as a race sponsor and run the long course race.

Rather than do a traditional race recap, I thought I’d write up a list of things I learned (or was reminded of) during the race:

1. Trail races are a blast. This was my third race so far this year. The first two were road 5K’s, and both of those races scared me a bit. As I wrote in a post last week, 5K’s hurt, and I always feel a bit of apprehension in the days leading up to a 5K race. I felt none of that in the lead up to the trail race. My goal was to go out and have fun – the trails the race covered were difficult: lots of rocky and rooty singletrack, lots of switchbacks, a fair amount of up and down. It was a cold, rainy day. And as someone who runs mostly on roads (and races almost exclusively on them) I was a bit out of my element. All of these things tempered my expectations.

Once I got out on the trails and found a rhythm things started to click. I settled in behind another runner of similar pace and cruised. When you’re out in the woods, you kind of get in a zone where everything melts away and the only thing that matters are the rocks and roots on the trail and the placement of your next footstep (avoiding a sprained ankle becomes the primary goal on trails of the type that this race covered). It was incredibly fun, and reminded me how much I enjoyed the HAT Run 50K back in 2011. It may have also sealed the deal on my choice of races this Fall – an attempt at the Vermont 50K may be in order.

2. Road fitness does not equal trail fitness. I realized very quickly that though I can compete locally in my age group in the 5K, running up big inclines in the woods is a very different challenge. I’m reminded of this almost every time I run with Nate, and I found myself walking up a big incline about a quarter mile into the race – I figured I wasn’t going to lose much time vs. slogging it a slow jog pace, and by not sapping myself I’d be able to pick the pace right back up at the top. I wound up walking 3-4 times for short stretches, mostly when I could feel my heart about to pound through my chest. But I always recovered after a few minutes and was able to resume cruising pace.

What’s interesting is that my road fitness paid dividends on the one short stretch of roads we followed to access another trail, and on a rolling loop around a big field. On both occasions I managed to reel in a runner ahead of me, but I passed nobody while in the woods. I was chatting with another runner at the finish and he commented on how he hated the field loop – he indicated he runs mostly trails. Funny how our perceptions differed based on our typical training terrains.

3. Don’t trust a Garmin 620 GPS watch in the woods. I’ve run most of the trails that the race course covered in the past. I don’t know them well, but I had a general sense of location relative to surrounding landmarks. Around mile 7.5 I was on some really twisty trails that I knew were heading back down the toward the school and the finish line. The race was labeled a 10-miler, but the official course map on the race website listed it at 9.2 miles. I figured the trail must turn back and head up again to add in a final mile.

I was cruising pretty fast down a relatively wide, open trail (I kept catching glimpses of a runner a little way behind me and didn’t want to let him catch me). I turned a corner and the finish line suddenly popped into view. I was a bit shocked – it would be like suddenly hitting the finish line at what you think is mile 23 of a marathon. I crossed and turned to the timing table and said something like “Is this the finish?” As if the big flags labeled “FINISH” were some kind of joke. They assured me I was done, and I was happy (13th place, I’ll take it!), but my watch said 8.09 miles in 1:18:29.

I waited at the finish line for a friend who was a few minutes behind me, and chatted with some of the runners as they came in. A few were wearing GPS watches, and most had measured the course around 8.6-8.7 miles (one was wearing a Garmin 310XT, another a Garmin 305). I know that GPS watches can be sketchy in the woods, particularly on courses with a lot of switchbacks and twisty turns (even with 1-second recording turned on, which is what my watch was set to do). People have been reporting accuracy issues with the Garmin 620 – mine has worked fine on the roads for the most part, but it seems that it didn’t do so well in this instance. I’m still not really sure how long the race actually was since my course track recording did not match the one on the race website (the field loop seemed to be a new addition, some of the trails differed – there had apparently been some course vandalism the night before, not sure if that played a role in the changes), but it seemed my watch was consistently about a half mile short of what others had measured. I don’t think I missed a turn or anything either since I was pretty consistently in sight of people ahead and behind me. This is definitely something I need to test before I write a review of the 620.

4. Focusing on local races has invigorated me. For the past several years I’ve focused on running marathons, usually not locally, and usually by myself. I’ve now run three local races in the span of four weeks, and I’ve been loving it. I get to see friends regularly, I get to test myself more frequently, and I’ve come to appreciate how tight-knit my local running community has become. I enjoy racing on roads and trails that I know well. I like being able to support local causes. Running has become incredibly fun again, and that makes me happy.

5. I love the Salomon Sense Pro. Review coming later this week (hopefully!).

(If you liked this post, go read “6 Things I Learned From My Last Ultra-marathon” by Nick Jenkins. That post inspired this one.)

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a biology teacher, track/soccer coach, and dad (x3) with a passion for running, soccer, and science. If you'd like to learn a little bit more about who I am and what I do, click here, or visit


  1. I started running trails two years ago and have thoroughly enjoyed the way that ventures into the woods naturally slow your pace down. A handful of race production companies in the area provide 5 and 10K races throughout the year, and most are in a very reasonable driving distance (vs. longer commutes to larger cities for high profile half and full marathons).

    I’ve also observed that most trail races have lower entry fees than road races, and the events are usually capped so the trails are not overrun with participants. A favorite race of mine here in Georgia called Frogtown (with a 4 and 10 mile option) has a mile or so running through a creek bed. It’s wet but fun.

  2. I started running trails last year. I live in a really rural, really swampy part of Georgia and there aren’t a lot of trails close by to run and none that offer any sort of terrain challenge. I noticed the same things you did. Even though I’m not as fast on trails as I am on roads, I LOVE running trails. You don’t have time to get bored. You’re focusing on the trail for foot placement and on the safer sections, the views are much more interesting. Also, I tend to have a lot of trouble running fast enough to get my heartrate up into the zone I’d be in on the road to really be racing it. Unlike the road where my legs match my lungs and heart (I max out heart rate around the time I max out my leg muscles) my legs just don’t have the ability to climb the rough steep hills, but my lungs and heart do. Also, on more technical trail, I can’t run fast enough safely to really work up a good sweat. That adds up to have me leaving a 50k trail race in Alabama this year much happier than either of my two marathon attempts on roads.

  3. I ran my first trail race on Sunday (4/27/14) and it was a marathon! Second marathon in 8 days. I agree that road fitness does not equate to tails, but I had so much fun. I may never race on roads again. We had “ultra style” aid stations with chips, M&Ms, PB&J etc and that really helped keep me going. Trails rock. I’m looking at running my first 50k in Oct, Cloudsplitter100 (100 miles, 100k & 50K options in Eastern Kentucky mountains).

  4. Dennis Claire says:

    I pretty much stopped running roads a few years ago except for 1-2 days per week. I’ve definitely got the opposite perspective of you right now. I think the big reason I failed on my long trail races last year was the lack of actual road running–tempo, consistent long runs (instead of lots of vertical, nonrunnable miles). My first 2 times doing 7 sisters, I got different distances on my Garmin 305. Now that I know the course I can pace myself, but I distinctly remember thanking all dieties on that first 7 sisters race when my watch said 10 miles and I saw the downhill to the finish, realizing I did not have a few more tortuous miles to go!!

  5. I just finished my first 50-miler this past weekend on California trails! Did the whole thing in the Salomon Sense Pro. It has one of the best rides I’ve ever felt in a shoe.

  6. Liz Durant says:

    thanks for the great review, Pete, I couldn’t have said it better about Sunday’s trail race! My trepidation on trail running comes mostly from having to pick dirt and stones out of my forearms and knees from the numerous times I have tripped and fallen! I can say, with great pride, that I completed Sunday’s run entirely on my feet! I wore my Hoka’s on Sunday and, for the first time on hard trails, my feet did not feel worse for wear. In the past, I have had “easy” trail runs leave my feet so sore that I couldn’t run for days. What a breakthrough and what a blast! I just might be willing to entertain another one soon!

  7. I’ve found trail running to be so much more enjoyable. I typically get out to the trails only once a week, but those runs are the highlight of my running week. It took me a while to accept the slower pace, but it is just the nature of the beast. The atmosphere for trail races is great. I just ran a 5 mile trail race this weekend, and I have to admit I was a little worried heading into a shorter race. After an ultra heavy schedule last year (3 50k’s and a 50 miler), I had come to appreciate the family feel of ultras. With a shorter race, I wasn’t sure the feel would be the same. Needless to say everyone was great and I really appreciated the community feel. I’ve never had that feeling during a road race.

  8. I love to run on the beach which presents an entirely different experience I feel than road or trail. I see so many runners run solely on a treadmill and never have the pleasure or challenge of running outdoors. Trails present such a nice experience that whether running or walking that anyone looking for an outdoor activity should look into.

  9. Nice post. I haven’t raced in years but have continued to run to help maintain some level of sanity. This makes me want to get out there again and hit some local races.

  10. Courtney L. says:

    I thought I would give you another point of view about the area this race was in. I literally live right next door to this park – it’s in my backyard. And it is very hard to pick up a GPS signal out there. You can’t get it at my house at all. I’m halfway up the trail before my GPS watch kicks in – and it continues to go on and off. Glad you enjoyed the race! I wanted to run it, but I was already signed up for a trail race out in Rye.

  11. Pete – just curious if you had the heart rate strap on or not. I haven’t had any issues with mine, but I’ve only used it with the heart rate strap (I have the one they package it with, with the Firstbeat functionality).

    It is supposed to give additional tracking accuracy like having a foot pod, so I wonder if that would have helped. Still, that’s a pretty huge discrepancy – not cool given what the watch costs.

    • I do have the strap, but wasn’t wearing it in the race. Need to try that!

      • I wasn’t thinking about the comfort issue with a strap during a race. I’m wondering if I’d wear it myself in my next one.

        Still, they gotta find what’s going on with some of these units. The watch is way too expensive to have this erratic behavior. Kinda makes me think about going out with my FR620 and my old Nike+ GPS Sportwatch

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