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Trail Running: Choosing Terrain and Distance: Part 2 of 3

Choosing Terrain and Distance: Part 2 of 3

Trail Running

Written by: Luke Laga, L.Ac.

The best things in life are worth getting dirty for.  

Trails hide in corners of this country where you’d never expect to find them. From mountain valleys, desert expanses, to urban waterways, trails of all difficulty levels wait patiently for us to discover them. They offer respite from life’s density, revelations for a bustling mind, and consistently deliver a humility hiding under every rock, root and grueling assent. 

As a flatlander, I discovered trail running in an urban university arboretum with no more than 10k of woven together trails and, with effort, 200 feet of cumulative climbing. Regardless, I was hooked. My body felt better, tracking distance turned to simply logging the hours, and concern for speed melted away with every step. I found pure joy in the trails. And, like many amazing things in my life, I immediately looked for how I could turn this newfound joy into a challenge that came with a near guarantee of suffering. Damn, the incessant need for balance. 

Let’s begin with Cons of trail running. There are far fewer of them than Pros, so let’s just knock them out and move on to the fun. 

Unless you’re one of the brilliant ones living with a mountain trail out your back door, and I’m looking at you Jim Smith, trails offer a few logistical dilemmas:

Cons of Trail Running:

  • While trails are everywhere, they may not be right where you are. This means adding drive time to your runs. This also means planning and coordinating… for me, the biggest drawback to any good run. 

  • Seasonal nastiness on the trail calls for more planning along with a resolute determination to throw on your Microspikes and get out the door… All year! 

  • The trails and weather at home may not at all be coordinated with the trails and weather of the race you’re traveling to run. 

  • End of Cons

Pros of Trail Running:

  • Trail running offers constantly varied terrain that challenges your body in ways that a road simply can not. It alters each step slightly, negating much of the “abuse” that comes from road running. 

  • Trails demand focus. Whether it is the assent and descent of a mountain race, the unforgiving roots of a pine forest, or the beauty of a subtly undulating urban trail, trails demand a focus leaving little space for all of the other things that life demands. 

  • Wildlife. Even on my 9 mile urban Milwaukee single track trail, very few runs pass without a deer, beaver or hawk swooping in for a meal. The wildlife I’ve seen throughout my hours on trails varies wonderfully from deer in WI, desert jack rabbits in AZ, to… share your favorite wildlife sighting while running.

  • The trail race scene is exploding. Every distance from 10k to 100+ mile are available every week around the US and world. 

  • CULTURE. Trail races do it best. If you haven’t experienced a trail race, do yourself a favor and crew a friend. The culture at a trail is unparalleled. It’s not about the ribbon, the buckle, the podium… it’s about the experience. Yes, of course there are the exceptions like Anna Frost, Jim Walmsley, Gary Robbins, Harvey Lewis, and Courtney Dauwalter, that are impossible not to root for. However, in trail running, we all start on the same gun, run the same course on the same day, and drink beer together at the finish. If I were the best Wednesday night adult league baseball player in Milwaukee, I still wouldn’t ever get to take the field with Christien Yelich. I get to do just that every time I toe the line at a trail ultra. 

I would love to hear your best and worst of trail running. Let me how trails have brought you fear,  joy, memories, and lasting friendships. Share your stories. Next month I’ll be taking a brief break from the format I’ve begun in this blog and I’ll be interviewing a couple of my very favorite trail runners. It’ll promise to be a treat to trail runners and non runners alike. I can’t wait. 


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