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Running Outside the Box

08/12/2011

The box is my neighborhood. And even though we runners call it a “loop,” if you ever mapped out the course you run through town, it is shaped like a box. Streets were not designed with runners in mind (all curved right-hand turns, wood chipped sidewalks, and a gentle downhill slope would be optimal). Most times we don’t realize how square (interpret both physically and figuratively) our daily runs are because they are convenient, safe, and accurately measured, and we are creatures of habit. But then you run on a trail, in the woods, up hills and over logs and you realize it’s time to bust out of the box.

There is nothing, NOTHING, that compares to the feeling of trail running. I’m talking real trail running–on dirt, grass, wood chips, gravel, sand, mud. Pavement and concrete do not apply–they are strictly relegated to the parking lot. When I run on trails (the number of times I could probably count on one hand since hanging up my cross-country spikes in 1995) I feel like I am flying. Even with the risky footing, I can’t help but kick it up a notch. The effort is effortless as I traipse through the woods like an overgrown kid. It can best be described as exhilarating.

And all trail runners share this joy. They cannot stop smiling as they power up rocky inclines and leap over giant tree roots. Compared them to the road runner who has a permanent grimace of pain on his face and an expletive for every garbage can or skateboard left blocking his path. But don’t underestimate this kinder, gentler running disposition. Trail runners are pretty badass. They traverse terrain that would make the best road racer huff and puff. Trail events are rarely 5K–they are double, triple, and many times quintuple that amount with the increasingly popular 50K distance. If you were to make a Venn Diagram of the trail running and ultra running communities, the two circles would almost completely overlap. So just because trail runners appear to be an eclectic group, with bandanna headbands and pockets stuffed with PB&J sandwiches, they’ll kick your butt. Do not be fooled by the homemade organic granola.

I’ve been itching to transition into this happy-go-lucky world of trail running for some time but was stymied by location, location, location. Sure Long Island and Philadelphia featured some old school trails, but they were by no means local. It was at least a 20 minute drive to the closest with most trail beds a good 45-60 minutes away. But up yonder, way way yonder, in Rochester/Western New York there are trails-a-plenty. And multiple trail running groups. And an extraordinary amount of cross-country races for those whose high school days are tucked firmly behind them. So among the list of move-in priorities, sandwiched between paint the dining room and paint the kitchen, was “get in on this trail running action.”

Yesterday I managed to suppress my anti-social tendencies and met up with a trail running group from Medved, a running and walking store in Rochester. The group meets Thursday evenings at 6:00 from March through September. Each week is run at a different park so you really get a chance to see the variety of local trails. Last night we met at Cobb Hill. It is located just off the 490 and took me about 10 minutes to get there even during the rush hour. Assembled was a group of 15 runners or so, all varying in age, experience, and ability. There were a few hydration packs, a couple of Garmins, but NO iPods which made me immediately endeared these strangers to me.

We started with a 5 minute warmup, looping around the base of the hill. The “leader” Dennis pointed out the start and finish of the park’s official cross-country course and gave us a brief description of the area we would be covering. We then double backed to the start and made our first pass up the hill. The hill was pretty big and all grass which is tougher to run on than pavement. I was definitely breathing hard when I hit the top. The group stopped to wait for everyone to catch up. My competitive side was a little annoyed to be stopping just 10 minutes into the run, but I did think it was nice to wait for everyone before heading into the trails and if I were a novice runner I would haved especially appreciated this gesture. Finally(!) we headed into the woods. Ahhhh! We twisted up and around the park, jumping, climbing, and carefully descending nature’s obstacles. My legs that felt heavy during our warmup now felt amazing! There were 7 in the lead pack and I was happy to see that 3 of us were women. Girl power!

After a bit we stopped to regroup and there was a little chit-chat. This time I didn’t mind the break–not because I was tired but because trail running melts my cold, unfriendly heart. We headed downhill and out of the trail to circle the base of the hill again. Dennis joked about going back up the hill, but when two of the guys decided to actually go for a second climb OF COURSE I peeled off from the group and went with them. It was definitely a lot harder the second time up, but when I reached the top I felt crazy badass. We took a hairpin downhill to meet the rest of the group (the less insane) who opted to finish the run on flat land. In total we covered a little over 4 fun miles.

When we reached the parking lot about half the group said their good-byes while the rest stayed to watch the race that would be starting soon. I figured I had time to watch the start and head home. Dennis and I chatted about the local cross-country scene and my marathon conundrum. He recommended I hook up with the Oven Door Runners, a group of long distance runners that meet every Saturday morning. Their runs range from 12 to 20 miles and are usually off the beaten path. He had a lot of great information about races and training groups, particularly trail running. I learned that Medved is also big into snowshoeing so I am excited to try that this winter. All in all it was a good night and I am really glad that I sucked it up and went–even though it meant talking to people. I will definitely join them again when we get back from The Macaulay Family Vacation at Keuka Lake.

Thursday’s Workout:
Trail Run 38:23/approx 4.3 miles

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