5 Things You Should Know Before Your First Trail Race


Last weekend, I ran a half marathon … on a trail … in the middle of Wisconsin. What’s more is that several crazies (read: running heroes) ran either a FULL marathon, 50K(!) or 50-miler(!!) there the day before. The race was part of The North Face Endurance Challenge Series, and they weren’t kidding about the “challenge” part.

I’m a Chicagoan, so I’m ALWAYS surprised when I come into contact with elevation (you’d think that I would get over it by now, but nope, I assure you I have not). I also do not have much experience on trails, so this half marathon was easily one of the hardest courses I’ve done.

Yes, it was challenging. Yes, I wanted to quit several times throughout it. Yes, it was a total mental battle whenever I turned the corner to see another hill ahead of me. And yes, it also made me feel like a total badass #TrailWarrior!

However, I’ll be the first to admit it: I was ill-prepared. I signed up for the half marathon because it fit in well with my marathon training schedule. I didn’t think much about the “trail” piece until, say, two miles into the course when I was genuinely worried I was going to sprain an ankle and wondering where the hell the next water stop was (spoiler alert: not for another four miles).

So if you’re thinking about hitting the trails for a race, here’s five things you need to know before you go.

1. You WILL be slower – and hey, that’s ok

There’s three main reasons why you will be slower on the trails than you normally are on the road: (1) you will need to be more careful with your footing, especially if you aren’t gifted with grace (2) holy hills, Batman! (3) the terrain (grass, sand, rocks, dirt) will likely be more difficult to run on than your usual jaunt on the sidewalk.

Know this going in and be kind to yourself. The trail race is a mental rollercoaster, and the last thing you need to add on top of that is worrying too much about your pace. You will mostly likely won’t be achieving a personal record on a trail course, but to make up for that you should …

2. Prepare to soak in the scenery

Enjoy the course and your moments to connect with nature. I appreciate road races in cities just as much as the next person, but there’s something to be said about running through perfect rows of beautiful pine trees and feeling some seriously fresh oxygen hit your lungs. When it gets hard (and it will get hard), just take a deep breath and look around. This is what the sport is all about – getting the chance to deeply connect yourself with everything around you, if only for a few fleeting moments.


3. The scenery, however, isn’t very GPS-friendly sometimes

My (usually trustworthy) GPS watch was all sorts of confused. My first mile was pretty accurate, but everything after mile one was a big fat question mark. I could do some quick math when I saw mile markers (how many miles I’ve ran divided by total running time on my watch = my pace), but I mainly just let it go and ran by feel. Admittedly, not being able to check my watch to get an accurate read on my pace was almost a welcomed relief.

4. Aid stations are few and far-between

… but they usually have some pretty good food to make up for it. I had a minor panic attack the morning of the race when I realized that I was all out of GU chews and Clif shot bloks (I thought I had a lifetime supply stocked up by now, turns out I was wrong). When we finally hit the first aid station at mile six, I was relieved to see they had a plethora of nutrition options, including chews and gels. According to more-seasoned trail veteran Brie Hemmingway, she’s even seen trail runs boasting M&Ms, chips, cookies and watermelon at their aid stations.

Since the trail is sometimes very narrow and hard to access, it’s not easy for race management to set up many aid stations throughout the course. Before your race, make sure you know where to expect the aid stations to be and plan accordingly – this might mean bringing a water bottle or belt for your first few miles.

5. Ideally, the trail race won’t be your first time out on the trails

Tim Murphy (co-founder of Bibrave.com) forewarns, “Don’t let the race be your first time running on trails! Find a way to spend some time on single track trails beforehand. Your ankles (and knees and hips) will thank you, and you’ll enjoy the race a lot more.”

It’s also important to break in your kicks beforehand if you decide to invest in trail running shoes. For some trail races, you can certainly get away with running in normal road running shoes. It’s in your best interest to find out how technical the course is and figure out if trail running shoes are a good investment for you to make ahead of time.

Other tidbits of advice before hitting the trails from other runners:

“Investigate the trail marking system beforehand!” – Julia Montag

“You don’t have to dodge cars, just be on the lookout for a wild animal.” – Angie Maske-Berka

“Take the slower pace as a chance to enjoy the scenery and watch your footing!” – Jeremy Heath


Do you have any to add? Leave them in the comments below, we’d love to hear them!

Endurance Move

About Cass Gunderson

Cass hails from the southwest suburbs as a proud White Sox fan and a graduate of University of Illinois. By day, Cass is a full-time student at the University of Chicago's Booth Graduate Business School. Before deciding to throw away all her money to go back to school, Cass worked for a private equity firm that buys technology companies. Raised as the youngest in a family of older brothers, Cass grew up a tomboy and remains active in sports. To her mother’s satisfaction, Cass learned how to embrace her feminine side in college and has developed an interest for fitness activities that require spandex as opposed to knee-length basketball shorts. In her spare time, she runs a lot because it is cheaper than paying for real therapy. Cass has completed four marathons and one ultramarathon (she claims she'll never do this to herself again, but that's TBD). She can still be found on the basketball courts in Lincoln Park wearing knee-length basketball shorts.

2 thoughts on “5 Things You Should Know Before Your First Trail Race

  1. Great list. I want to get into trail running, because I think it would be a lot of fun and I really enjoy the outdoors / woods. I was a boy scout in my younger days, so love those kind of trails. Definitely would have not trouble soaking in the scenery. Thanks for sharing.

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