A TL;DR writing about Trail vs Road Marathons
After completing our first trail marathon, and our second marathon this year, I want to take some time to reflect and to compare and contrast these two experiences. TRex has done a fine job of describing the technical details of these races in his blog posts (Mowdy and Little Rock ) and I highly recommend them for their informational and entertainment value. But I want to expound on more of the touchy feely stuff that running two marathons in less than 6 months has taught me about myself, my RS, and the major differences and commonalities of road vs trail long distances running.
First and foremost I will say without a doubt, that while trail is by far much much harder than road racing, for me personally, I far prefer it. Mainly because trails are just more fun, at least in my experience.
The trail running community is smaller and a bit more tight knit and supportive. You tend to see the same people at all the trail races and get to know them or at least their reputations around the trail heads. You greet each other warmly and wave and cheer as you pass or get passed by your fellow trail runners. You begin to really know who you are up against and learn pretty fast who you can beat and who will beat you.
Awards and giveaways tend to be more artistic and unique due to the smaller size of most trail races. They tend to be display pieces or useful in some way (coasters, bottle openers etc). With road you tend to have glitzy mass produced chunks of cast medal that only server to hang on a hook clanking against each-other like bickering siblings. Little Rock’s ginormous medal being the considerable exception due to its size.
And let’s not forget the food! There is always lots of food on the trail, often homemade food at the finish, and goodies along the way. And let’s face it, food is really why I run. I love to eat. With road races, they are typically more about speed over endurance, so sustenance is boiled down to essentials rather than provided as indulgent treats. The exception being some city vendors who want to show off their goods to a steady stream of potential customers (like delicious chocolate chunk cookies, grilled pineapple etc.); and those enthusiastic volunteers who supply Jell-O shots, Fireball, and beer at nearly every city and trail race.
Another thing that makes trail more fun is all the wildlife you get to see, such as snakes, spiders, dear, bob cats, raccoon, fox, and even Wild Mustangs; at least in OK where we run. You get to run through things like spider webs, (mostly Trex since he is taller and usually runs in front so as not to take me out when he eventually falls, and he almost always does), creeks and creek beds, rolling meadows, rocky hillsides, densely canopied wooded paths, muddy puddles etc etc. Stuff that makes your shoes dirty and you don’t see/do every day. It keeps things interesting and requires you to focus on the terrain instead of the crazy thoughts that tend to roll around in your head while you run.
Which brings me to my next reason. The mental break.
I tend to have a few mixed tapes that are my go to mental playlists when I run long distances on paved surfaces which don’t require much external focus. I tend to think about my life, my goals, past, present, and future. This can be very meditative, introspective if you will, and are frankly life saving for me as a time when I can simply sort through the chaos in my head and in my life. But depending on the day, the demands of the run, and my mood (or Trex’s) I may happen upon on a bad loop that runs like a broken record, and those can be devastating for a run mentally and physically. And there is such a time as needing a brain break, a mental shutdown, when you don’t think too much; when you can’t let your mind wander aimlessly or exert effort to figuring your life out, and those are when trail running comes to the rescue. When I just don’t want to think about sh*t.
With trail you can’t afford to get lost in your mind. You have to constantly focus on the terrain so as not to trip and fall. You can’t shut your mind off completely, but you have to focus it on doing regular assessments of how you are doing physically and then use your mental will power to push yourself when your status check comes back ‘in the red.’ I really became more intimate with this process during our Greenleaf 30K when my legs wanted to give up really early. I had to use my mind to focus on my strengths; to connect my mind and body, in a way, to override the pain signals by sending thoughts of how my muscles feel at their best. It’s hard to describe, but in essence I recall powerful feelings to replace the feelings of weakness I am experiencing when my body is strained. It requires a lot of focus and there is no room for thinking of much else in those moments because when you break focus the pain becomes overwhelming. It is a brain exercise that strengthens the mind unlike pondering how to solve world peace.
Now this ‘mind over matter’ process is something both Trail and Road have in common (for me). It was my go to process during our first marathon this year as well as during our trail marathon. It is a good skill to hone period. But with road you can also let your mind drift a bit to distract yourself from the pain, whereas you can’t do this with trail. At least I can’t that is, else I end up on the ground like Trex does when he lets his mind wander off the trail. He has told me as much.
Another major common factor I have found to be pretty much universal in trail and road long distance races is the ‘Wall’. Any time I have set out to complete a distance not yet run, (race or training) there always comes a time when I grapple with the question of my ability to go further than I have already known. Whether it be 1 mile more or 6.2, the added distance seems to boggle the mind. It’s seem also to coincide with when all the aches and pains scream loudest. The place when the battle of ‘mind over matter’ is at the pinnacle.
Now I have read this described differently, more as a generic point in every run where you simply think you can’t go further. But for me it always seems to come when I am in ‘unknown’ territory. With my very first 3 mile run as an adult, so many years ago, it was around mile 2. With my first Half Marathon it was at mile 11, (I had only trained up to mile 10). With my first marathon it was at the typical mile ’22ish’ when I was 2 miles past the furthest distance I had ever run, and felt like I had nothing left to give the next 4.2 miles. At these points all the pains seemed to mount their offensive and bombarded my senses to the point where I wanted to quit even though I had just a few miles left. It’s that point, or points in some races/training runs, where you decide you are going to finish and not quit in spite of the pain.
With trail I tend to bout this foe off and on throughout the distances, simply because the terrain is usually so very unknown. With road there isn’t much variance in what to expect. A road is a road is a road. This weekend I hit a wall very early around mile 3 when my calf decided it was not prepared for all the uneven surfaces since we hadn’t run trail in several weeks. It wadded up into a loose ball that tightened over the course making each step painful. I had to constantly send forth thoughts to try and relax the muscle groups and recall how my calf feels normally to endure. This took a ton of focus. I hit another wall at the usual mile 22, when I realized just how abnormally long it would take us to traverse (walk in this case) another 4 miles in the heat. But there was no way in hell I was giving up after so far come and knowing I had done it before, so I pushed on, and so did T.
With both Mowdy and Little Rock, battling the elements was another challenge. For Little Rock it was cold rain. For Mowdy it was the exact opposite… oppressive heat. Each made the runs far more challenging than had the weather been ideal, but for sure the heat was a more toilsome foe as it got stronger as the day went on. We had to constantly replenish water and fuels and find means to cool our core temperatures. It added nearly two hours to our road marathon time. Both races were hilly, but the added heat and rocky uneven surfaces of Mowdy made it a far more difficult race over Little Rock.
A key lesson from both. I learned during our Little Rock race just how hard the ‘walls’ can be to overcome both for myself and my partner. Mowdy was no different in that aspect, however I did learn how to avoid getting “shushed” when my partner is in the throes of his battles, and I think I was better at reading his queues as well as my own as to when to offer/ask for support. This is crucial when running with someone else. Sometimes you are the much needed voice of reason and encouragement, but sometimes you just have to know when to STFU and quietly be a source of strength or keep your whining to yourself. It is a balancing act throughout the journey to the finish, one that I believe has been my hardest but most important lesson thus far. I can’t say I have fully learned my lesson but I am well on my way.