When I began trail running seriously and set out to research and read as much as I could about the subject, one thing that puzzled me somewhat were all these references to ‘Technical Trails’.
I couldn’t quite reconcile the term ‘Technical’ with my own experience of wilderness paths and wild landscapes. My background is mechanical engineering and when Anton Krupicka or Scott Jurek and all the others talked of epic races on extremely technical courses I had visions of canyons and mountain trails installed with box girder bridges, luminescent trail markings and ‘American Ninja’ style obstacles.
It took me a while to figure out that ‘Technical’ is just a euphemism for what I have always known as ‘Gnarly’. After that it made a bit more sense. I guess my problem with the term is that it’s pretty broad and not really terribly descriptive. ‘Technical’ on its own doesn’t give me a good mental picture of what to expect from a trail in terms of the type of terrain, surface, weather or difficulty.
So, much like the Inuit have dozens of words that categorise every possible type of snow and the 200 or more types of rain catalogued by Rob McKenna, (The ‘Rain God’ trucker from Douglas Adams’ book ‘So Long and Thanks for All the Fish’) I’ve come up with my own lexicon of trail characteristics that I will now share in part.
Pay attention, there may be a quiz later.
Rough uneven surface comprised of tree roots, small rocks, potholes or other ground level impediments to smooth running.
As per ‘Gnarly’, but more so.
Face plant or butt slide highly likely
Tuck & Roll
Kiss your sorry ankles goodbye.
This is going to really sting in a minute when the surprise wears off…
Extremely muddy – this may take a while
Graveyard of expensive shoes.
Snorkel and/or snowshoes may be required.
One or more streams or small rivers – cross with caution
White water, waterfalls or large pools
Look out for fast moving boulders and large bits of tree.
The washing machine
Don’t panic, hold your breath and work out where ‘up’ is.
A bit slippery.
Wet clay, leaves etc.
I have a bad feeling about this…
Bare and exposed. No shade
Endless dunes marching into the mirage-filled distance as the detritus of lost civilisations collects in the toes of your burning shoes.
Arid post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Nothing for it but to become a nihilistic road warrior.
Considerable change in elevation.
Very steep and somewhat scary
Sherpas and the establishment of a base camp may be required
Absolutely terrifying vertical nightmare
Wingsuit recommended for descent
Otherwise, don’t. Just… Don’t.
Here be Dragons
Abandon all hope, ye who enter.
In addition to the handy adjectives above you may also wish to add one of the following modifiers to enhance your description:
Leaves no doubt about the scale of your description
‘Total’ x 100.
Because sometimes one just isn’t enough.
As you can no doubt tell, this glossary is both highly descriptive and potentially quite useful. The terms may also be combined to round out the picture.
For example, “Ultimate Mammoth Ultra-slick Gnarly Bastard of a Soggy Bog-monster”.
Let’s face it, ‘Technical’ just doesn’t tell quite the same story.
The Way of the Trail
I can’t claim to be an expert, on trail running technique, but as a result of growing up surrounded by bush, I’ve developed a few general skills that work reasonably well for me in moving fast across gnarly ground without serious injury.
So, with that in mind, here’s a few simple guidelines for trail running that may come in handy and that you can treasure and pass down to your descendants.
- Maintain your speed, lest the earth arise and smite thee.
There is stability in motion. Ever try a slow race on a bike – to see who can go the slowest without actually stopping? You wobble a lot more the slower you go.
On a gnarly downhill track, I’ve found that it’s usually better not to fight the hill by trying to use the legs to slow down. You’ll kill your leg muscles fighting gravity and momentum. Stay upright over your feet, keep moving and control your descent by zig zags, hopping from side to side or shortening your stride (but keep up the cadence).
Do not try to stop at speed by grabbing a tree or other inanimate solid object. (Like a fence post or race marshal). Momentum is not your friend in this situation.
Similarly, on boulders and stream crossings, try and get a flow going over the rocks and keep moving. If you put your foot down on a rock and it wobbles, stopping suddenly on that unstable platform isn’t likely to improve matters.
- Nothing but air…
Sometimes it’s better just to get airborne, get your feet under you and pick a better landing spot. If you have to jump, try to land with your weight over your feet and land two footed where you can, absorbing a bit with bent knees. Your ankles will thank you. Landing with one leg extended and your weight either too far forward or back is a good way to tear sinewy things in your lower legs.
When you land, lean into it if possible and keep the motion going rather than coming to a complete stop.
Way back when, in a parachute landing roll I was taught to land falling forward or backward in a controlled fashion so that the impact is dissipated in redirected motion, rather than pushing the ankles up through the knees. This is similar in that you want to turn your momentum from the jump into a launch pad for your next stride, rather than kill it.
It does require that you keep your eyes open in flight and know what is about to follow that first step though.
Which brings us to…
- Look where you are going, not where you aren’t…
It sounds kind of simplistic, but your feet will go where your eyes are tracking. So don’t look at obstacles, instead look for the magical hidden pathway that threads through them.
If you keep looking at a rock or root, you’re going to hit it.
Don’t look at your feet, but rather keep your head up and stay frosty.
I usually try and keep scanning continuously a few meters ahead while constantly updating my projected path, particularly when moving fast. The feet will take care of themselves and peripheral vision will deal with anything close.
Focus too close in and your run becomes a continual progression of panicked last second reactions.
- “Destiny in motion, hit me from behind…”
(The Satellite Spies from 1985 – Sorry, it kept running through my head while writing this. Damn earworms!)
If you are following someone down a steep narrow track, give them a few meters so that if they go down you have time to react and if you are the one to take a fall you don’t end up unintentionally in an embarrassingly intimate encounter. You can burn past them later when you have more room.
- Fall not upon the hands…
If you find yourself tripping and falling, one of the worst ways to land is with outstretched hands in an attempt to break your fall. It’s usually more than your fall that’s going to do the breaking. FOOSH (Fall Over Onto Out Stretched Hand) injuries are common to snow boarders, roller bladers and the elderly.Don’t. Do. It.The tracks are rough and we generally don’t plan our falls conveniently so you often won’t have time to react much, but if you can take it on forearms and sides of the hand (not wrist or elbow) or rolling off the butt cheek and thigh, it will still hurt but you have a better chance of avoiding serious harm.
At various times in my miss-spent youth, I’ve done bits and pieces of gymnastics, Karate and parachuting, so have picked up one or two transferrable skills along the way that can be useful in these circumstances. Here’s a few pointers.
Firstly, try to avoid landing on spine, joints, tail bone, face, head and neck. Stay compact and try make sure you don’t leave a limb behind at an awkward angle.
If you’re falling forwards and not moving too fast, put out both forearms as if for a plank. Kick your legs back at least shoulder width wide and lift up onto your toes so your soft bits don’t slam into the ground. Turn your head to the side so you don’t break your face. The hands should hit the ground in the karate chop or vertical fist position at the same time as the outsides of your forearms. Practice this one on sand. It hurts a whole lot less!
Or, rather than toppling and face planting, if you know you’re going down then letting the legs collapse under you into a kind of controlled sprawl that lessens the impact can be an option.
If you are going fast downhill and have the opportunity, drop your arm, tuck in the chin and roll across the back of your shoulder and diagonally across the back onto your opposite butt cheek and the outside of the thigh. With a bit of luck your pack will take some of the impact and you can slap the ground with your forearm and bounce back to your feet running for a +2 coolness bonus. (OK, maybe practice that one a bit first).
At the very least, converting momentum into a roll or tumble of some kind across the meatier bits of the body is preferable to sudden hard impact on a comparatively brittle bit. Cuts and bruises usually heal faster than bones and torn stringy bits.
Having said all this if the trail is covered in roots or boulders and you go down fast and awkwardly then no matter what, it’s still going to hurt a lot.
You may still break something, but you can at least try to minimise the damage.
- Beware the trappings of civilization.
The worst falls I’ve had on trails have all been on artificial surfaces. Greasy stair risers catching a heel, slimy duckboards (particularly with metal gratings), metal plates and mossy concrete are the enemy of trail shoes. Take it very carefully on these bits.
- Pay attention to business.
Running fast down gnarly trails requires concentration.
It can be quite a challenge to maintain that level of focus for an extended period and when it starts to slip is when bad things can happen. Recognising this and dialling back a bit on the intensity from time to time will keep you moving smoothly along.
The more you practice, the more second nature it becomes and you can then relax a little.Talking and letting yourself get distracted is another one that happens to me all the time, usually when I’m busy pointing out what an awesome trail runner I am.
- Pick your time and place
There are places where you can really open the taps and go for it and places where that would be a really, really bad idea. Parts of Te Henga are so narrow my big feet don’t fit on the trail together and there are places where the apparently solid toetoe clumps beside the track are growing over empty air.
If you are tired and distracted at the end of a long haul, then this is not the place to be showboating. The margins for error are a lot less.
- Don’t be Evil
Be nice to hikers, other runners, residents and other users of the Hillary. It’s a race, but it’s their trail too.
Be especially nice to the marshals and race officials. They are indeed awesome.
Use the Trigene stations for Kauri Dieback control. All of them. Without fail.
Stay on the track and follow the race rules.
Let the Race directors and/or DOC staff know if you see people behaving dangerously or inappropriately on the trail.
Finally, and most importantly, if you see someone in difficulty then offer what assistance you can. It could be you one day.
- Have fun!
Trail running is almost the most fun you can have with a pair of shoes on.
You are out there in some of the most beautiful wild places to be found anywhere with the sole purpose of hooning around like a hyper-active mountain goat with a great bunch of like-minded lunatics.In the middle of a race, you may not fully appreciate it, but when you get to the end and still have all that finisher’s high thing going on; in the words of Matthew Inman (aka ‘The Oatmeal’) in his awesome cartoon book ‘The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances’:
“Do, hang out in the recovery area and chat up the happiest bunch of physically battered people you’ll ever meet.
Do, ignore all the warning signs that something horribly traumatic has just happened to your body.
Do, forget every single second of agony, frustration and melancholy that has plagued you over the last few hours.
Do this with food in your face and a gleam in your eye.
Do all of these things and then go enthusiastically sign up for another race.”