• Russell Hill

Go Off Road, Find a Trail

Literally a change of scenery could be all you need to fall in love with running.  Undeniably, running on trails deviates from running on the road in some very distinct ways. Diverse surfaces, unexpected obstacles, and slower pace are only a few of the  differences. Invariably trail running puts stress on different parts of your body--but it’s much easier on a runner’s knees, in particular-- and includes more changes in elevation.  Even the participants and general attitude at trial races is distinct: less competitive, more collegial, better scenery. 

Organized trail running began in 1905 in Dipsea, California--just 10 years after the first Boston Marathon.  The trail runs through Muir Woods in the San Francisco bay area across trails with twisted and gnarly roots and stumps all the way to the PAcific Ocean. Dipsea has inspired a movie--” On The Edge” with Bruce Dern-- a book, and a ballad written in 1908, just three years after the inaugural race. This stanza from that ballard captures both the weakness and transcendent wonder of trail racing

Oh, it’s far to the top of the Hog’s Back Rise,

And the breathing is labored and fast.

But it's then for the cool of the ocean breeze

When the worst of the ridge is past.

I started trail running 6 years ago in 2014  by slowly starting at a local nature park and increasing my miles slowly but surely, little by little. I soon realized that running on trails did something mentally that I never quite got from road running: something intangible, almost dreamlike. Runner’s high? Maybe. There is a serenity that comes with trail running. It's more than being outside, enjoying nature--although it is that, too. There’s something both mysterious and exhilarating about not being able to see around the next corner, about taking each bend in the road as it comes, about not worrying  where the road leads but simply enjoying the journey.  

 A good run on trails is very much like a meditation.  It helps that when I am out in the woods I can forget all other demands and constraints that vie for my mental attention. My mind can either wander, or tackle a problem, or venture into creative mode. It is like a runner’s high on steroids with a side of zen.  

Running legend Scott Jurek described trail running this way in his book Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness

 “I'm convinced that a lot of people run ultramarathons for the same reason they take mood-altering drugs. I don't mean to minimize the gifts of friendship, achievement, and closeness to nature that I've received in my running career. But the longer and farther I ran, the more I realized that what I was often chasing was a state of mind - a place where worries that seemed monumental melted away, where the beauty and timelessness of the universe, of the present moment, came into sharp focus.” 

Both Trail running and Ultra running have had a dramatic increase in participation and popularity over the last decade.  In some cases, it is therapy. For others, it is an addiction.  “It’s a mental illness- plain and simple-- if you ask me,” Dome one of my running buddies repeats often. Trail runners and ultra runners--an ultra race officially is anything longer than a marathon--are not always the same group of runners but there is a certain amount of crossover between these two types of running.  Both go for distance in a more  natural terrain, but obviously the distances vary and the training requirements vary. Having done both types, I’d  say: so does the enjoyment.  

Trail running is more than a change  of pace or place. It's also a change of mindset. Research in a growing scientific field called ecotherapy has shown a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.

"Many people are at higher risk for mood disorders as they age, from dealing with sudden life changes like health issues, the loss of loved ones, and even job changes," says Dr. Jason Strauss, director of geriatric psychiatry at Harvard-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance. "They may not want to turn to medication or therapy for help, and for many, interacting with nature is one of the best self-improvement tools they can use."

Looking for a simple way to help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, and maybe even improve your enjoyment of life? Take a walk in the woods. Then, pick up the pace a little and try trail running. It’ll be good for your heart, your health, and your happiness. 

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