Negotiating Rough Trails | August 19, 2012
Ultrarunning is pretty much synonymous with trail running and trail running is often synonymous with rough trail running. Where’s the fun in trotting down a well groomed, smooth trail anyway? It’s picking your way over fifty miles of steep drops, snarky roots, jumbles of loose rock, mud and sand, deep ruts, and stair step boulders that really makes an ultra an epic adventure. But like anything, practice makes perfect, and perfecting your rough trail running skills will lead to better racing and might just save you an unpleasant trip to the hospital.
Ironically, your primary tool in negotiating rough trail is not some fancy foot maneuver, it is your mind. You need to be diligent and pay close attention to what you’re doing when running a technical trail. Sure there will be long stretches of obstacle free trail where you can let your mind wander and take in all the sights. You don’t want to be looking down at your feet all the time anyway, but as soon as the trail turns nasty, you need to snap your attention back to your feet. Scan the trail a few yards ahead to identify the obstacles and pick a line through them. Focus your attention closer in as you approach something that you need to avoid. When you encounter a really rough area, slow down and get super focused and alert about where your feet are going and what line you need to take, but at the same time, stay as relaxed and loose as possible. Cut your stride down so you are taking quick, nimble steps and keep your weight over your feet so you stay balanced and ready to spring this way and that as the trail dictates.
When you do go to clear an obstacle, be sure to pick your feet up enough to clear it comfortably. It’s easy to misjudge just a bit and cause a faceplant, especially later in the race when you’re tired and not as alert. Avoid if you can stepping directly on things like downed branches, logs, rocks that could totter, or wet surfaces in general. Logs can be unbelievably slippery as can wet rocks or wet planks of wood. Use extra caution at stream crossings. If there are a line of rocks there that are high and dry and look stable, you might be perfectly safe using them to cross and stay dry. But if you have to jump to get to a rock or if the rocks shift or are partially submerged to begin with, you might as well just wade across rather than risk a fall, or worse, damaging an ankle. And while you’re wading across, look down into the water to see if you can spot large rocks in your path. Submerged rocks are going to be very slippery so try to avoid them.
It’s a classic maneuver in ultrarunning to concentrate your way through miles of very gnarly trail and then take a huge fall on a relatively smooth stretch that has only intermittent obstacles because you let your mind wander. A case in point happened to me during the Firetrails 50 in the East Bay Area of San Francisco a couple of years ago. Coming down a long switchback, I felt safe enough on the hardpacked, narrow trail that was smooth except for a few rocks embedded here and there in the dirt. Sections of the trail, though, were covered by dried up grass and weeds left over from the spring’s exuberant growth. One patch of grass hid an embedded rock and naturally I tripped over it. Suddenly I was propelled forward like I’d been shot out of a cannon. I was left with two possibilities: one was the tuck and roll.
Several years before in Big Basin State Park just north of Santa Cruz, California, I’d seen the tuck and roll in action. Near the start of the race, I was in a conga line of runners slamming down a very rough trail next to a stream when the guy in front of me tripped and went flying. My instant thought was that several of us were going to pile up on top of him, but the guy went into a neat tuck and roll and miraculously shot back up to his feet in front of me almost in full stride. I was thinking for a while that I was running behind the world’s greatest combination runner gymnast, when another runner went down and pulled off exactly the same thing. Now in close order I did see another runner slam into the upslope of a rise in the trail—no tuck and roll there—and we passed another guy limping back to the start, so not everybody was getting off lightly but it sure demonstrated how effective the tuck and roll could be.
Back at Firetrails, however, I did not tuck and roll. I went for the other possibility which was to speed up my leg turnover to try and get my feet back under me. Unfortunately my weight had lurched too far forward and in speeding up I only managed to crash that much harder on my chest when I went down with my legs flying up behind me. Such was the reward for letting my concentration wander.
Another time I was killing a short but very hilly seven mile trail race where I had always dreamed of going under one hour. With about a quarter mile to go, I looked down at my watch and saw I still had a chance. I was sprinting down the trail and had my focus on a dry creek bed that I knew I would soon have to drop into when I totally missed a rock right in front of me that was half buried in the trail. I hit it with the inside edge of my left foot at full stride with all my weight bearing down on that foot and it popped my ankle something awful. Instead of breaking an hour, I had to DNF and go straight to the emergency room.
To prepare yourself for racing over technical trails, find some similarly difficult trails in your area where you can do some of your workouts. Practice your technique of focusing in on obstacles and picking your line through them. Dial in picking up your feet high when stepping over things. Speed through some sections to really tax your ability to keep up with your feet dancing through the rocks. When you slow down to your normal pace, you’ll feel more relaxed and confident. A technical trail will work your stabilizing muscles hard, and you will find the effort to run down the trail will peak with rough spots and then diminish when the trail smooths out. Getting used to these additional stresses on your muscles and the ebb and flow rhythm of running down a rough trail will ward off big surprises on race day. And if you get the chance be sure to tackle your practice trails in wet conditions to see how the mud and the slippery surfaces change things.
You often hear the expression in ultrarunning, “If you look up, you’re going down!” Your job is to hone your rough trail running technique to the point where it is always the other runner who is demonstrating whatever truth there is in that expression.