Last month I flew out to Honolulu to try my first ever Xterra trail race – the Xterra 21k trail World Championships at Kualoa ranch on Oahu. The course had about 3000’ of vertical gain over 13.3 miles with plenty of mud, slipping, and gorgeous views. For those of you who have never been to Hawaii, this is the famous park where Jurassic Park and Pearl Harbor were filmed which meant plenty of tourists spectating throughout the course. The race went off at 9am on Sunday, December 2nd. It was about 75 degrees and 80% humidity with some cloud cover. All 13.3 miles were sloppy but absolutely BREATHTAKING. I would highly encourage a trip to Hawaii to run this course (and take a little vacation afterwards).
I placed 7th overall! Not bad, especially for someone who only recently switched over from road racing to trail racing. Here are some of my biggest tips for making the transition yourself:
Get a Good Coach
If you’re thinking about making the jump from road to trail, I recommend getting a knowledgeable coach or joining a trail running group initially. It is helpful to have the guidance and oversight of someone – a coach or group of friends – that has been in the trail world for several years. They can teach you the running techniques, limits of your body, form over the technical terrain, racing strategies, etc. I choose to connect with my former college friends, David and Megan Roche, who started telling me all about their trail running philosophy and their team of athletes also known as the SWAP Adventure Team. I joined SWAP shortly thereafter, and it has been priceless. Between Megan and David’s advice and the SWAP community, I have had every question answered from which shoes to train in to how to hold a handheld bottle during a race.
Change your Lingo
My definition of “elevation gain” quickly changed from the couple hundred feet that I climbed during the course of a marathon at CIM to 1000s of feet during my first trail race this February. I also quickly learned that most people in the trail running world don’t say “elevation gain” It is “vert” or “vertical gain”. However, not all trail races and runs are hilly. There are a variety of courses with varying levels of vertical gain to suite anyone. There are courses and terrains out there that have less vert than road races and some that require power hiking for nearly the entire way. Try a little bit of everything and see what type of vertical gain and terrain you like best.
I am a very stubborn human being and thought trail shoes were something people just preferred over road shoes. Maybe the colors were better? Those little stub things on the bottom were cool? Wrong. Very Wrong. They do have a purpose. I learned this after slipping, sliding and falling way too many times to want to actually tell anybody. Trail shoes provide traction and the much-needed stability for any terrain including good grip to make those steep descents just a little easier. After trying out a few different models, I am now a Hoka Speedgoat convert for my trail and mountain running adventures and have never looked back. There are plenty shoe types and companies out there for trail running with varying levels of grip, traction, and cushion to find one that best meets your trail running goals.
Of course don’t forget a piece of performance headwear to match, and to protect yourself from the harsh sun. Many elite races, like Xterra, are in tropical and hot places and require the right protection on race day. Be smart about heat exhaustion and skin protection by wearing adequate sunscreen and protective headwear! From race hats and visors to beanies to truckers, Headsweats as anything you need to keep a cool (or warm) and dry head during your runs.
Walking is A-OK
If you’re coming from a road running or track background, you have probably never walked in a race as a winning strategy. In the MUT (Mountain-Ultra-Trail) world, it’s totally normal to walk in a race especially in ones with several thousand feet of vertical gain. It helps to prevent the body from going lactic as quickly on very steep course and keeps the heart rate lower. However, it’s definitely not walking. It’s called “power hiking.” That is the preferred and much more accurate term.
The first time I ran a real mountain race was the 2018 Long Distance Mountain Running World championships in Poland. There was two miles of uphill granite stairs that I attempted to power hike and got passed by nearly half the field (or that’s what it felt like over just a two mile period). After that, I pledged to get on the Stairmaster and fine tune my hiking/power walking/climbing skills. Lesson = Power hiking is an art that needs to be practiced and perfected for race day. It IS a winning strategy in some trail races.
If you decide to enter the MUT world, prepare to get lost AT LEAST in every few races you do. Running a trail race in the middle of nowhere often means looking for markers on trees or on the ground AND staying focused the entire time which means it is much easier to get lost versus during a road race with 1000s of other people beside you all going the same direction. You should be prepared to study the course map and don’t plan on just following the person in front of you because trail races tend to spread out much more quickly than road races. Listen to the instructions on which markers to follow and where they might be located. I learned this lesson the hard way. I got lost during one of my first trail races assuming I would just “follow the pack”. Well there was no one around me so I eventually got lost in the middle of Utah with no phone service. I did find my way on course after a few miles and am still alive to tell the tale today. Luckily.
With that, I realize that trail running is not for everyone. It takes a special kind of person to want to risk getting lost in the woods, climbing up rocks, flying down loose gravel and hauling mile after mile in the great outdoors. Find the sport that is right for your body, your interests, and your lifestyle and you’ll be able to push beyond the limits that you ever thought possible.
Ashley Brasovan, 2018 Headsweats Ambassador