Day #53: Roads or Trails?

Gonna get contentious here.

What do you like better – Roads or Trails?

Let’s break this down. I have spent the vast vast majority of my time training and racing over the years on the roads. Where I grew up  – in the suburbs of Washington, DC – I simply couldn’t find dirt to run on consistently. In fact, as the years passed, and I grew more and more interested in the soft landings and enjoyable terrain of the trails, I could only find short stretches of power-line trails to suffice.

And so I loved the roads. Out of necessity, maybe. I grew to long to cruise the curb-lined neighborhood avenues near my house, cornering like a lanky race-car the tangents of my streets. I knew all of my splits and time-checks at every cross-street, and I knew the seasons’ changing aromas, lights, colors… Late at night, I loved to race atop the double-yellow lines, feeling the un-bevelled even-ness at the center of the street. And I knew well the camber on the left edge of every road – how I came to Coach Wyatt complaining of left foot pain – and he knowingly counseled me to run out on the left and come back on the right – so that the engineered slant of the pavement would balance out.

I also came to crave the hard rebound of the asphalt. Seems crazy, but the speed at which you could lift and strike and lift – and cruise down the solid surfaces – became for me akin to the love of the feel and smell of the tartan track.

On race-days, the roads were luxurious for this very same reason. They were fast – especially for those who loved to race. There was no sandy give, no wasted effort. It was all efficiency – every bit of effort pushed down on the asphalt got its fullest return.

And then there were the falls and collisions. They are much more rare on the roads than on their earthy cousins. After all, the streets are clean and smooth and made for the repetitive, unconscious, monotonous tap-tap-tap-tap of the distance runner. In some ways, I know that roads were truly created for us harriers… But when you did go down – the unfortunate byproduct of a tangle of racers legs, clipped from behind by a sloppy, maybe even a cruel, runner… you went down hard and paid for all of those clean runs for season upon season. The road, you see, does not forgive – and it eventually strikes and wreaks its damage on your muscles, tendons and, sometimes, on your bones.

And then I competed in my first trail race. I was bitten forever. The undulations, the random ups and downs, the wondrous, soft earth which embraces each step and gives to each next step. The switchbacks, the vistas – changing now not every season but every run, captured me.

I no longer long for pavement. In fact, I drive a half a mile of asphalt to get to my beloved trails – the ones I can see from my desk as I write this blog daily… Now, I avoid the roads like I do the treadmill – and the roads are truly a love only of necessity: the object of my gratitude when I am in need of their help.

Given the choice today, I always run the trails. Trails lack the formal names of streets – streets with their metal signs. My trails are marked in more ethereal ways – by reputation, by wooden signs or, best, by the well-trodden paths themselves. The trails are their own markers.

I love to run on trails for the sheer beauty of them. The way that Bishop’s Peak rises suddenly from the valley as I round the back side of Madonna – known to mountain bikers as ‘the Rock Garden.’ My trail courses in S-turns down to a dried-out creek, through a cattle fence and up a steep knoll – unless you want to take a more round-about curve to the right. And I choose daily which way to go.

After  a fair amount of trail-running, though, you are bound to crash and burn eventually. These one-man pileups are nothing compared to their biking equivalent – or even to the raspberry awarded to a fallen road-runner; they are more the stuff of “if a runner fell in the wilderness…” embarrassment. I took such a fall recently. Somehow, my concentration faltered as I ran a trail I truly can see across the lake from where I sit. One of my favorite trails, it rests at the base of a broad sweep of small mountain which rises before Madonna. Just where the trail dips into another dry stream-bed, I caught my right foot on a rock and fell into that divot. Futilely, I reached out my iPhone clutching hand to break my fall – and only shattered a bit more its recently defaced front glass. Bracing with my other hand, I took a lot of weight on my poor left pinkie. “Ugh!!” – and a couple other words:) I cried helplessly. No one was within 500 meters of me; no one noticed as I picked myself up, dusted off, squeezed my unbroken little finger into the ball of a fist and continued on. And maybe, just maybe, that is the reason I love the trails most of all these days. They are all mine.

Choose wisely!

~Coach Reed

image credit: solodialogue