[Editor’s Note: It is with pleasure that we introduce another new column for this year: ‘Blazing the Trail,’ by Rhielle Widders. Rhielle, the founder of a successful introductory trail running race series in Utah, is an expert in helping new trail runners acclimate to life on the trail. We hope that, with this column, she will not only connect you with the info you need to trail run comfortably but also to our community. Welcome and enjoy!]
I’d like to invite you to come on a trail run with me. I feel that my list of credentials is sufficient for you to trust me but I couldn’t always claim this. There was a time when I should have given all my friends fair warning before stepping foot onto the trail with me. There was a time when I had a false sense of confidence and our journeys into the wild were sometimes, let’s just say, super memorable. Just like any other lessons learned in life, we can look back on our early experiences and appreciate the early bobbles and wobbles. I appreciate that all I came away with is a few scars and some great stories. Let me share some of them with you so you will trust me when I ask you to come over and play.
Trail running is in my blood. I started back when trail shoes were just a concept, how-to books weren’t on the radar, and trail running retreats were called high-school cross-country training camps. I started running trails with my high school cross-country team. We would run a mile from school to the mouth of Provo Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah and then play around on the deer trails of Timpanogos and Cascade Mountains looking for waterfalls before stopping at the Provo River where we would ice our legs and run back to school, pink-legged and shivering.
Starting my trail running career during my formative years assisted in developing the ease and comfort I now experience while trail running. Don’t get me wrong, I am not putting myself in the elite category and I will likely never claim any FKTs but I have never consciously had to overcome those initial obstacles of starting out, “What if I get lost?” “What happens if I fall?” “Does running uphill suck this much for everyone?” Instead of navigating those barriers to entry on my own, I started as a sophomore running with the juniors and seniors who had been running in the foothills of the Wasatch for a few years and carried with them the knowledge of the students who came before them. It was as if I was learning the old-fashioned way, from generational knowledge being passed down through experience. These experts were my trail guides and they taught me to navigate the terrain and technicality of our local mountains. It never occurred to me that this was not common knowledge, a lesson I would learn, apparently over and over again, in the coming years.
The first time I remember taking on the role of ‘guide’ was shortly after high school. I assumed that my countless hours trail running and solo-backpacking overnighters had prepared me to take a co-worker backpacking on an overnight adventure. I thought that I had the skill set to take a rookie out for her first wilderness experience and I explained to her that I had EVERYTHING she could possibly need and could borrow my gear; read: my dad had everything she could possibly need. I rummaged through my dad’s camping gear and found a sleeping bag, mat, and a 1979 external-frame backpack for her to borrow and packed up all the gear we would need for 24 hours in the mountains.
In preparation for taking a rookie out, I had chosen a camp spot from one of my favorite runs, just about three miles away from the trailhead. Upon arrival, we threw down our packs and I pulled out the tent to pitch it. Only, it wasn’t a tent. I had accidentally grabbed my dad’s Kelty sun shade, which is basically a giant umbrella that stakes into the ground. Instead of running home and back quickly to exchange the sun shade for the tent, I convinced her that sleeping under the stars was much more fun. When she expressed concern about bugs and critters, I improvised by explaining, “Bugs won’t come out at night because it will be too cold,” clearly a bold-faced lie told in the face of adversity. We both slept peacefully until we were awakened by the glory of a giant full moon rising into the nighttime sky.
We woke the next morning bright eyed and bushy tailed. I cooked up a pot of instant oatmeal and hot cocoa and we talked about how glad we were that the tent had turned out to be a sun shade so we could see the moon rise. We ate our breakfast in silence as we watched the hot air balloons of a local festival rise from the best vista around.
Lessons learned: #1–Check your gear twice, and then again. When it still hits the fan, improvise. #2–Trail knowledge can be gained from many types of trail experiences.
That reminds me of this other time, in high school actually, when I decided to recruit some friends to run up to a peak for Fourth of July fireworks. Seeing all the fireworks displays within 25 miles from a single spot seemed like the best way to spend the evening. To make it even more fun, everyone brought a snack to share and we made a potluck picnic out of it. I actually hauled a big watermelon, a cutting board, and a giant watermelon-carving knife up to the top with me. Ain’t no thang! We parked at a cemetery a portion of the way up the mountain to eliminate a bit of the vert (did I mention I was carrying a watermelon?) and headed up. The fireworks were amazing and the watermelon absolutely hit the spot. Unfortunately, upon returning back to our cars and driving down the road, we found we had been gated in. The local cemetery caretaker came speeding up the road, yelling about trespassing and cops. Sure enough, about 10 minutes later, the police showed up and asked for everyone’s story and ID. Luckily, Mr. Police was able to calm Mr. Caretaker. He explained that there was no intent to trespass and was able to convince the caretaker not to press charges.
Lesson learned: Just because you are headed out on a trail where your spirit is free, your car and very presence may be considered a menace. Be mindful of private property and trailhead-access rules.
Fast forward a few years to perhaps my biggest and worst trail learning experience. I had finished my years of collegiate running and was yearning for the camaraderie that comes from everyone kicking their own butts out on the trails together. Some people (finger pointed squarely at myself here) have a hard time moving on and I was aching for a trail running vacation with all my running buddies. In an effort to find that happy place again, I invited one of my girlfriends on a trip to Durango and Telluride, in Colorado, for what I had dubbed ‘cross-country camp.’ I had just purchased my first tent and my parents had given me my first camp stove as a holiday gift eight months prior. I was anxious to give my new gear a nice, solid use. We made some basic preparations based on the limited information we could find on the internet. Then we packed our gear, checked it twice, and took off for week of running.
Upon arriving in Durango, we hit up the local outdoor store to shop for new beanies and to ask for a map of the local trails. I naively explained to the store clerk, “We are excellent runners from the Wasatch. Yup, we can probably handle just about anything you throw at us. Just show us your favorite stuff on your favorite map and we will take it from there.” He handed us maps, showed us trails, and casually mentioned a 15-ish mile race called the Kennebec Mountain Run going on the following morning. We pressed for more information and he mentioned that the race has quite a bit of vert but it is mostly on logging roads so it might be a little boring for the two of us ‘experts.’ We thought the exact opposite. A race in a new place with new vistas and new introductions to fellow runners? SIGN. US. UP. He handed us the registration forms, showed us on the map where to go in the morning, and explained that t-shirts would only be given to the first 30 people to register so we should arrive early. I sort of shrugged his comment off thinking that the 30-person minimum had definitely been met as it was the night before the race. We thanked him for all his help as we headed out to pitch our tent at the local RV park.
The next morning we awakened to the darkness and turned on our brand-new headlamps to cook up a pot of instant oatmeal before heading to the trailhead. We arrived about 45 minutes before the race started and handed our registration forms over to the race director with our cash. She gave us t-shirts to which we were shocked. “What? I thought these were only for the first 30 people to register,” I inquired. She replied, “Yup, we are at about 25 right now, so you just made the cut!” We walked back to the car a little doe-eyed to prepare for the race. After the doors were closed and no one else could hear us, we had a small freak out. “What if we get lost? Should we take our map? Blisters? I have never had one before but if only 25 people are doing this race, we should probably be prepared for anything. I have this new stuff called Elete that has something to do with cramps, I have never used it before but we should probably take it with us, right?” And so on and so forth. We affixed our bib numbers to our shorts and stuffed our water packs full of every possible resolution for every possible ailment and headed to the start line with a smile and a plan that we would both be safe as long as we ran together from start to finish.
About a mile in, I had locked into my uphill grind gear and was headed up with the pack of runners. I turned around and my friend was nowhere in sight. I ran back about a quarter mile to find her. I apologized for running away and vowed to stay with her. Sure enough, about a mile later, the same thing had happened. I ran back down and said that I had just zoned out and didn’t even realize what I had done. She was gracious enough let it go a second time. After the third time, she told me to go ahead but to wait at large trail intersections. As I was departing from the final aid station and final trail intersection, I told her that no matter what I would absolutely, positively not start the descent until she was with me. After another hour or so of climbing I came to the Notch, which, if you have never been there, is quite spectacular. At about 12,000 feet, I was above cloud level on a mildly stormy day, typical of Durango, and stopped briefly to take in the splendor. Then came the scree field where I ran across rocks that resembled a pile of bricks. Finally, the scramble. This part my friend and I had only heard about, in which we were required to go off trail and navigate the final ascent to the summit. I was greeted by a volunteer at the bottom directing me, “Just head up in that general direction and you will see the folks waiting at the top.” Okay! I headed up on all fours with enthusiasm.
I got to the top where I chatted it up with the paramedics. After a few minutes, they asked if I had plans to leave anytime soon so I could get off the stormy, cold peak and make my way to the finish line. I explained that I had promised my friend that I would absolutely, positively not leave until she made the final ascent. As I waited, I told them about my friend and our adventure. “We planned this trip a bit on a whim. I just broke up with my boyfriend and she just got laid off so we both have plenty of time to go adventuring now.” I told them how my friend is such a cutie to come along with me, “She even has the CUTEST running clothes. In fact, she is wearing a brand-new pair of running shorts from this new brand, Stella McCartney. Have you ever heard of it? You will be able to see her coming because…” And on and on. As the minutes passed and my sweaty body cooled down, my windbreaker wasn’t cutting it anymore. The goose bumps on my legs grew larger and I started to visibly shake. The paramedics advised me to descend, to which I replied, teeth chattering, “I absolutely can’t! I promised her that I would stay! Plus, I am worried so I can’t leave until I know she made it here safely.” They assured me that they would keep an eye out for those cute Stella McCartney shorts (they actually said that) and would make sure she made it off the peak safely. My animal instinct to get warm couldn’t resist their offer and I trotted off the pass to the beat (and heat) of my heart circulating blood through my body again.
I waited a few times at major trail intersections, thinking that she must be catching up but the pressure of the ticking clock pushed me onward. As I came through the finish, I grabbed some kind of bar and some water, and headed back up the course to find my friend. I didn’t have to run long. About 10 minutes up, I saw her bouncing down the trail with a smile on her face. Upon greeting her, all my fears of her leaving me to fend for myself and cross-country camp on my own in Durango melted away as we descended together to the finish line.
After getting her refueled and rehydrated, we sat in the car, recounted our experiences, and discussed what the hell had happened. I learned that, just as promised, the paramedics had seen those cute shorts coming and asked her if they were Stella McCartney. She was surprised about their fashion acumen until they explained, “Your friend just left but stayed here until we wouldn’t let her stay anymore. We promised her you will make it down safely.” After that, she explained, things got even worse for her. At the peak, she had experienced a panic attack that sent her into hyperventilation and the paramedics had to put an emergency blanket on her and offer her oxygen. After a few refusals, they explained she either had to descend or take the oxygen. With a hug from the volunteers at the top, she chose to descend, and after a few tears and a lot of courage, she safely made it to the finish line. I learned years later that the Kennebec Mountain Run was my friend’s second trail run of her life and that she had purchased her first pair of trail running shoes specifically for this trip.
Frankly, I can’t believe she stayed with me for the rest of our vacation. I learned to adjust my pace so we could enjoy running together and she learned to navigate singletrack like a pro. We have been running buddies ever since.
Lesson learned: Know your limits and those with whom you are running. Then plan your routes according to the distance, experience level, and technical abilities of yourself and your companions.
Years later, I recognize that no matter how natural it feels to hit the trail, we all stumble and learn from trial and error. I asked around and, yup, the pros go through it too. Alex Varner, Quad Dipsea record holder, had to learn the hard way. He relates this story about his first time running on the Dipsea Trail in California:
“My high school cross-country coach had convinced me to run the race my senior year and took me out on the course for a preview so I would have an idea of where to go and what the route was like. He dropped me off at the bottom of the first flight of stairs, 0.4 miles into the race, and told me he’d meet me at the top of the third flight. I had no concept of what I was getting into, so I went charging up the first flight and was pretty tired by the top. I was even more bushed by the second flight and nearly dead at the top of the third, with only seven miles to go. From there, it was a long jaunt out to Stinson [Beach] during which time I fell in love with the brutality of the route. The tour ended with us hitchhiking back to his car in Mill Valley with a disgruntled video-store employee who probably almost killed us with his driving a couple of times on the windy road out of Stinson. I doubt I’ll ever forget that day.
Lesson learned: You only have yourself to blame should you suffer if you didn’t know what’s coming.”
One of my favorite stories comes from East Coast elite Aliza Lapierre regarding her first 50 miler:
“In the two months leading up to the ultra, I changed nothing. I stuck to my ‘marathon for beginners’ training plan, maintained my same nutritional plan of eating one GU every 45 minutes, and figured that the same socks and shoes were appropriate. It worked in the marathon so why wouldn’t it work over 50 miles? Race day came and we were off and running. Things seemed great, but then about 28 miles into the race, my pinky toes felt like they had turned into little nuggets of raw flesh. On the next downhill I wiggled my toes around and try to shift things inside my shoes and kept pounding away. This brilliant plan resulted in a squelching sound followed by an intense burning sensation in the ball of my foot. Within a few more miles, things turned worse when my toenails felt like they were being impaled into my toes. I was too embarrassed to ask the aid-station workers for 10-plus Band-Aids and assumed they would just fall off anyway. What to do, what to do? Out of sight of the volunteers and fellow runners, I ripped leaves off the trees and stuffed them in the toes of my shoes and anywhere else I could fit in an attempt to help remedy the problem. Did it help? I am not sure, but it may have distracted me enough to get me across the finish line.
Lesson learned: A marathon and a 50 miler are NOT the same and require different types of preparation and gear.”
You can see that it happens to everyone, even the fastest among us. Still, I invite you, again, to come run with me. Come with me on the runs of the past so I can pass on my experience to you the old-fashioned way, the same way it was generationally passed on to me. Come on this journey so that we can step onto the trails for the first time or the thousandth time and have the same experience and the same goal: to come back home having had more fun and less chaos. I’ll warn you that major fun lies ahead, including stories of moose encounters on Christmas morning and emergent hot lava flows from a particular orifice in a setting where the only toilet paper is the plants growing around you. I’ll tell you how I navigated through those moments and many more, and I’ll additionally call upon the expertise of other runners who have been there, too. Together we’ll learn, and become happier and safer trail runners.
Come run with me, I think you’ll love it. I’ll show you the way.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Dish it, what is your best story from your early trail running days? You know you have a funny one.
- What lessons have you learned that have been particularly challenging?
- If you could share one piece of information that you have learned the hard way to a newer trail runner, what would that be?
- Newer trail runners, tell us what you’d really like to learn about via Rhielle and this column.