Chasing Trail: How To Choose Your First Trail Race

[Editor’s Note: With this month’s Blaze a Trail article, we conclude our first year with this column, intended to connect beginner and intermediate trail runners with our sport. We’d also like to remind you in this gift-giving season about Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, a trail running how-to book written by iRunFar’s own Meghan Hicks and Bryon Powell and published this year. Know a new-ish trail runner or one who is eager to keep learning about their sport? Looking to delve deeper into or learn more skills for trail running? Consider Where the Road Ends! Thank you for your support!]

So you want to do your first trail race? That is just grand! Racing on trails will reinforce the drive for self-improvement that we all have inside of us. It will give you a deadline for training as well as an end goal. You will be able to see how your trail skills and speed stack up against other runners. And, on its most fundamental level, trail racing connects you with a community of people who are probably a lot like you. In other words, I think you should do it. In case the verdict is still out, I use the rest of this article to offer a few more considerations for choosing your first race.

Challenge Level
Picking your challenge level will have you thinking about all kinds of elements including the distance, terrain, location, weather, vertical gain and loss, and more. All of these things are to be considered when choosing your first trail race. The more elements of a race that are outside of your comfort zone, the more challenging the race will be for you. I prefer to control my challenge level by choosing just one variable that is outside of my comfort zone and leaving everything else the same as what I am accustomed to doing. This allows me to focus just on mastering the single variable, setting me up for success while providing room for improvement.

For example, if you want to increase the amount of distance you want to run on trail, then consider finding a trail race that is similar to your home turf and then sign up for a distance that you feel is doable but lies beyond your comfort zone. Maybe you are looking to run in Hawaii on vacation but aren’t used to running in heat and humidity, making successful trail racing in heat and humidity the biggest challenge. Consider signing up for a distance that feels comfortable and then training at home in conditions that would prepare you for Hawaiian heat and humidity.

When you are picking your trail race, be smart about how many and which variables you choose as a challenge while deciding how many and which variables will remain consistent to what you consider to be normal. Strategically picking your challenge variables allows you to isolate a single element and specify your training to master that variable.

Set a Goal
After you have decided on which challenge you would like to take on, set some goals for yourself. Start by setting a race-day goal. What will it take for you to feel successful on that day? Be honest with yourself. Then pick three versions of that goal and write them down as your A, B, and C goals.

I remember one trail race that I ran where my A goal was to place inside of the top-10 women overall. Setting a goal like that can be unreasonable because you don’t have control over who else shows up to a race or what kind of day the other racers are having. I set two additional goals to ensure I had a day of success. The B goal was to make the top of the ascent with enough in the tank that I could race the descent. My C goal was a time-based goal that was set based on a previous year’s performance.

After you have set your race-day goal, create three additional process goals that will help you measure your forward progress toward your race and the goals you have set for that day. In the example used above, I picked three process goals that would help me be the strongest athlete I could be on race day. Those goals were:

  • Do one long ascending run once each week to practice hovering just below red line during the ascent.
  • Participate in group-based strength and plyometrics training twice a week to maximize on-trail stability and agility.
  • Attend a weekly track workout to manage and improve leg speed and turnover.

Your goals may look different depending on what you want to accomplish. If you would like to run in a new climate, you might create process goals that would require you to train in different elements than you normally would choose for yourself. After writing your end goal, take a minute to determine what the means are to the end and write three goals that will set you up to reach both the means and the end. Setting goals creates opportunities for accountability in workouts and provides something to work toward.

Distance
You can find a trail race in all distances, from five kilometers to 200 miles. In my experience, most people who have been trail running regularly have a threshold of about 25 kilometers to 20 miles before they have to do specified training for the distance. If you haven’t picked distance as your challenge variable, I would recommend finding a race under 20 miles in distance.

If you have chosen distance as your challenge variable, then you need to make sure you have ample training time to successfully complete the distance. Even though the word ‘successful’ is relative, I would recommend a minimum of 16 weeks for a distance like a 50k and several months or even up to a year for a distance like a 100 miler. If the thought of a full year of motivation to prepare for a long run scares you, consider finding a running coach who can help break the training into short, focused blocks that assist in keeping you motivated along the way.

Location
Picking a location will automatically help you choose a lot of other things as well. For example, choosing a trail race in Houston, Texas will likely mean there isn’t a lot of elevation change but you will likely be running in some level of humidity and likely heat. If cool, dry temperatures are your forte and you like to climb and descend, this race may not play well to your strengths. However, if mastering speed is one of your goals, then choosing a race in a destination like Houston that is relatively flat will give you the opportunity to train for speed and show off your training on race day. If you choose a location that isn’t going to reflect the terrain on which you normally train, consider what that will mean for your training strategy. For example, if you choose to run in Texas but you live in a mountainous area, you may have to spend more time training on roads to imitate the flat terrain on which you will be racing. Further, acclimating to the heat and humidity may mean running in the heat of the day dressed head to toe in sweats. When choosing your location, consider how that will affect your training and if you are willing to adapt your training to create race-day success.

Terrain
When picking out the location, also consider the terrain. If you have never run in the snotty, decomposing undergrowth of Tennessee, then slipping and sliding while running may present a new mental and physical challenge when arriving to race. If you aren’t accustomed to running on trails that are rocky, then your feet may tire more quickly on race day than during your training runs. If you have chosen tackling new terrain as your challenge, then seeking out a race with underfoot terrain outside of your comfort zone is perfect. Bear in mind that you will want to make sure you are able to replicate the terrain as often as possible during your training in order to mentally and physically prepare for the challenge.

Altitude
This variable is the hardest to prepare for and can be one of the most challenging due to a simple lack of oxygen. I live at about 7,000 feet altitude but even increasing or decreasing my elevation by 2,000 feet makes a big difference in my performance. The best way to prepare for racing at a higher altitude during training is to train at a higher altitude, a logistical challenge for many people. Do the best you can with your training and go to higher elevations as much as you can, and be prepared for the drastic but natural decrease in performance on race day.

Weather
Including temperature and humidity, the weather can play a pretty big role in your race-day success. I remember a time when I ran in six inches of snow on a Friday at home in Utah and then flew to Southern California and ran in 95-degree-Fahrenheit heat on Sunday. It took a lot for my body to overcome that kind of heat stress and I wasn’t accustomed to drinking the copious amounts of water that it took to stay hydrated. As a result, my performance on race day suffered.

I also remember a time while racing in college that we had our national meet in Corpus Christi, Texas. I had only ever run once in 95% humidity and that was the day before the race. The humidity created a physical challenge that was mentally defeating and my performance at that important race suffered. If the weather is different than what you are accustomed to, train for it. Wear sweats while you run in the heat or wear shorts while running in the rain. Do what it will takes to make sure you are mentally and physically prepared for the weather on race day.

Series
One of my favorite things to do is to sign up for a summer-long series of races. A series is a group of races that are designed to work together to make you a better trail runner and enhance your trail-racing experience. Bonus, if you sign up for multiple races you will likely receive a bit of a price break. One of the best things about a series is that you will generally see and compete against the same people race after race. Not only does this help you gauge your own fitness and improvement, it allows you to be a continued part of the trail running community.

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When you are thinking about your first trail race, think first about what you want to have as a challenge. Set goals that will help you overcome the challenges and sign up! Then spend your time training to make sure you are successful on race day. Simple as that!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you raced a few trail races? What were the greatest challenges of those races for you? Do you think you were prepared for them?
  • What is your thought process for choosing the races you enter?
  • Looking back on your entrance into trail running, what advice would you offer to those considering a trail race for the first time?
Rhielle Widders

is passionate about introducing her favorite sport to newcomers. She created and directed the Park City Trail Series, a four-race series designed to get people running on dirt, from 2010 to 2014. When she isn’t in Park City, Utah, where she lives, you will find her traveling to try out new dirt. Follow her on Instagram.

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