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Hitting the Trail

The Quiet Pleasures of Trail Running

By: Michael F. McGuffin


Glancing at my watch I couldnít believe the numbers; weíd been running for over sixty minutes and yet I didnít even feel winded. We were silently jogging along the spongy Thunder Creek trail in Washingtonís North Cascade National Park as the morning sun broke through the dense forest canopy; light rays streamed between the ancient firs and hemlocks like a rock concert light show. Running through this fragrant North Cascade forest made me feel like I could go on forever.

Here in the Northwest we are blessed with an abundance of wilderness trails where we can experience the vigor of physical exertion within natureís tranquil domain. By linking my love of the outdoors with a vigorous workout, trail running has proven an excellent way to maintain my enthusiasm for physical exercise. Over the years, a number of friends have questioned the sanity of my obsessive running habit, "Running is so boring. How can you keep going?" they ask. I respond by saying that variation is the key to motivation, and that trail running is both a method and a reason to exercise. As my enthusiasm for running trails grew, my running goals switched from improving my performance in road races to personal off-road challenges, where finishing is the goal. What began as a diversion evolved into a focused goal-orientated activity.

Unlike everyday training, which is usually conducted in a relatively benign and controlled environment, trail running requires a little forethought and a lot of common sense. While running off road is an excellent place to push your limits, donít start something you canít finish. Gradually working your way into longer more daring runs will stoke your appetite for challenge while quenching the discouragement of failure. A first aid instructor once told me that the best way to treat an accident is not to have one, so start small and know your limits.

Dressing in accordance with expected temperatures (expect to lose three degrees for every thousand feet of elevation gain) and weather, is paramount to having a safe and enjoyable experience on the trail. When choosing clothing for any remote outdoor activity look for synthetics. Wet cotton saps away body heat and is useless as an insulating layer, while synthetics such as polypropylene, Capilene and Thermax use capillary action to draw moisture away from your body thereby preserving a high percentage of their insulating value even when saturated. You can see this process, known as wicking, at work by running in a synthetic shirt on a cold morning; the moisture from your sweat will condense on the outer fibers while the inner surface remains relatively warm and dry. As an added bonus, most of the new synthetics are much softer against your skin than wet cotton, preventing agonizing chafing. I recommend wearing a long sleeve shirt with a zippered collar, rolling up the sleeves and unzipping the front will provide an amazing amount of cooling if you begin to overheat. Synthetic tights are another recommendation, as they not only provide warmth, but also protect against biting insects and clawing branches.

On long runs, or when venturing out in iffy weather, I usually bring along a lightweight shell jacket either tied around my waist or in a small fanny pack. Todayís so-called breathable fabrics donít seem to live up to either their names or claims when worn during a high exertion exercise like running. Avoid becoming caught-up in marketing claims; underarm pit zips will do more to keep you ventilated than even the best high tech fabric will. For early season runs consider wearing either a pile or thin shell vest. I have become a fan of a thin vest made of Windstopper pile, it keeps my core warm during the first few miles and becomes barely noticeable once I warm up.

It seems whenever two or more runners are gathered the conversation invariably turns to shoes. Todayís runner is faced with a dizzying selection of shoes, and to add coal to the fire of confusion manufacturers are now marketing what they call "all-terrain" shoes. While many of these "all terrain" shoes do address the specific needs of the trail runner, I donít advise purchasing a pair of specialized shoes prior to your first trail run. Several years ago I went to my favorite running shoe store looking for a pair of trail running shoes, the salesperson accurately informed me that any shoe could be used off-road so long as it provides good traction. As you become more serious about trail running you may feel the need to purchase a specialized shoe, if you do, look for the following features: a plastic plate located beneath the forefoot to reduce the risk of bruising (running on rugged terrain imparts an abnormally high impact stress to the foot), a wide striker on the heel to reduce the risk of a turned ankle, and added cushion to pad those long descents.

One piece of unusual gear that I find useful during a long or exceptionally hilly run is ski poles. Even though lightweight poles are now available expressly for the purpose of running and hiking, some even equipped with miniature shock absorbers, I just use an old pair of downhill poles with the baskets removed. Ski poles not only help to cushion the shock of descending hills, but also act as an outrigger to catch a stumble or, worse yet, a rolled ankle.

Because trail runs tend to extend longer than everyday training jaunts the question of how to maintain proper hydration becomes important. For runs longer than five miles I use a Camelback style bladder worn like a backpack over both shoulders, the only drawback here is the temptation to bring too much water. Iíve tried carrying bicycle water bottles but find them too large to comfortably carry in one hand. The new fluted Gatorade squirt bottle, is a better choice as it is small enough to fit in one hand, and the flutes provide for a solid grip. A friend of mine simply carries a standard backpacker-type water bottle strung bandoleer-style over one shoulder with a strand of nylon webbing. While simple and inexpensive, I find this method a bit too awkward for longer runs. There is no single best answer to the question of how to re-hydrate while on the trail, so experiment on shorter runs to find what works best for you, but most importantly, never drink untreated stream water.

Unfortunately runners are human, and we tend to eat, not when we should, but rather when weíre hungry. Fortunately new ultra-digestible energy foods such as GU and Shot, which greatly reduce the time between ingestion and benefit, are now available. Converting food to usable energy takes time, and if you eat when your tank is empty, even an energy bar, youíre probably going to end up walking that last mile. These new ultra-digestible foods, which are available at most camping and hiking shops, go to work immediately, injecting a seemingly instant boost to even the most haggard runner. Both GU and Shot are incredibly sweet and have the consistency of toothpaste, so they take some getting used to; consider experimenting with several flavors at home before cringing in the middle of a two hour run. Donít discount this strange food if it seems less than appetizing in your kitchen, during a long run your body will crave what it needs. While climbing Alaskaís Mount McKinley I only wanted to eat ramen noodles and butter because my body was screaming for salt and fat.

While trail running is primarily running, the use of some specialized techniques and strategies can enhance performance and reduce the risk of injury. Keeping your body at a consistent level above the ground instead of bounding over obstacles will both stave off fatigue and reduce stress on the ankles, knees and lower back. Watch a competitive mogul skier on television and youíll see what I mean about keeping the upper body at a constant level. Maintaining an even heart rate of seventy to eighty percent of your maximum is a good target for longer runs, however this may prove impossible on heart-pounding hilly terrain. An effective method for smoothing out your heart rate is to run the flat and downhill portions while quickly walking the uphill stretches. I find run/walking to be an excellent strategy during all day marathon length trips. Finally, when running over especially rocky or otherwise rugged terrain the best advice is the most obvious, slow down.

Gliding down a trail on a brisk Sunday morning can make it is easy to neglect common trail courtesy. Heavy breathing and a backpack-obscured rear view can render you silent and invisible to a hiker until you pass, usually scaring them witless. When you approach a hiker try to announce your presence by breathing extra hard, clearing your throat or even whistling. These nearly transparent acts of courtesy will help insure a positive wilderness experience for all trail users. Traditional trail courtesy dictates that when two hikers approach one another the person descending a hill should yield to the person ascending it. Donít assume, however, that the oncoming hiker is aware of this obscure rule, so always place courtesy first; if you have a good turnout pullover, take a break, and let the others pass.

Running along a wooded trail seems less like the grind of routine exercise and more like the thrill of adventure. The miles seem to melt away as you push up the trail to gain that next vantage or explore what lies beyond that next bend. Trail running will infuse diversity into your training regimen, and for some, may even grow into a reason to train. Setting your sights on an extended off-road run may be just what you need to keep your training program focused and goal-oriented. Regardless of your reasons for running, regardless of your ability, I encourage you to get out and experience the natural bounty here in the Northwest, because the more we experience the natural world the more we will cherish it.


Suggested Trail Runs


The following three suggested runs were selected to represent a variety of locations and difficulty levels on well-marked well-maintained trails.

Twin Falls State Park

Length: 4.1 miles roundtrip

Difficulty Level: Easy

The Twin Falls State Park trail begins at the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River and ascends 2.1 miles along a series of gentle switchbacks to a wooden bridge midway between two dramatic waterfalls. A moss-draped forest and flowing river give this trail a remote feel despite its close proximity to downtown Seattle. The well-groomed trail is generally flat with only short gentle uphill stretches making it an ideal entry level run. If you desire a longer workout continue up the stair-stepped trail past the 2.1 mile bridge to connect with the nearby Iron Horse Trail.

Directions: Drive east from Seattle on I-90 to Edgewick Road (Exit 34), and turn south on 468th Ave. S.E. Turn left onto S.E. 159th St. and proceed approximately one-half mile to the trailhead located at the end of the road.

More Information: Hiking the Mountains to Sound Greenway, by Harvey Manning, The Mountaineers


Spray Park

Length: 6+ miles roundtrip

Difficulty Level: Moderate

Spray Park, located in the northern portion of Mount Rainier National Park, blends spectacular views of this Northwest icon with a flower garden meadow lush with avalanche lilies, lupines and indian paintbrush. The meticulously maintained trail gains 1050 feet (much of which occurs over the final Ĺ mile) in three miles giving it a moderate, yet heart-pounding feel.

The trail to Spray Park offers two worthy diversions: first is a spectacular view of the Mowich Glacier from Eagle Cliff (1Ĺ miles), and second is Spray Falls (2 miles), located at the end of a short but worthy spur trail. Spray Park itself is a broad meadow worthy of exploration, so spend some time there, each new viewpoint seems better than the last. If the three mile run left you craving for more, continue up the trail to nearby Mt. Pleasant, or the equally scenic Seattle Park.

Directions: From Buckly drive south on Route 165 through Wilkerson and Carbonado. Cross the Carbon River bridge and continue on Mowich Lake Road which ends at the Mowich Lake Campground. Look for the trailhead at the far end of the campground.

More Information: 50 Hikes in Mount Rainier National Park, Ira Spring and Harvey Manning, The Mountaineers

100 Hikes in Western Washington, by Bob and Ira Spring, The Mountaineers

Harts Pass to Jim Pass

Distance: 16.4 miles roundtrip

Difficulty Level: Advanced

The trip from Harts Pass to Jim Pass along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is especially beautiful in late July and early August when the wildflowers that illuminate the high alpine meadows are in full bloom. Because this section of the PCT is more than a mile above sea level the panoramic views of the craggy North Cascades mountain range are like those usually reserved for serious mountaineers. This high altitude is also the reason for the advanced rating of this run as the weather can turn dangerously cold in a matter of hours, during one August trip I encountered snow flurries while on this section of trail.

The steep narrow road leading to Harts Pass can be hair raising so consider spending a weekend at one of the two nearby campgrounds (space is limited so get there early). If you do spend the night, be sure to experience the fiery sunset over the North Cascades from the small parking lot below Slate Peak.

Directions: Drive west from Winthrop approximately fifteen miles along Highway 20 before turning right at Mazama Road. Cross the Methow River and turn left at the first intersection. Pass the Mazama Store on your right and continue along the Mazama Road, which eventually becomes FR 5400. Continue up the winding road, finally reaching Harts Pass. Turn left towards the Meadows Campground, and continue up FR 500 for approximately one mile which will dead end at the trailhead.

More Information: The Pacific Crest Trail Vol. 2, by Jeffrey P. Schaffer and Andy Selters, Wilderness Press