What makes a perfect trail? Is it finding a nice, easy loop of exactly five miles that starts right outside your front door? Or is it having a secret route that no one else knows about - a place where you can go to escape the world?
For me, defining a "perfect trail" is a tall order. There are many trails that are perfect in that moment. Sometimes I'll go out for a run without a clear idea of where I'm going, other than where I'm starting. There's nothing more peaceful in that moment than letting my feet guide me through the forest, chasing rabbit trails and exploring new-to-me terrain. And there are other days where I take great satisfaction in planning the perfect route ahead of time - one that combines whatever mixture of hills or runnable single track might fit the day's training agenda.
The truth that I keep coming back to is that trail running equals freedom. The ability to lace up your runners and strike out on an adventure of varying length on your own two feet is a privilege, and one that I never want to take for granted.
When I first discovered the trails, it was through hiking. As I got more confident, I slowly progressed to hiking the uphills and running the downhills and flats – basically going with gravity as much as possible. While I might “try” to run more than hike uphill nowadays, any trail runner can tell you that there’s still a fair amount of “power hiking” involved in any technical trail running, so some things haven’t changed all that much.
One thing I did realize early on in my trail running journey was that I sucked at downhill running. In races, I would bust my ass passing runners on the climbs, only to get caught and smoked by them as soon as we hit the downhills because I was tentative and unwilling to trust my feet. This frustrated me to no end, so I spent a good year consciously working on my downhill running techniques.
This brings us to Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. Anyone who runs on the North Shore has probably tackled this black diamond downhill mountain bike trail. It’s technical, more roots and rocks than dirt, and it scared me shitless the first time I tried running down it. Therefore, I decided I was going to keep running it until I was no longer intimidated by it. And so I did, tackling that trail dozens of times over the course of a year in all sorts of weather and conditions. Slowly but surely I got faster at it, feeling out each turn and knowing where the treacherous drop-offs were. Most importantly, I started trusting my feet.
I may not have one perfect trail, but if I had to pick one trail that has changed my running in a very tangible way, this would be it.
Pro tip: I’m a very visual person. When I’m bombing downhill, I like to picture myself as a human pinball, ricocheting off each rock and root without staying on them long enough for them to slow me down. Another visual I’ve heard which I think is also an effective metaphor: picture a rock skipping on a lake. The lighter and quicker you are, the less likely you are to sink.
Whether you are visual or would rather just turn your brain off altogether and rely on reflexes to keep you upright, the point is that good downhill technique takes time, patience and work. Find a trail that challenges you, run it until you feel comfortable on it, and then repeat the pattern with a new trail. Pretty soon it won’t matter what trail it is - you’ll be flying.
Thanks to Bauerfeind Sports for challenging me to think about my "perfect trail"!