I want to grow as a trail runner… how do I do it?

When I first started trail running so much was unknown: proper form, proper fueling, gear, navigating terrain and how different trails connected. Even coming from an avid hiking background, I’d still find myself getting nervous that if I took a trail I hadn’t taken before, maybe I wouldn’t know how to get myself back. Or even worse, what if I get injured and I’d have to hobble my way out somehow. Beginner Bri was a different girl. I didn’t have a base to jump off of, I just started going out, trying to run trails like I was on a track. I’d try to sprint up mountains having to stop not even half a mile in because my heart rate was so high. I didn’t have a blueprint on running trails and I had no background in the sport.IMG_6703

Over the course of six months I’d find myself without a headlamp in the dark, not eating enough and bonking hard during training runs, pushing my pace too hard and not being able to run a consistent pace for an entire run, not bringing the proper layering to stay warm/cool enough, changing out so many pairs of socks I can’t even count trying to prevent blisters. I went out on trails I wasn’t prepared for, with lots of climbing and lots of technical terrain that I hobbled down awkwardly, not knowing how to navigate. I’d trip. I’d roll ankles. I’d get lost and have to backtrack miles here and there, exhausted. I’d cuss out loud. But I kept showing up. Why share this? I needed to learn. I needed to gain experience on these trails. I needed to get beat up and spit back out, learning what worked and what didn’t for me.

After a near death experience, I found my “why”. I found my true spark for this sport and started doing bigger and bigger adventures, sometimes with others, but also many times alone. I wanted to get out there and meet the scared, anxious, worried parts of myself that told me “you can’t do this”. I wanted to prove that voice wrong at every turn. I wanted to go out there and become someone that I was proud of, someone I felt was brave. Confident. Resilient. I needed to feel unstoppable and strong again. So, Beginner Bri would go out for 3, 4, 5 hour adventures. Sometimes I knew where I was going, sometimes I didn’t. I always overpacked with extra water and extra snacks, never knowing what I was getting myself into. I’d come back covered in scratches and cuts, my hat and clothes lined with salt from sweating and feeling…. exhilarated. That is when I knew I wasn’t so beginner anymore.

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Where five miles felt nearly impossible to grasp, it began to become my staple distance. Right before my first race, a 25k with 4500 ft of gain, I ran my first twelve mile run flat out. I’d never done that before, I felt alive. Accomplished. I wanted more. When I completed Sky Peaks that following weekend, I cried. Overcome with the feeling of doing something hard. Doing something I thought was out of my league. That is when I realized so many things I thought were out of my reach…were totally within grasp if I worked for them. I knew they wouldn’t be handed to me, but if I was consistent. Patient. Dedicated. I could do them all.

I started looking at routes and experiences that terrified me and told myself to throw myself into them and see what happened anyways. I ran the Grand Canyon: solo and with others, so many times. The first time I felt like I was going to break apart from the pride and awe I felt that I was Doing this thing. Something I could have never wrapped my brain around previously, and here I was, huffing and puffing and dragging my lead legs up the switchbacks, back to the rim. Over and over and over again. I started going to different national parks, run-venturing. I signed up for my first ultra: scared out of my mind. I tried talking myself out of it multiple times and yet, I showed up at the starting line and my body moved the way it had become accustomed to. Moving through happiness, moving through discomfort, moving through joy and pain and boredom and elation.

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What do I think made all the difference in being able to go from a beginner that couldn’t complete a mile, to someone who strives to someday run over 100 miles? To run epic distances in epic places? I had people that always said “yes” to the long runs. I had people that were always just a little bit better than me: faster, stronger, more comfortable on different terrain, with more experience that I could chase through deserts and mountains and everywhere in between. I wasn’t afraid to reach out to others for advice, support and to run with those that would humble the f*ck out of me. I wanted to put myself into situations where I struggled and felt uncomfortable, repeatedly, so that I would grow and become a tougher version of myself. I wanted to meet the raw parts of me that pushed me to incredible heights.

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You may be thinking: how do I do this for myself? Where do I start? How do I know where I’m at or how close I am to “leveling up”? After thinking on this subject a lot, asking for insight from an all women’s trail running group and talking with my good friend Allie: we came up with an outline.

Since the beginning of Wild Women Running, we have nurtured the beginner trail runner first and foremost. Wanting to inspire the love for the trails in others while also building ladies’ confidence to get out there and do something new, hard and challenging has been at the front of the mission. With almost a year under our belt as a community, the question of how we bring beginner runners to intermediate levels (if they want it) begins to pop up. How do we let WWR grow with these gals, instead of being a bouncing off point?

*All of these opinions are focused on the general drive, not constant effort as every level needs recovery and easy runs as well as what is reflected here

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The first thing I found to be important was defining what a trail run starting out, for a beginner, looks like. What do these runs look like? What does this runner embody? Where can they expand?

  • What do these runs look like? Beginner runs first start off with nearly flat terrain. These runs are anywhere from 2-5 miles long depending on the endurance and comfort of these runners. Within WWR, these runs have many breaks so that all runners can congregate and no one is left behind. These runs do not have a large amount of elevation gain and are truly to plant the seed of trail running being an amazing activity to take on.
  • What does this runner embody? This runner is fresh to the trails, which could mean their very first time or they are a few months in but still getting comfortable on the trails while not feeling fully comfortable running alone yet. This runner may still be worried about following trail signs or cairns, the weather, water crossings, tripping, and all the what-ifs. This runner isn’t fully comfortable with technical terrain yet but may be getting curious about starting to incorporate more of it into their runs. This runner may be running 2-8+ miles but it may not feel easy yet and striving towards double digit runs may seem far off or intimidating. This runner may feel out of their league and get nervous to join in with fears of being too slow, that they can’t keep up and struggle with doubting their own abilities. This runner is looking for a lot of content on starting out and how to get better in the sport, what gear to use, what trails to try out…they are openly consuming information. This runner may just be dipping their toes into trail running and hasn’t tapped into what is out there (races, cool routes, traveling to run in different states and countries, etc.) While setting goals for a race or big route may not be their priority, it may just be a seed getting planted at all!  
  • Where can they expand? Starting to lengthen their running distances little by little, while also trying to go further without pausing or stopping to break. This runner can begin to work in more challenging terrain and elevation gain so that they are getting more comfortable running downhill and pushing themselves on the uphills. They can begin to test out different kinds of workouts: hills, intervals, endurance long runs, low heart rate runs, etc. They can start considering working out to strengthen their muscles for running specifically while also finding their “why” of wanting to trail run. This runner can transition into longer, stronger runs in a short amount of time if that is their true goal and they put the effort in! 

What is an example of a beginner trail run? Trail 100 from the Phoenix Mountain Preserve or the Browns Ranch trail system as they are both relatively flat with no technical terrain to navigate.

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The next phase, the Adventure Runner, appears when you want to start feeling out a longer distance. This runner may want to start hitting double digits without pushing other efforts. This runner has gained  more self confidence on the trails to face new challenges. These runs will be gaining comfortability on the feet for longer than 1 to 1.5 hours and will introduce these runners to learning about proper fueling during longer efforts and how to pace in a way that allows you to keep going. Maybe a race or cool trail has caught your interest and you want to get yourself to a space where you can get to the finish line or complete the route with a smile on your face. This runner wants adventure runs that wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate for a first trail run (due to distance, remoteness, endurance or difficulty) but there aren’t specific physical goals around effort level. This runner will welcome breaks and isn’t focused solely on pushing a tough pace or more intense effort. This level is more about the adventure and/or camaraderie than training or pushing physical limits. This runner is focused on building a base while having fun and may not have a piqued interest in goal-oriented workouts (like hill repeats, strides, etc).  Within WWR, these runs are typically offered on the weekends although we do try to offer an intro to intermediate trail run for any that may want more climbing and practice running downhill.

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So, what’s next? This is where we say hello to the limit testers. What do they look like? What does this runner embody? Where can they expand? 

  • What do these runs look like?  As you grow from the adventure runner to possibly wanting to test your limits your runs will include more variety with climbing steep grades and rolling terrain. These runs will also include diverse terrains that are more technical to navigate. This runner is comfortable wanting to go out and sweat all over the place, pushing your pace or climbing or distance — this runner has a gauge for personal bests and wants to start emptying the tank during runs. In this space, it may feel strange to ask others to accompany on these kinds of efforts, especially when you don’t know them. These runs are built on Type 2 fun where you are pushing hard and getting uncomfortable, often. Maybe you can’t keep up with those you are with but you are there to figure that out. This runner is focused less on solely adventure and camaraderie and more about finding personal limits and pushing each other while sharing the experience leads to camaraderie and “bonding through suffering”. These runs are typically being taken on by those that have been running for several months to years and are passionate about the trails and sport of running. These people want to advance their techniques, skills and challenge themselves in new ways.
  • What does this runner embody? A spirit of wanting to push beyond their current capabilities and discover what they are truly capable of. This runner wants to begin tackling double digit runs (into marathon and ultra distance as well) and may be considering trail races or ultra races. This runner loves the trails and is beginning to get comfortable on varying terrain and types of trail, wanting to see even more with their own two feet. These runners want to graze the edges of possibility and see if they can push past their own limits whether that is including more intense pace, more hills, more mountain running, etc. This runner is creating goals and may feel nervous to speak them out loud. This runner will start considering 15-26+ miles in a day, possibly unsupported and what it will feel like to complete this kind of mileage mentally and physically. This runner is wanting to meet the uncomfortable and difficult challenges and push through them. This runner welcomes the “pain cave” because they know it will make them a stronger, braver, inspired person. This runner may even begin considering a coach and training plans for structure and even further guidance on how to perform and grow.
  • Where can they expand? Starting to push their distance while also decreasing the amounts of breaks throughout the duration of their efforts. They will begin considering back to back efforts or two efforts in a day to experience running on fatigued legs. This runner will start including even more climbing in their long days and shorter days to push their efforts. This runner will constantly refer back to their “why” when they are exerting a lot of effort so that they can keep going, drawing from within. They will want to connect with other runners that are at their level or beyond, that will inspire them to push even harder and do more than what they may feel capable of doing themselves. Distances and certain events that used to seem impossible will start to be the kinds of things this runner will entertain and they will seem doable with the right focus and training. 

What is an example of an intermediate trail run? Two Bit Loop, North Mountain + Shaw Butte Loop or running 6+ miles out and back on trail 100 (making it a 12+ mile route with climbing). These routes can all be considered intermediate to advanced depending on how hard you push yourself and what your intentions are on these days! 

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Whether you consider yourself a beginner that is wanting to move towards intermediate, or an intermediate runner wanting to continue pushing your personal bests, there are key things that support achieving those goals:

  1. Accountability and supportive community. It may sound cliche but it really does take a village. No matter if this is a daily text asking if you’ve hit your goal, running buddies that help you log the miles or a set day every week that you meet to run with others, a community that encourages you is very important. 
  2. Prioritizing. When your goals are strong and you want something enough (whether that is a race, to hit a set distance, etc) you will start prioritizing the training and efforts needed to complete that goal. I write my goals on my bathroom mirror so that I see them every. single. day. Multiple times. I use the Strava feature where I put in my weekly goals so that I visually see what I am aiming for and can watch that distance widdle down as I go. I am a very visual person and these little extras help me stay focused, reminding me WHY I’m prioritizing what I am. 
  3. Consistency. No matter if that is running a set amount every week as a base minimum or putting in similar effort every week, the more consistent you are, the easier it will be to see your growth come to life. If you want to run further, consistently build up your mileage in increments. If you want to get faster, consistently mix in hill and interval runs in your weekly schedule. The more you stick to the kinds of workouts that will help you advance, the quicker you will see the results coming to light. 
  4. Asking for partnership. This may be the toughest one. We see others we are inspired by, that we aspire to be more like and that are levels up from us. We want to reach out and ask to connect but it is scary to do so. Do. It. Foster a connection between the person that is inspiring you so that they can mentor you into your potential! The best way to get better is to go out with those that are stronger, more experienced, faster (whatever!) than ourselves. Having a rabbit to chase isn’t a bad thing, it winds up leading to you leveling up and getting better in the process. Not only do you gain a strong training partner, but you also may find a new friendship. Don’t be afraid to directly state your goals, telling others exactly what your goal is during a run and that you want to push hard and aim for an exact pace, distance, outdoing a previous PR or goal. Get comfortable asking for others to join you in these specific goal-oriented runs so that you can gain support and partnership within these efforts. These longer, tougher runs are hard to do alone, make the bold move of asking for what you need and want! 

Doing the tough stuff. It’s easy for us to look at others and want to get to that level…without trying to actually get to that level. Getting to our goals means…doing the work, there is no easy way to success or growth. You’ve got to go out and run the extra mile that feels like you want to lie down in the middle of the trail and cry. You’ve got to go climb the extra 50 feet that feel like you are going straight up and not even moving anymore. You’ve got to do the really early morning or late afternoon run that nearly doesn’t fit into your schedule or cuts your sleep a little bit short when your bed feels cozier than lacing up the runners. You’ve got to practice the time on feet when your muscles are yelling that they want to quit right this moment. You’ve got to try to do that last 200 meters just a little bit faster than the time before. No one else can hand us our dreams but ourselves and they are ours for the taking!

Do you want to grow? Do you want to go from 3 to 5 to 10 to 15 to 30+ miles? Whatever it looks like to you….that goal…..go into it bravely. Try things. Fail. Learn. Bite off a bit more than you can chew (in a way that feels safe to you) and then strive to move your benchmark every single time. Find supportive, strong community that will move the needle with you and hold you to your goals. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the people that inspire you and ask for a run, some pointers, etc. Make sure your circle reflects your effort and amazingness back to you: surround yourself with those that shine encouragement and acknowledgement down on you…and watch your goals get closer. So close you can touch them. And then reach them.

 

 

*Special thanks to Allie for helping me concept these outlines, edit and reorganize this post to something cohesive and tangible!

 

Find WWR on IG here: Wild Women Running

Find ME here: Bri S.

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