A road runner’s take on trail racing

soapstone-horizBy Patrick Byrne, a director of Manchester Running Company in Manchester, Conn. This article was originally published on the Manchester Running Company website.

On May 19, some of the Manchester Running Company crew decided to run the Soapstone Mountain Trail Race, which is put on by the Shenipsit Striders running club. Appropriately named, it took place on Soapstone Mountain in northern Connecticut. This race was tough, and it got us thinking about the differences between trail and road races—and, perhaps most interestingly—the differences between trail racers and road racers.

The Striders do a great job with the race. It’s well organized, and the trail was marked as well as we could have expected. The 24k (about 14.5-mile) course covered very rocky terrain—your typical New England forest. Ups and downs, rocks, sharp turns, all that good stuff. Still, the race drew a good crowd.

Now, I’m no stranger to trail racing, but that doesn’t mean that I’m a huge fan or that I do more than one or two trail races a year (okay, maybe I am a stranger to trail racing). In either case, I have done the Pikes Peak Marathon and the 7 Sisters Trail Race (although I didn’t finish 7 Sisters), and the Manchester Running Company organizes the Finally Spring 5k trail race.

Trail racing and road racing are both great in their own way, but the Soapstone Mountain Race left me wondering about some serious differences.

Do trail racers care if they get hurt?
This is a serious question! The three of us from the MRC who ran today are pretty good road racers and we love to train on trails, but we all agreed that this race was a little crazy. Folks who are really good at trail racing (the ones who win these kinds of races) fly down rocky, root-covered, suicidal downhills with absolute reckless abandon. I honestly could not fathom how they did this. We all agreed after the race that they just must not care if they get hurt. We “roadies,” as trail runners call us (I’ll get to that term in a minute), like our legs and ankles. Our way of descending was relatively quick, but it was more important to us to plant our feet on stable ground. The trail racers were running down these trails like there was a fire at the top, and maybe a rhino chasing them as well. Don’t get me wrong—we were very impressed. It’s just not something we were willing to do.

Running style
Another significant difference we noticed was the pacing. On the roads, we go hard all the time and generally keep to one pace. Obviously we slow down a touch on the uphills and speed up on the downhills, but the pace of trail racers is very different. On the trails, taking it easy on the hills seems to be the way to go. On the flat parts, it’s not so much about picking up the pace as it is about maintain. Then, of course, you have to run the downhills like the Taliban is chasing you. This seems bizarre to us, but it’s also effective. We would catch a number of people on the flats, and we passed many people on the uphills, but the downhills were the great equalizer. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but it does make for interesting racing.

Toughness versus speed
It seems that not too many trail racers are blessed with amazing speed. I certainly am not either, but I look like Usain Bolt compared to some runners out on the trail—of course, that doesn’t mean that I can beat them. Had Soapstone been run on the roads, the three of us from MRC would probably all have been in the top five. But on the trails—not a chance. Brian Nelson, from the MRC, did get second overall, so maybe I shouldn’t say that we don’t have a chance, but it really is a different ball game. The trail racers have so much toughness in them to deal with the trails. Of course, road runners are plenty tough as well, but it is a different kind of toughness to continue on these trails week after week. Personally, I don’t ever want to run this race again. But that’s not a knock on the race or the organizers—it’s just not my thing. The bottom line is that these trail racers are tough, and we have the utmost respect for them.

I have a feeling that all the trail racers who ran Soapstone were right back out there on the trails the next day going the same pace. Meanwhile, I spent three and a half hours icing my ankles. I had to stop for a few minutes after I rolled the same ankle several times in a quarter-mile span. Some trail runners seem to have rubber ankles. Maybe they’re just savvier than I am when it comes to technical running. But while they hit the trails in the days after the race, I went back to the roads.

The folks that participate in these trail races refer to road runners as “roadies.” I doubt it’s a negative term at all, but it’s just for those of us who don’t run the trails that much.

Overall, the race was a very interesting study in speed, strength, and specialization. It was a great experience. I hope others will try trail racing, but just be prepared for what you’re getting into. There are easy trail races (such as the Finally Spring 5k), and then there are grueling races such as Soapstone.

Just because you’re a good runner on the roads doesn’t mean you’ll be a good trail runner. And it works both ways. Just because you’re a great trail runner doesn’t mean you’ll be a great road runner—but it does mean you’re nuts!


  1. Paul says

    Oh so true! I had run a few halfs recently including the Redding Road Race Mighty Cow (16.2m) a couple weeks before. I thought man, how hard could this be? I ran the Mighty Cow in 3:02, and it took me 3:48 or so to run Soapstone. And I was basically crippled for a week after. I have started working more on ankle and foot strength and lateral movement as a result!