For years now, I’ve prided myself on being not just a regular runner but a trail runner. Sure, I “ran” a road marathon in 2011, but it wasn’t pretty. And since then, I haven’t set foot on pavement in a race, other than the occasional road crossing, which I would complain about heartily.
Still, I could never quite shake the idea of running the Mount Desert Island Marathon. It’s touted as one of the most scenic road marathons in the country, even the world. Just as important, or maybe more so, it has sentimental value to me. As a kid, I spent three years living in Bar Harbor. I didn’t go back for 20 years after moving away, but when I did I fell in love with Acadia all over again. Running the marathon seemed like a great way to revisit my childhood stomping ground.
On October 19, I took my spot on the starting line. For the next 26 miles and change (26.46, to be exact, according to my GPS), I pounded the pavement. And much to my surprise and delight, I had a great time! I might even go so far as to say I enjoyed it as much as most of the trail races I’ve run in the past few years.
I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years espousing the virtues of trail running, but I must confess that there are certain things I love about the road:
1. You can look around. I love trail running for the scenery—the mountain vistas, the waterfalls, the foliage. That said, I spend about 95% of every trail race looking at my feet. The other 5% I spend stumbling or on the ground because I looked up. And sometimes I wonder how much I’ve missed. I’ve finished a race only to have someone mention the stunning waterfall at mile nine and realize I never saw a stream, let alone a waterfall. After running 26 miles around Mount Desert Island with my head held high, I can confirm that this is indeed a stunningly beautiful course.
2. No one asked me what I was training for. We trail runners pick on road runners quite a bit for obsessing about pace, which is probably a fair criticism. But we have our own obsession: distance. It’s not enough to run 26.2 miles. You have to run another five to make it a 50k. Once you’ve done a 50k, a 50-miler is the next step. After that, why not go for 100? And now 100-milers are so common that maybe it’s time for 200 miles, or more. For the past couple of years, almost every time I’ve run a trail race, I’ve been asked what I’m training for—the assumption being that the race I’m running somehow isn’t enough. At the marathon, no one asked me if I was training for something longer, perhaps because they were too busy obsessing about their pace (kidding!), and it felt good. It felt like this amazing and difficult race was enough, and it was.
3. The fans. One of the best things about trail running is the solitude. I love to be alone in the woods with only my thoughts (and my dog, of course). I even shy away from group trail runs because I think of trail running as my time. That said, every once in a while it feels good to draw energy from a crowd and get cheered on. The aid stations are always great at trail races, but there aren’t many opportunities for other spectators.
At the marathon, the aid stations had a good vibe, but I enjoyed most the random spectators along the course. In fact, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the two young women who parked their large black SUV somewhere near the 22-mile mark of the course and blasted “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore while dancing vigorously. At that point of the long, hilly road to the finish, I was not feeling—as Macklemore says—f**cking awesome, but you made me laugh and gave me the boost I needed to push on. Do I always want to run with a crowd? No way. But sometimes it feels good to feed on so much energy.
4. No awkward passing on narrow singletrack. I am an inconsistent runner. I run. I walk. I sprint. I walk. I might even throw in a few jumps off rocks. We’ve all experienced the awkwardness of running along tight singletrack where we are really close to the runner in front of us yet know that if we pass that runner, we might just get passed back right away. Plus, the act of passing itself can be difficult. I know I’m not the only one who has hollered “on your right” only end up not on the right of the runner but on the ground as I tried to make the pass. It can be easy to fall into someone else’s pace—either to keep up with runners just ahead or to prevent runners just behind from passing.
On wide roads, this just isn’t issue. You can run side by side with others, meaning you really can run your own pace. You can walk up a hill and fall behind some runners and then pass them back on the downhill without feeling awkward and, usually, without falling. In the marathon, I didn’t feel any pressure to speed up or slow down for someone else. I just ran my race.
5. People get it. Okay, so I don’t run to get praise or approval from other people. That said, it feels good to be able to tell people I ran a marathon and have them immediately understand what that means. Sure, they might not have run one themselves, but they all know someone who has. They understand the training that goes into it and the accomplishment of it. There’s even a good chance they’ve cheered for a marathon before.
When I try telling someone who isn’t a runner that I ran the Wakely Dam Ultra, all I get is a vacant look. I try to explain that it’s this brilliant 55-kilometer (or so) race with no aid stations through the wild Adirondacks. They listen politely, but there is clearly a disconnect. I can’t even imagine how people who run something like the Grindstone 100 would even begin to explain the race to others. Running races isn’t about bragging rights (at least, not entirely!), but it is fun to be able to share the accomplishment with your non-running friends and family.
On October 19, I started in Bar Harbor, just a couple of blocks from my childhood home. I ran past the mountains where my parents had taken me on my first childhood hikes, the rocky beaches where I had spent hours looking in tide pools for signs of life, my Montessori school, the freshwater lake where we could swim and not come out blue and frozen, and so much more. I ran all those miles on pavement, and I had a really good time.
Am I leaving the trails for good? No way. In fact, I haven’t run on pavement since the race. But I will say this, while the trails will always be my surface of choice, I won’t pity the road runners, and I hope they’ll let me join them every now and again for a change of pace.