Open Letter to Keith: Your First Trail Race

Hey Keith, so great to hear you’ve signed up for your first trail race. I thought I’d share some experiences from my first race so that you can avoid the mistakes I made.

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Last August, I took part in the “Utsukushigahara Trail Run & Walk”, a 70km trail race in Nagano. A few months earlier, I ran the Kakegawa Marathon and unnecessarily injured myself to the point where I only managed two hikes and two runs over 15km in the four months prior to the race. I did keep running, but I seemed to think that regular 10Ks on my local trails would prepare me for a 70K. I was so wrong!

In addition to a lack of race-specific training, I suffered from a lack of experience. I started the race too high up the field, which meant that when we reached the single-track trail, I felt pressured from behind to keep running at the same pace as everyone else. As it was early in the race, I still felt quite fresh and thought I could go with them, but I paid heavily for that later.

You may say, “Well, my race is only 32km, 1500m elevation gain, with a 9 hour time limit”, but let me remind you that I retired from Utsukushigahara at the 37km mark after 1900m in about 7 hours with one hour left before the cut-off, so it’s not so different from yours. I ran a bad race, but fortunately I have the chance to do it right this year and this is how I’m approaching it:

1. Moving time

Trail racing for guys like us is all about “moving”, whether it be walking, hiking or running. Nine hours, or longer in my case, is a long time to keep moving so it’s important to train for it. I’m trying to do a long-duration activity every other week.

2. Walk uphill

This year I’ll stick to the “walk uphill” rule. Races like these are far too long to risk wearing out your climbing legs by running uphill. With that in mind, hiking is something to practice, preferably on mountains that match the elevation of those in the race.

3. Practice walking

Walking uses different muscles to running, so it’s a good idea to practice that for long durations, too.

4. Master downhill running

Running downhill is another skill which I have yet to master. There are ways to run downhill to minimize damage to your body, and also to increase your resistance to muscle fatigue.

5. Train with your race gear

It’s important to get used to the gear you’re going to race with. For example, no backpack is perfect. It can take a while to become proficient at reaching into back pockets and managing water on the move.

If you’re taking poles, practice using them in advance.

Have confidence in your footwear. My feet were all blistered and sore in Utsukushigahara. If you’re moving for twice as long as you do in a marathon, you’ll want to be sure your shoes and socks are up to the job.

Train with a full pack. Extra weight on your back places extra stress on your body so you need to get used to it in advance. You’ll almost certainly need to carry rain gear and a first aid kit, so check you’ve got everything you need and practice using it.

6. Know the course

You don’t have to run the course in advance, but study the maps and elevation carefully. You need to move at a pace you can handle for the whole race, so knowing what big climbs are ahead of you is vital.

I hope you find these tips useful. I’m sure I’ll see you, and even run with you, before your race in June, but I wish you all the best for it anyway!

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