Having run 13 previous road marathons, I decided it was time to shake things up and signed up to run my first trail marathon! In contrast to road marathons, the various appeals of trail marathons include smaller participant sizes, breathtaking views, unpredictable terrain, and a more intimate experience with nature. This spring, I completed the Scenic City Trail Marathon located a few miles outside of Chattanooga, TN on Raccoon Mountain.
Lined up at the starting line, looking around at my fellow runners, I felt slightly out of place. I clutched a hand-held water bottle, racing shorts, running shoes, and running socks, while the other participants all sported camel baks, long socks, and trail running shoes. In that moment, it became clear this endeavor would prove quite the challenge for this city girl! I turned to my past experience and sheer determination to navigate the unforeseen challenges and unknowns of this trail marathon.
The course started out with a gradual uphill until we entered the forest preserve on a narrow, single track trail. We proceeded through several rolling hills, switchbacks, small boulders, creeks, and then more switchbacks.
Around 8 miles in, my quads were already feeling the steep uphill/downhill course. I took an early fall on a downhill slope, and was battling the resulting pain in my knee. Despite the pains and burns, the perks of the race also made themselves apparent. The views were outstanding, and the aid stations (though few and far between) were well-stocked. I persevered as the trail became increasingly more technically challenging and the hills became steeper.
In addition to physical challenges, there was no shortage of mental challenges along the way. As someone used to running even splits, the constant extreme pace changes combined with the unfamiliar terrain and long periods of solitude on the trail began to play tricks on my mind. My Garmin lost signal just a few miles in, and there there were no mile markers along the course. The aid stations were not predictably spaced out; between that the multiple switchbacks, it was very difficult to judge exactly where I was located at any given time. By the time I got to the final aid station around mile 21, I was convinced I would be finishing towards the back of the pack, if I managed to ever emerge from the woods in one piece!
When I finally emerged out of the trail system and into the home stretch, I was dehydrated, low on blood sugar, bleeding profusely down my right leg, and beyond exhausted physically and mentally. I was also incredibly proud of pushing through the 26.2 miles so unlike any of the previous 13 marathons I had run in the past. I somehow managed to finish as the 6th female and 19th overall out of 61 runners that finished.
The camaraderie, intimacy, and dedication of trail runners differ vastly from road racers. I learned a great deal from this experience, including the importance of purchasing trail running shoes, going much more slowly on the technical downhills (especially early on in the course!) eating twice as much as I would before a road race, stopping and refueling better at the aid stations, and of course the importance of owning a camel bak. Countless times during the race, I found myself repeatedly swearing I would never undertake one of these trail marathons ever again. However, as none of you will find surprising, I have already decided my next trail race will be the Antelope Island 50k in Utah this fall.