What to expect when you’re running your first trail race

On a sunny morning in the south west of Wexford, I gathered among a group of runners on a narrow country road at the bottom of Forth Mountain, a 235-meter tall rock, to listen to the final safety briefing and course overview for my first trail race in over three years.

The course was a 13km out and back, organised by the local primary school as a fundraiser. Being the first year of the event, the turnout was decent with a mix of local club runners, GAA players and a few brave off-duty teachers at the start line. A testament to the popularity of trail running.

I was feeling a little apprehensive about my race plan. I had my latest 10km road time in mind but taking into consideration the 200+ meters of climbing, most of which was in the first 3km, loose gravel and the short but brutal ∽20% incline, I had no idea what way my race would go.

So, here are some of my key takeaways that will help you to prepare for your first ever trail race:

  1. ‘There is no such thing as bad weather’: The first piece of gear you will need to consider is your footwear. I saw all sorts on the trail, from last season’s beat-up Brookes to high tech trail shoes with deep lugs and reinforced uppers, especially on the toe box to protect your digits. Know your terrain and choose the right footwear for you. If it is just compact dirt for the whole race then road shoes might be fine, but anything more technical and you will want to invest in a pair of trail shoes as they will have better grip for varying conditions and offer you much more protection.
  2. The kit: For everything above the ankle you should check the race debrief as some trail races have mandatory kit. If they don’t, then you need to take into consideration the weather on the days leading into the event and the day itself, the elevation above sea level – at altitude, you lose about 1 degree for every 100m of elevation – and the frequency of aid stations so you have enough fuel between them.
  3. Start slow, slower than you think: You’ll probably be used to picking your spot at the start line of a road race and have some idea about how hard you want to go from the line. However, for this race I started mid-lower pack and ran a very conservative first half. This proved to be vital. Typically, trail races do not conform to neat distances such as your standard 5km or 10km road race. I will tell you that I had a 6:50/km, a first for me in a race, and also ended up walking during the steepest climb.
  4. Try to forget time and focus on effort: It seems counterintuitive to racing but it is totally acceptable as you get used to trail running that you let go of pace and just focus on your effort. Focus on keeping your heart rate in your race zone but ignoring the pace. If you don’t have a HR monitor, then try to run-to-feel and avoid blowing up on the hills. Some conventional wisdom out there is that you can expect to add 20-25% to your normal road times, even more if it is a very difficult course and I was no exception.
  5. What goes up… There are two ways of dealing with a pointed race profile that has a lot of vertical gain. Running hills, both hill sprints and Kenyan reps – a continuous session of uphill running followed by downhill running – is the best way to prepare. However, if you, like me, didn’t incorporate any hills into your training then it is a time for damage control. When you hit the incline shorten your stride length considerably, if you can track your heart rate then try and keep it within your race zone and then revert to Tip 3 and let your pace go where it needs to so you don’t overexert yourself and spend precious minutes recovering at the top. Keep in mind that walking up hilly technical sections is totally acceptable and pretty much expected.
  6. Understand the terrain: Mud, gravel, grass, roots, rocks and puddles can all be part of a single trail run. Make sure you have researched your route thoroughly and as to Tip 1, brought the right gear for the occasion. Check the weather on a trusted app or website where you can get accurate readings in your race’s area and at the different altitudes. Also pay attention to the weather leading into the race; if it has been cold or raining all week but sunny on race day, the trail’s condition won’t necessarily be dry at 200-300m meters above sea level and above. That is why it is a good idea to listen to the pre-race safety briefing on the morning for the latest updates on the trail.
  7. Take it all in: As you have now gathered, trail racing is quite different from road racing. Don’t forget to take a few moments to enjoy the view, you earned it! And remember, trail etiquette is extremely important as any litter you leave up there is much more likely to be left there for a long time if someone else doesn’t pick it up, so hold onto your empty gel wrappers and bin them at the aid stations.
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