Sunday, December 8, 2013

Coastal Trail Runs - A Final Review

Less than a year ago, I got into trail running.  Oh sure, I'd run a trail before, and I spent a couple semesters in college running on Austin's Town Lake Trail nearly every day.  But I'd never done any kind of serious trail running, and I'd definitely never done a trail race.  I'd barely even heard of one.

At one point a few years ago, a friend asked me if I'd ever do a marathon again.  At the time, I was unsure.  I'd completed every running-related goal I'd ever had, and the appeal of urban mega-marathons had somehow worn off.  I figured the only marathons I'd do from there on out would probably be destination races.  I might as well make it a trip; maybe I could go to Hawaii, or Tahiti or something?  Do they have a marathon there?

Then I started hearing about trail running.  It sounded like the best things about running, leaving out what I don't like about large events.  Definitely something I'd like to try someday.  But when?  And what race?  There aren't a whole lot in Texas to choose from.

I discovered Coastal Trail Runs by randomly riding past a race on my bike one day, and managed to remember their name long enough to Google it when I got home.  Not only did the races look like they'd be a gas (and a great challenge!), but they had a thing they called the Blazer Awards - you earn points by placing high in races, and at the end of the year, the highest point total wins.  Multi-race challenges like that are addicting to me.  I was in.

I signed up for a race only two weeks before it was held, despite not quite being in marathon shape.  Much to my surprise, I was able to hang in there on a difficult course, and I even placed third!  If I could actually improve, I'd have a chance in the Blazer Awards!  On top of that, I had an awesome time.  Yeah, I should definitely do more of these.

In my very next trail marathon, only two weeks later, I won!  The addiction was now solidified.  I wound up doing nearly every race in the series, only missing a couple when I was out of town or forgot to sign up on time.  I had done six marathons before this year.  I have now done 27 races of at least marathon distance.

There are a lot of things I could say about trail running that make it different from "normal" running.  The surface is softer, so you don't pound on your joints so hard.  The surface is also more uneven, so your stabilizer muscles get nice and strong, giving you stronger joints and making injury less likely.  It's tougher, and you're more likely to deal with hills, making you a (literally) stronger runner, and much more versatile and capable to boot.

But perhaps the most important thing is it's fun!  Rather than running around a few boring city blocks, you get outside, and I mean real outside, not just on the sidewalk.  That's not going outside, that's the equivalent of going into the courtyard of one gigantic building.  You don't have to listen to obnoxiously loud cars, you don't have to choke on their fumes, you don't have to stop every quarter-mile for another intersection, you don't have to weave your way through dozens of humans.  You get a chance to go into a zone, maybe have a little quiet time to reflect.  It's almost therapeutic, that one hour a day you get just to yourself.  And the uneven trail presents little challenges all along the way, making it more interesting; you're never just running a little farther, you're taking on a new challenge that's different from any other part of the trail.  And your approach to running becomes less goal-oriented and more process-oriented.  Sure, you can still set goals for yourself, but trail running is about the run.  You actually enjoy the training runs, and after a race, when someone asks you "How did it go?" you're more likely to say "The course was beautiful, kinda tough on that one hill, and really fun!" instead of "My time was 3:21."

During the year, I finished nine trail marathons (winning six), eight 50Ks (winning two), and a 50-miler (which I won).  I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, and trail running made me stronger than I had ever been before.  I managed to qualify for Boston in LA despite having an absolutely disastrous day, then set a PR in San Francisco, the hardest urban marathon course I've ever run.  Then broke that PR a few months later in Berlin.  Honestly, what made me so fast on flat pavement was forcing myself to run over technical hills.  Everything became easy after that.

But what I really want to talk about is Coastal Trail Runs.  Of those 27 races I've done, when it comes to creating an enjoyable race experience, their races take spots #1-18.  No race I've done comes close to how much fun their races are.  Well-organized, low-key, beautiful courses, great volunteers, and an impressive spread at the finish line (oodles of snacks, soup, barbecue, and beer!).

I credit this to the fact that it's run by runners, not businessmen.  And it shows - these are truly runners' races.  The people that take on these races aren't the type that just want to say they've done a half-marathon or show a medal to their friends.  They're the type that want to challenge themselves.  People that actually like going outside.  But most of all, people that love running.  And the sense of community and camaraderie among trail runners is stunning and contagious.  Of all the races I've run, all the hills I've climbed, all the results I've gotten, I feel like my proudest accomplishment is becoming one of them.

And the actual race courses?  My goodness, I can't think of one I didn't like!  Every single one was unique and interesting in a different way, and presented a different challenge each time (I've previously written a breakdown of some particularly memorable ones that stood out).  You never knew exactly what the course is going to throw at you, or exactly how you'll handle it.  No two races are alike, so you never feel like you're doing "another" race.  And you start to learn that in trail running, anything can happen.

I think I owe a lot to Coastal Trail Runs.  Not only did I have a blast running the races, but I'm in the best shape of my life.  If I hadn't had such a great time, I wouldn't have kept coming back for race after race, week after week, training non-stop in between to make sure I'm up for the daunting challenge presented by each and every race.  Coastal Trail Runs helped me re-awaken my passion for long-distance running, and also brought it to new levels.  Marathons are my first true love, but trail running and I are soul mates.

If you live in California (or plan to visit) and want to give trail running a try, start with these guys.  They have races of all different distances, so you can have a race suited to you no matter what your level is.  Some people even just go for a hike!  And for $40, going for an all-morning hike that's planned out for you, with the course clearly marked, free water stops and snacks along the way, and a big lunch at the end (and a free T-shirt), that's not such a bad deal.  Whatever distance you choose, and whatever you make of it, I promise you'll have a good time, and I bet you'll try it again.

As for me, my time with Coastal Trail Runs is coming to a close.  I've moved back to Texas, and unfortunately, trail running just isn't much of a thing here.  I'm considering finding one to run in the spring, but I dunno.  The problem is I'm starting training for another challenge: biking around the world alone.  And since my trail running is just about done, so is this blog.  If you'd like to keep reading about my adventures, check out my new site detailing my circumnavigation by bicycle.  And to loyal readers, thanks for reading.

One last big thank-you to the good people at Coastal Trail Runs.  I had fun out there!