Why I Love Trail Running and How it Can Make You a Faster Road Runner

I grew up in the southern part of West Virginia and since the Appalachian Mountains run through the entire state, pretty much the whole state is full of mountains, hills, and nature. I remember spending a lot of my childhood at state parks and walking on the trails with my mom, brother, or friends. My childhood friends and I would ride our bikes through trails and we would go for walks through the many wooded areas around where I grew up.

In other words, trails are nothing new for me. As an adult, I now live in North Carolina and have access to numerous trails near my home. If I get tired of the trails that are within walking distance of my house, I can always drive 30 minutes or less and get to many different trails at several different parks that I can run, walk, or ride my bike on. You should know when I say trails here, I mean everything from dirt trails that go past ponds, lakes, or creeks and have tree roots sticking out in random places to mulch-covered trails in wooded areas of parks that are less “technical.” I also run on asphalt trails, but that’s not what I’m referring to here.

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About 2 or 3 years ago I decided to do more trail running and I have to say it did not go well. I was running along a very thin dirt trail that was lined with giant rocks on either side. From the beginning, I didn’t have a good feeling about running here and I should have listened to my gut but I kept going. After some time, I fell and hit my face just below my right eye on one of the rocks. Fortunately I didn’t hit my head or do major damage to myself but it did scare me and I had a nice scar on my right cheek for quite some time. I couldn’t help but think if that would have been just a fraction higher, that would have been my eye. I haven’t been running on that trail since then and I backed off running on other trails after that happened. I have to add that I recently had a pretty bad fall when I was running on an asphalt trail and I got bruised and cut up much worse on the asphalt trail than on this dirt trail.

Last year I began getting my courage back up to run on dirt trails and began incorporating about one trail run a week into my weekly runs. This year I’ve found myself running on trails or portions of trails about 2 or 3 times a week and I’ve gotten more comfortable running on trails. I’ve found trail running can be a great way to beat the heat, as they’re usually very shaded and feel several degrees cooler than running on the roadways.

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A trail without much mulch but more gravel and dirt.

I also started noticing that when I would run on asphalt trails or on roads, my times seemed to be getting better; I have been getting faster. Maybe it was because I started a new training plan but maybe it was because I have been running on trails through the woods. Without changing where I run and not running on trails at all, there’s no way to know. Maybe it’s a combination of the two.

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One of the mulch-covered trails I sometimes run on.

Don’t just take my word for it that trail running can make you a faster runner. Runner’s World has an article on this very topic that you can read here.  In addition to helping you increase your speed on roads, running on trails has many advantages such as helping to make your ankles and legs stronger, helping with balance, and helping to strengthen muscles that often get neglected with road running. Running on trails is also great for those runners such as myself that are over the age of 40 because the softer surface is easier on your joints.

If you’re a bit nervous about running on trails, you can gradually ease into it both in distance and trail difficulty. Find some nice wide trails near where you live that are pretty flat without big tree roots sticking out or big rocks on or along the trail and run there for a short run. Gradually increase how long you’re running on trails like this until you feel comfortable. Once this seems easy, branch out and try a bit hillier trails.

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My daughter actually built and hung this bird house as part of a Girl Scout project in a park where I run trails!

Another thing you may be concerned about when running on trails is encountering wild animals. If you live in an area where there are bears or mountain lions or other large wild cats, I strongly suggest you run with a friend (or a few friends), a big dog if you have one, and talk to other runners in the area about where the safest trails are. Fortunately for me, snakes are the worst I have seen on a trail when running. Last weekend in fact, I came across what looked like a juvenile copperhead snake crossing over the path. One time I remember seeing a giant black snake lying across the trail and it wasn’t moving in either direction. I certainly wasn’t going to jump over it even it was a nonpoisonous snake, so I just waited for it to slither off the path before continuing on my way. Generally if you leave snakes alone, they will leave you alone.

The funny part of all of this is, I’ve never run a race on a trail. The closest I ever came to a trail race is when I ran a race on loose gravel and dirt along a river in Nevada. It was perfectly flat and more what I would call a small dirt road than a trail. The race was one of my least favorites, though, because it was so hot, not scenic at all in my opinion, and I was just ready to be done with that race. You can read about the Laughlin Half Marathon in Nevada my 11th state of my quest for a half marathon in all 50 states. Not that I’m necessarily planning on running a trail race but I guess you never know. It seems like most races on trails are ultras and believe me, I have no intention of running one of those!

Do any of you run on trails but consider yourself a road racer? Have any of you run a trail race and if so which ones are your favorites?

Happy running!

Donna

 

 

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Photos of My Running Route

Other than a couple of random shots here and there, I’ve never really posted many photos of where I run. I feel fortunate to live in an area full of running/walking/biking trails that are along areas with trees for some shade but are close enough that I don’t have to drive to get to the trails. Honestly, there’s something for everyone with the diversity of trails in my “neck of the woods,” and I thought I’d share some of them with you all. I know Paula from Neveradullbling and Slowrunnergirl often have photos of their running routes, so the inspiration for this post comes from those ladies. Check out their blogs sometime if you don’t already!

Without further ado, I’ll show some of the places where I get to run and some of what I see along the way. I hope you enjoy!

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This part is nice going down, not so much going back up!
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Another hill, but at least this part is usually shady
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#spottedthebunny
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One of my water views
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One of several bridges I run over
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One of the creeks I run over on a bridge. The water is really low right now!
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I love this strip of trail with all of the yellow flowers
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An early morning water shot

There’s more of course but you get the gist of it. I have some lovely greenways to run along and feel fortunate to live in an area with miles and miles of greenways to run, bike, and walk on. I could literally choose a different route for every one of my long runs for months, only I would have to drive a short distance to some of them.

I think the thing I like best about my running routes is the trees. We have a nice variety of different trees around here so the scenery changes along with the seasons. In the next few weeks or so the trees will be lovely shades of yellow, orange, and red, mixed in with the evergreens. Hmmm, maybe I should have waited to have taken these photos. Well, I still think the green leaves are still beautiful!

What’s your favorite thing about your running routes?

Happy running,

Donna

Hiking in Zion National Park in Late Winter

Zion National Park is in southwestern Utah near Springdale and is the sixth most visited US national park with almost 3 million visitors a year. Not surprisingly, most people visit during the months of June, July, and August. However, my family and I chose to visit Zion in late February, and what a great decision that was.

Advantages of visiting Zion National Park during the winter:

There are several reasons for visiting Zion National Park during late winter, but the top one that comes to mind is to escape the crowds. During the summer months, Zion can feel quite crowded but if you go during the winter, there is only around a quarter of the people there as during the summer. You don’t feel like you’re constantly walking on the heels of other groups of people and you can enjoy the peaceful nature of the park better.

Also, Zion Canyon is beautiful during the winter months and it’s cool to see frozen or partially frozen waterfalls (pun intended). The peaks weren’t snow-covered when we were there, but I’m sure they’re even more beautiful when they are.

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Another advantage of going during late winter is it’s not as hot. During the summer, the temperature is often above 100°F/38°C. That’s not exactly comfortable hiking weather in my opinion. But during late winter, daytime temperatures are usually around 50-60°F, which is quite comfortable when you’re hiking. There is a chance of rain or snow, however, as nearly half of the annual precipitation in Zion Canyon falls between the months of December and March. When we were there, the weather was great with no precipitation but you do need to be prepared for wet or slick conditions.

Disadvantages of visiting Zion National Park during the winter:

The biggest disadvantage of visiting Zion National Park during the off-season winter is some of the trails may be closed due to ice. Although this was not an issue while we were there, it is a possibility during the winter, especially during the peak of winter.

Another disadvantage is if you want to hike The Narrows during the winter, you’ll need a dry suit. The Narrows is a section of the canyon on the North Fork of the Virgin River. You wade through water that’s around waist-deep on most people during certain sections, but the level of the river varies by season. We just hiked up to The Narrows as far as we could without getting wet and turned around. We’ll have to do that hike another time when it’s warmer. Fall would be a good time for that and not so crowded.

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Trails in Zion Canyon

There are seven trails in Zion Canyon but eighteen trails total in Zion National Park. Some of the more popular trails are The Narrows (discussed above), Angel’s Landing, and Lower and Upper Emerald Pool Trails. I had just read about someone falling to their death from Angel’s Landing before we went to Zion, so I nixed that trail since falling to my death didn’t really sound very appealing to me. If you do hike the ever-popular Angel’s Landing trail, just be very aware while you’re out there and be cautious.

We chose to hike Lower Emerald Pools (a portion was closed due to a rockslide several months prior), Upper Emerald Pools, Kayenta, and The Grotto Trails, which all form a nice loop of about 5 miles and can be completed in a few hours even with lots of stops for photo ops.  These trails are listed as easy or moderate by the National Park Service. While the entire hike is definitely not easy, there are some difficult parts to it. We also did the Riverside Walk Trail to The Narrows and went as far as we could go there. Riverside Walk Trail is 2.2 miles and follows the Virgin River along the bottom of a narrow canyon. It is an easy and scenic trail.

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On our second day, we chose the Watchman Trail, which is 3.3 miles round-trip and is listed as moderate. There are views of the Towers of the Virgin, lower Zion Canyon, and Springdale. The trailhead is by the Zion Canyon Visitor Center. The Watchman Trail was my favorite trail at Zion National Park. It was a good way to end our stay at the park.

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How to Get Here

Although you could arrange a tour with a company, most people fly into Las Vegas, rent a car, and drive the 2 1/2 hours from there. Alternatively, you could fly into Salt Lake City, get a rental car, and drive 4 1/2 hours from there. Public transportation (not counting the Zion National Park shuttles) are pretty much non-existent in this area, so unless you’re with a tour group, you need to have your own vehicle or a rental. We flew into Las Vegas, spent the night there, and drove from Vegas. If you’d like to read further about that, see Las Vegas Layover, the Anti-Bourdain Version. The roads were all well-maintained and it was an easy drive, even in our (unexpected “upgraded”) rental sports car.

Where to Stay

We stayed at Cable Mountain Lodge and couldn’t have been happier with the choice. There are several different suites and studios to choose from and you are literally within walking distance to Zion National Park. You don’t have to worry about fighting to find a parking spot or wait in a long line just to get into the park, just walk out of your room and take a short walk over a bridge to the park. We stayed in a suite and it was HUGE! We had a full, well-stocked kitchen, table with chairs to eat at, large living room area with a sofa bed and a separate bedroom, and a nice bathroom. There was even a balcony off the bedroom with chairs and a small table.

Zion Lodge, the only lodging available in the park, is three miles north on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive and is open year-round. Motel rooms, cabins, and suites are available but the suites tend to be much more expensive than what I paid at Cable Mountain Lodge. Zion also has three campgrounds with only Watchman Campground offering reservations from March through November.

Regardless of where you stay, whether it’s at Cable Mountain Lodge, Zion Lodge, Watchman Campground, or somewhere else in Springdale, make your reservations as early as possible, at least several months in advance.  Places book up quickly, especially during the busy summer months, but year-round as well.

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Where to Eat

The only restaurants in the park are at Zion Lodge and are Red Rock Grill and the seasonal Castle Dome Cafe. I was surprised at how few restaurants there are in the town of Springdale. There are less than thirty, but several are only open seasonally or only for breakfast and/or lunch. We ate at MeMe’s Cafe for pastries and muffins after hiking the first day, Zion Pizza & Noodle when my daughter wanted pizza, Zion Brewery, and we picked up breakfast items and lunches to take with us into the park at Sol Foods. MeMe’s Cafe looked like it had the best options for breakfast, but we chose to eat in our hotel room for breakfast to save time and money. If you’re a foodie, you’ll likely not be impressed with the food choices here. I wouldn’t call myself a foodie and found that nothing my family and I had was bad per se, but nothing was really spectacular either.

What to Bring

Dress appropriately for the weather but if you’re doing The Narrows remember it’s much cooler here even in the heat of the summer. Bring a jacket just in case and depending on the season, dress in layers. Be prepared to get very wet if you’re hiking The Narrows.

Bring enough water and snacks to get you through several hours.

You’ll want sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses year-round.

Bring the maps that they give you at the gate with you.

Don’t forget your receipt for re-entry or even better get an Interagency Annual Pass to allow access to all national parks for $80, good for 12 months from purchase.

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Other Information

Zion National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with some services and areas closed seasonally.

Parking is limited inside Zion, and parking lots at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center commonly fill by mid-morning. To avoid parking hassles, park in the town of Springdale and ride the free town shuttle to the park. You can park anywhere along the road in town that does not have a parking restriction. To find the shuttle stops, look for the ‘Shuttle Parking’ signs throughout town. If you are staying at a lodge or motel, leave your car there and take the shuttle to the park, or better yet, stay at Cable Mountain Lodge and just walk to the park!

You could easily spend a week at Zion and still not do all of the trails. Just don’t try to do them all in 2 or 3 days, or you’ll be exhausted by the end. Check out the listings and descriptions in this very descriptive hiking guide ahead of time and decide which trails are right for you.

Colorado in June- Hiking in Boulder

Some people I know that enjoy skiing wouldn’t even consider going to Colorado during the summer.  I think they would be missing out.  I am not a skier and in fact hated it the one time I went, so for me, Colorado in June was ideal.  I am a hiker and enjoy a good hike any day of the week but I am a bit elevationally-challenged where I live since there aren’t many places to go within a 30 minute drive that I would consider hiking (climbing up and down mountains).  When I ran a half marathon in Colorado in June (blog post will be coming although not for some time, titled Colorado- 37th state), I was thrilled at the idea of doing a lot of real hiking.  I had been to Colorado twice before for work meetings but both times during the snowy months so I had not experienced the beautiful state during the summer months.

My half marathon was in Boulder so that is where we spent the majority of our time.  The college students were on summer break so it wasn’t as crowded as during the school year and most importantly, it wasn’t quite so impossible to find a parking spot.  Boulder is 5,430 feet above sea level, which is manageable for those of us who live closer to sea level, whereas when you get around 8,000 feet above sea level and higher, you can develop altitude sickness.

For our first hike in Boulder, we chose Gregory Canyon Trail.  Gregory Canyon Trail is a 3.4 mile moderately trafficked loop trail that features beautiful wild flowers and is rated as difficult. The trail is primarily used for hiking and walking and is accessible from May until October.  It was very quiet when we hiked this trail, although it was a Thursday so that may have been part of the reason.  The views from the top were great!

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View from the top of Gregory Canyon Trail

We also went to the popular Chautauqua Park and hiked the First-Second Flatiron Trail (1.1 mile; 960 ft. ) which starts from the Bluebell-Baird Trail, goes south to two trail signs, then west to begin switching back and forth between the First and Second Flatirons. It ends at the saddle between the First Flatiron and Sunset Rock.  These trails were much less shaded than the Gregory Canyon Trail and I was very glad I was wearing sunscreen and a hat.  There were also a lot more people on these trails but it was a Sunday so that may have been part of the reason.

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University Colorado Boulder (red buildings)

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View of Flatirons from Chautauqua Park

Colorado in June is a fun way to spend a summer vacation and I can’t recommend it enough if you enjoy hiking and spending time outdoors!  I know we only scratched the surface of places to explore in Colorado and we’re already excited about going back another summer and exploring other areas like Colorado Springs, Durango, Steamboat Springs, or Mesa Verde National Park.

Also see my next post “Colorado in June- Estes Park and RMNP” coming soon!