Lessons from my 1st Trail Race

Mid-race pic. We ran around a lake, so the setting was gorgeous.

Today, I did my first trail race. You could also safely say I did my first trail run. I’ve run on some trail-ish stuff, but it was more wooded paths. I also ran down a few mountains, but that was in short bursts and in hiking boots. No, this was the real thing. Lots of rocks, roots, some mud, and lots of people falling. Myself included.  I did the 10K version of the Ashland Trail Race. A friend asked me and another friend to do it.  And then I asked another friend to join in. I was the only one who made it to the race for a variety of reasons.

lesson 1 – how to fall
So, what did I learn?  Turns out, I learned a LOT. First, I learned what it’s like to fall during a race.  I saw a few falls in front of me, and thought, “Man, this is real. You gotta be careful. I won’t fall, though, because I’m not really racing this course as this is supposed to be a slow run day. You’re good.”  Right.

A few pics of the aftermath of my fall

So, yeah, I learned other things along the way, but they all kind of flew from my head when I tumbled. And that is what happened – a tumble. My foot didn’t quite rise enough to clear a root that was sticking up pretty high around the 4 mile mark, and I started to stumble pretty badly (and hilariously). I tried desperately to regain my control, but I realized it wasn’t going to happen. I tucked my head and rolled into the stumble, trying to protect my head and my hands. I did a pretty good job, actually. I took the brunt of it on my back, and used the forward roll to absorb much of the impact energy rather than stopping the fall with my body. It’s weird – I was actually really conscious of the entire experience and how my body was moving through it, and controlled it pretty well. I engaged my hands after about half my inertia was gone, and only lightly scuffed them – just enough to make them feel a bit of burning, but no broken skin (or fingers).  I didn’t know about my other injuries yet.

Turns out, when I fell, I skinned my left knee a little bit (really not too bad, but by the time I covered the remaining 2+ miles, it was pretty bloody – no, I don’t have a pic).  I could feel it burning a bit as I ran, but it wasn’t too bad.  I was actually surprised to see blood when I finished. I decided – rightly – not to stop and look at it as that probably would have upset me or at least taken too much of my focus, which is a recipe for disaster on trails (see below).

The biggest issue was actually what happened on my right side. When I pulled down my compression socks, I found a very large, swollen area on the side of my shin that hurt a lot. I’m really glad I didn’t know about it during the run. As I sit here about 9 hours later, the biggest issue is that I actually banged up my right hip pretty badly.  I didn’t notice it on the run because it had no feeling after the fall.  It has feeling now. A lot of it.  I’m pretty stiff and achy there, but have been icing it and my shin.  The latter looks more normal now (a little puffy, maybe), while the former looks fine but still feels pretty bad.  I’m actually supposed to do another 2 mile run today as part of my marathon training (the 10K wasn’t long enough for where I’m at in my training plan), but I am likely to bag it. Part of me thinks it would be good to loosen up my hip, and part of me thinks it will make things worse. The smart move is probably to skip the run.

After the fall, a few guys stopped to be sure I was ok. Trail runners are generally really nice people (most runners are, but trail runners seem especially nice – maybe it’s the whole nature thing).  I was literally cracking up. The whole rolling thing, and the way I sort of made it a dance after the absurd-looking stumble action was too funny.  I wasn’t majorly injured or gushing blood from what I could tell, and my phone and watch didn’t break, so I brought levity to the situation, and use that to help me through the rest of the run. I needed it as my right leg was definitely not moving as well as I needed it to to clear all the roots.  I also had a bit of an issue with balance a few times as my left leg was clearly moving better than my right.  But I didn’t fall again.

Oh yeah, and don’t wear a white shirt in a trail race. And better to wear sleeves. Definitely tights, high socks or calf sleeves are also a good move. Well, and don’t fall.  Mostly just don’t fall.

A blurry shot I took mid-run on a very flat, stable part of the course

lesson 2 – mindfulness
With no real experience on trails, I was pretty present in the moment out there. This is really critical. No distractions, no music, no thinking about random things or contemplating big issues to try to pass the time like you might on the road. I felt a similarity to road cycling where I can’t really detach my mind from the activity for safety reasons. With road running, I get a lot of my best thinking done, deal with issues I’m facing, and get to understand myself much better. No so with cycling or trail running.  Maybe the pros can do it, but I’m a long way from that.  I did have moments where I thought about this blog post and themes I’d like to cover, but I kept them short.

The biggest distraction ended up being the exact thing I wrote about in my last post – my mental runner trying to tell my physical runner to quit.  I could have cut out at the 5K mark to finish with those doing the single loop course. I kept giving myself reasons why that was a good idea, like, “You’ve now done a trail race, so there’s really no reason to keep going.” “You’re tired.” “You haven’t fallen, but so many others have that you’re likely to, especially as you get more tired, and you’re SO tired.”

Wait, what was that last one? Yeah, that. I fell about .75 miles from the 5K finish line. But it wasn’t that I was tired, it was just a bit of depth perception problems. Seriously, I was good, but my mind kept needing to be silenced, sworn at, told off, etc.

lesson 3 – run your own race
I feel this pretty much every time I run, and especially every time I race. People pass you. You pass people. You don’t know their deal – how far have they run, how fast, how much more do they have to run, how well-trained they are, etc. If you start worrying about passing or getting passed for the sake of proving something, you’ll make some bad decisions. This is why people go out too fast in races and then their race plan gets thrown out and they bonk. Ego is what’s at the heart of the matter, and ego has no place in running.

Run for yourself.

Final stats from my Garmin. Nike+ thinks I did an 8’50” pace. I believe Garmin. Without falling, my pace would have been more like 8’45”. My road 10K pace is about 7’30”.

I was in the front pack off the line (this race had no chips, so you want to be near the starting line or you basically tack on second or minutes to your finish time), and knew I’d quickly be behind the front pack. Why? Well, there were some very clear expert runners there.  And many people were there for the 5K. You can run a 5K much faster than a 10K and don’t need to be as worried about burning yourself out.  I do 5Ks about a minute per mile faster than 10Ks. So I did a good job of not caring about getting passed.  That was my issue when I was a new racer.

I ended up having a different problem, but it’s the same kind of thing. The first guy I saw fall did so right in front of me (oddly, it was about where I fell, but on the first loop).  He was ok, but it put the need to be careful front and center for me.  He had surged and passed me, and then fell.  So I passed him after he fell (he stopped for a bit).  Well, he came back and got in front of me again. And then his pace slowed, and I stuck behind him for about 2 miles. It was a cautious pace that I could have done better than, but my mental runner (remember him?) told me, “I need to be careful, and this is fast enough, and I still have 4+ miles to go, and, wow, isn’t this slow pace still really hard, and didn’t I go too fast in the first mile if I was down in the 7s?” And the thing is, it felt tough even though I knew it was slower than anything resembling a tough effort for me, even on a trail. So he really started to slow, and I passed him. The surge in my pace was marked, and actually very comfortable. I kept that hotter pace through until a little before I fell, and mainly because I was trying to be mindful of my marathon training plan, which called for me to not actually race my race, but just run it, so I wanted to reel it back in.

So the lesson here is more than the usual one of not getting caught up in running too fast, but also not letting someone else’s reasons for going a certain speed be your reasons.

lesson 4 – trails help on the road
It was so clear to me as I ran this race how much I was helping my road running. The reason is that I was working on a number of things I don’t really get to work on while road running. Proprioception (your ability to sense the ground below you and respond to it as the surface changes), finite muscle control, ancillary support structures and more are all things that develop at a faster pace when running on uneven, undulating surfaces than on a stable surface like a road or treadmill. If your race will be on the road (like mine will be for the Chicago Marathon), it’s important to get lots of training with the same type of impact as the race surface, so I wouldn’t say go 100% or even a majority on trails, but mixing in a bit is a great idea.  My coach actually just wrote about this recently on his blog over at Strength Running.

summing it all up
In the end, I learned that trail runs are fun, much harder for the same distance than road courses (assuming similar hill profiles, or a slightly less hilly trail), and teach us tons as runners. If you haven’t tried trail running, I definitely recommend it. But I’ll do so while echoing the advice of the race director – the number one reason people fall is due to going too fast. Slow down a little from your road pace (I was over a minute per mile slower than my road 10K pace), and use that time to be more careful.  Be careful, be mindful, be open to the growth you’ll get from the trail, and enlighten.your.body.



About bryan falchuk

bryan falchuk is the founder of newbodi.es, a certified personal trainer, behavior change specialist and the best-selling author of "Do a Day". bryan coaches people on their whole health - the physical, mental and emotional combination of wellness that we need to thrive and change our lives.


  1. Awesome and congrats on getting your trail legs! It’s not a trail race unless you fall or get lost. 🙂 And yes, on the whole, I agree that trail runners ARE nicer than road runners.

    • Thanks for the kind words! I would have definitely also gotten lost if the race organizers didn’t do such an awesome job marking the course.

      Luckily, and surprisingly, I’m not stiffer today than I was last night. That’s a win in my book.

  2. Another way to have this kind of fun is through Orienteering – often called the Intelligent Runner’s sport, it balances the running with map reading and means that it’s not just about speed so your chance of falling is less. Your chance of getting totally lost and having to fight through bushes and streams to get back on track is higher though!

    • Thanks, Paolo. That’s a great idea. I’m very pro-anti-falling…and I suppose the getting lost part means you need to improve your map navigation skills. Definitely fun – I did one back when I was 14 and won despite being very overweight.

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