Growing up in North Vancouver, outdoors enthusiast Nicola Gildersleeve was accustomed to the rugged terrain that surrounded her childhood home. But nothing could prepare the personal trainer for the kind of treacherously thrilling sport she quite literally stumbled upon when she started a new job at age 21.
“My coworkers introduced me to the world of trail running and got me into it,” Gildersleeve, now 27, says in a phone interview at North Shore Athletics, which offers trail-running clinics. “They took me to all these crazy trail events. The trails were amazing: they’re so intricate, and on the North Shore the trails are super gnarly, with rocks and roots all over the place.”
Trail running, not for those who consider hitting the treadmill a workout, requires strength, endurance, coordination, balance, and fast reflexes, not to mention determination and exceptionally forgiving joints. But with spectacular vistas and lush vegetation to serve as distractions, the increasingly popular sport feels more like fun than dreadful to fans.
Gildersleeve was instantly hooked.
“It’s not like road running, because it doesn’t get so boring,” she explains. “I don’t listen to music when I’m trail running, because I’m so connected to the sounds of the river and the birds—they’re sounds you want to hear”¦.Road running can get monotonous. In the trails, it’s varied terrain. You’re always going up, going down, moving laterally; sometimes on long hills you have to do a power hike, which gives you a nice break. Plus, it’s a gateway into the exploration of the mountains.”
According to a 2010 report on trail running by the Washington, D.C.–based Outdoor Foundation and a trail-running shoe company, Montrail, 4.8 million Americans participated in the sport in 2009, with Pacific and South Atlantic states having the highest participation rates. Women made up 36.5 percent of trail runners.
Vancouver resident Marianne Stark, a long-time road runner, admits she was intimidated by the idea of trail running when a friend urged her to try it several years ago. But like Gildersleeve, it was love at first step.
“Being in the trails really is a whole mind, body, soul experience,” she says by phone. “It’s a complete break and time for yourself. You’re so focused on your steps that you don’t notice the time. You don’t even notice if it’s raining out. When I come back after spending time in the trails, I feel so much better. I’m even-keeled and refreshed.”
Stark and Gildersleeve both went on to take part in the Knee Knackering North Shore Trail Run. As the name suggests, it’s a gruelling course: complete with fallen trees, thick roots, loose stones, rocks, boulders, mud, and sometimes snow, it stretches almost 50 kilometres along the Baden-Powell Centennial Trail from Horseshoe Bay to Deep Cove, climbing more than 2,400 metres and descending another 2,500 along the way. This year’s event takes place on July 9. Produced by the Northshore Ultra Trailrunning Society, the race raises money for North Shore Search and Rescue.
Race director Kelsy Trigg, who’s done the course five times, says that part of the appeal of local trail running is the sense of kinship it fosters.
“There’s a strong sense of community,” Trigg says in a phone interview. “There’s such a range of people involved; there’s no ”˜typical’ trail runner”¦.What becomes addictive is being outside in nature and being part of a community.”
Despite the passion that die-hard trail runners have for their sport, they’re the first to concede it has risks.
“I’ve got scars on my hands and knees to prove it,” says Gildersleeve, who has also experienced a broken ankle as well as muscle cramps so severe she couldn’t stand up. “When you run hard and play hard, you fall hard.”
She suggests that newbies start with short trails to build up strength and endurance. Plus, she says it helps to join local groups—such as Mountain Madness, whose members hit the trails rain or shine—and get hints from more experienced trail runners.
Doing exercises that strengthen the ankles can reduce the risk of injury, according to the Mountain Madness website, as can wearing proper trail shoes, which have extra grip and are designed for lateral movement.
For anyone heading out on a trail alone, the organization offers these safety tips, among others: leave a note on the dash of your car saying which trail you’re on and don’t change your route; carry water, food, a map, a whistle, a survival blanket, and antiseptic towels; and sing or talk out loud to scare bears and cougars away.
Mountain Madness offers comprehensive skill-based training clinics that cover technique, gear, hydration, navigation, safety, trail food, trail etiquette, nutrition, rehabilitation and recovery, race preparation, and more.
Two clinics start on Saturday (March 26): one to help people prepare for the 12-kilometre Tender Knee race and another for the 25-kilometre Iron Knee event. Sponsored by the North Shore Credit Union, both races take place May 29 and raise funds for the North Shore Special Olympics.
Besides the breathtaking views and bragging rights, perhaps one element of trail running that keeps people coming back, Mountain Madness suggests, is the throwback to happier, younger times: you get to run through mud puddles.