Obsessive Runner Confessions of a First-Time Trail Racer

Confessions of a First-Time Trail Racer


For the past two years of my running life, a mix of pavement and asphalt has served as my constant companion. I am a road runner but the allure of exploring scenic trails isolated from urban life had caused this obsessive runner to sign up for his first-ever trail race. I am writing this post a few weeks after the completion of said event as I reflect upon and confess my learnings as a naïve road runner who went out a wee bit too hard.

A Pithy Distance

I registered for the 5 Peaks Albion Hills Trail Race that is about an hour northwest of Toronto (it’s a great, well-run trail race series). The race had two distance options: a single loop Sport distance at 5.7 km or a double loop Enduro distance at 11.4 km. Being the marathoning road runner that I am, I scoffed at the pithy single loop distance and immediately registered for the longer Enduro race – why would anyone bother with a short 5.7 km run?

Clothes Fit For a Trail

A new type of race meant new clothes – this was going to be my debut trail race and I wanted to make sure that I looked good. I decided that a reddish-orange combination would be my trail theme as it would look great during the fall colours. I had a nice cap and technical shirt that were perfect for the occasion – I was Obsessive Runner, Trail Running edition.

Race to Kill

Most of the trail was a single-track course so the racers had to be released in waves. The first wave was for those who were running to win and could finish a sub 20 minute 5K. I’m not quite that fast so I opted to be a part of the second wave. As we waited a few minutes for the first wave to run off, the race announcer explained that if any one of us were to overtake someone from the first wave, that we could consider that to be a “kill.”

Oh boy, this was going to be different.

A Well-Oiled Assembly Line (sort of)

When my wave took off, my strategy was quite simple: run hard through the open field and enter into the single-track as one of the leaders in my wave. I had taken a look at the previous year’s race results and if I could maintain my 10 km pace on the trails, I would definitely be a contender within my age category. By placing myself at the lead within the single-track course, I only had to keep my pace up to have a shot at placing well.

Stupid me.

I ran well at the start and slotted myself into third behind two spry lads as we entered into the trails. I felt a bit like a fugitive as we zigged and zagged up and down the course and it was fun to admire how light-footed people were as they leapt through the course. The single-track course would make runners look like they were part of a well-oiled assembly line of trail runners – that is until I clogged it up.

On Your Left

Springing up and down the first, second and third hills was fun, but then came the fourth, fifth, sixth and the I-don’t-know-how-many-because-my-legs-were burning numbers of zig zags. Despite my fashion sense and my verve, the one element I was missing for this trail race was, yup, training. I hadn’t trained on the trails and I quickly learned that it was a completely different type of running. I was told to “stay light on my feet” and rapidly realized that you actually need a lot of strength to do that well – strength I didn’t have.

So here I was on this single track course and I started to here a phrase over and over again – “on your left.” Each time that everyone was passing “that guy” I would hear “on your left” as they passed me by. I was trying my best to keep up and my eyes were bugging out as I gasped to keep up. In the weary state of my run, I remembered the words shared at the race start – I was getting “killed”!

A Pithy Finish

With thoughts of placing well out of my mind, I decided to focus on just finishing. Each climb and descent would make my legs feel heavier and heavier – I had gone out too hard and I was completely bonking. And I was still on my first “pithy distance” loop. Swallowing my pride, I opted to just complete one loop of the course (this was an option given to us and you just had to notify the timing crew about the change) to avoid chewing up my legs any further. I had just finished my first trail race, but perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that my first trail race nearly finished me.

There’s Always the Next One

Wow. What a learning experience. I have nothing but respect for trail racers – they are extraordinarily strong runners. Trail racing is such a great cross training exercise – I can run a half marathon and not be stiff, but this 5.7 km trail run had me sore for a whole week afterwards! So at the very least, I have a lovely personal record to beat for the next time and hopefully I’ll prepare and pace myself better next time so that I can be the one saying “on your left.”

Humbly yours,


Browse all articles from Obsessive Runner

Follow me on Twitter: @andrewchak