The following is an excerpt from the book by Dimity McDowell and Sarah Bowen-Shea: Run Like a Mother–How to Get Moving-and Not Lose your Family, Job or Sanity
by Dimity McDowell
I use road running—and movies and books—to Calgon me away from my daily life. I put my brain on cruise control, and run without thinking about running. But trade smooth pavement for uneven trails, and suddenly, I’m not tuning out the world, but actually tuning it in. As I ricochet off rocks, hop over roots, and keep track of my route, my brain actively controls the joystick attached to my feet, and fires the “jump” and “turbo” buttons endlessly.
Like road running, I forget my worry du jour on the dirt—the trails command my attention—but unlike plodding along on ho-hum streets, I rarely forget the run.
Back up. You’re thinking: Central Park Reservoir is a trail? Really? Okay, my definition is a bit generous there, but in my mind, any surface not smoothed out by a yellow machine qualifies as off-road. The perimeter of a golf course works, as does a gravel fire road and, in a pinch, a trodden-down strip of grass next to a sidewalk. In an ideal world, we would all live near narrow, single-track paths that cross bucolic streams and are shaded by aspens.
But as adult acne, liverwurst, and other unsavory items attests, the world is far from ideal. Even I, who lives in a mountainous state overflowing with such trails, can’t get to them in the limited window I usually have to run. So, I crisscross grassy parks and lope next to train tracks, heeding the oft-repeated mantra in our house: You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. When I’m not on the pavement, something memorable happens.
Yet as much as I love trails, I don’t run on them regularly. In fact, when I’m training for a specific road race, I forgo them completely. Part of it is practical—best to train on the surface you’re going to race on so your joints don’t get jolted—but part is simply me being way too nerdy. When I’ve got a detailed training schedule, I can’t stand not following it.
I want to bullseye my mileage and (lickety, 9-minute-mile) pace. Trails typically slow your pace by at least a minute or two—and I can’t stomach seeing 11-minute-miles when I’m headed to a race—and can also be tricky, footing-wise, for tempo or interval runs. In other words, they don’t allow for my A+ analness to shine through.
When I cross off my last prescribed workout and cross the finish line on asphalt, though, I’m once again on my trail sabbatical. Getting back on the dirt, I imagine, must be how my kids feel when they run around naked after a bath: totally pure, loving the air on their skin, not worried about what other people think. On the trails, I lose all expectations. I leave the Garmin at home. I usually leave the music at home, too. I run for time—30 minutes, 60 minutes, whatever—but I don’t even set my stopwatch on my Timex.
I just go off the chronological time, and even then don’t hit the mark because I often have no idea how long a certain loop takes or whether I could’ve saved time by going left at the last fork. I happily walk when the uphills get too steep, and don’t force it when gravity gifts me on the downhillls.
The places on my body that scream after a road run barely whisper after a trail run. For good reason: Loamy trails are downright pillowy when compared to the unforgiving concrete.
Another trail bonus: Useful stabilizing ligaments in ankles and knees, which don’t get engaged on the pavement, full-on fire on the trail, building a more bombproof body.
Perhaps most importantly, I live exactly in the moment, not wishing the run away, as I’m prone to do. Prime example: On a recent jaunt in the Garden of the Gods, I, a chronic data checker, didn’t even look at my watch until 45 minutes into the run. No way, I thought to myself when I finally peeked at it. Yes friggin’ way!
My trail runs don’t always lead to utopia, though. After a three-month (real, injury-induced) sabbatical from running, I headed out on a six-mile hike with the dogs in early January on a Sunday morning, eager to start the New Year right. I had only planned to hike, but after I huffed up the 800 vertical-foot climb at the start, the rest was a gentle downhill.
Parts of the trail, hidden from the sun, were slicker than Bill Clinton circa 1998, but long stretches were dirt-covered, open, and just ripe for the running. I couldn’t resist. Being uncharacteristically wise, I jogged easily on the clean trails, then stopped and tiptoed across the icy parts.
The loop ended in a canyon, which was a veritable ice rink. Stupidly, I kept running; I didn’t want my Rocky Mountain high to end. I passed one woman, headed up the canyon, who warned, “Be careful: It’s really icy.” She’s right, I thought, and slowed to a walk. Not a minute later, I was down. Hard, with roughly 90 percent of the impact of my 175-pound body landing directly on my left wrist. It snapped like a dry twig. (Hello, another three-month sabbatical.)
After I gingerly stood up, sobbing, the first thing I thought to myself was, “Thank God it’s just my wrist,” as I vaguely remembered a story I had read recently in Runner’s World. Accomplished adventure racer Danelle Ballengee, who went out for an eight-mile run near her home in Moab, Utah, slid 60 feet down a slick-rock canyon, fractured her pelvis in four places, and survived, in mid-December, for three days and two nights.
Her dog, a three-year-old named Taz, led rescuers to her. (FYI: I Googled all that info. There was no way my Spongebob mind retained it.) I doubt my hare-brained dogs could’ve done the same, but I was fortunate to be on a fairly popular trail dotted with people and their fresh New Year’s resolutions. Still, I was a bit of a hero. I got back to my standard-transmission truck, loaded up both dogs, and drove home with my knee and right hand, still intact.
Yeah, so the potential for accidents is a big knock against trail running. Unlike road running, when tiny muscle imbalances nibble on you until you’re finally injured, you get chomped on the trail: skinned knees, twisted ankles, and broken bones, and you could be miles from your car. Although animal encounters are rare, the annual story of the mountain lion attacking a runner in California always freaks me out. But my biggest fear is getting lost. I haven’t yet—knock on wood—but I’m sure that day will come. That said, I’m also fairly confident it’ll be a fiasco that lasts an hour or so, nothing longer.
If you’ve never tried trail running, don’t let those last few paragraphs discourage you. If my fairy running-mother appeared one day and told me I had to choose to run exclusively on either trails or the road for the rest of my life, the decision would be a no-brainer: dirt, natch. In fact, as I write this, I’ve been on a trail extravaganza for about three months, and I don’t forsee an end date—or a road race—anytime soon.
Both my body and mind are thriving. Road running is mostly vanilla, which is America’s favorite flavor for a reason: It’s reliable and safe, and can be easily spruced up with sprinkles and hot fudge, or, in this case, intervals or strides. But there are so many more flavors out there. You owe it to yourself to try Rocky Road—with its chunks and surprises packed inside—at least once. It’s a taste you won’t forget.