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How I Got Hooked on Trail Running

Ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes, North Face pro, was on hand to cheer runners on!

Living in New York City, I don't get that many opportunities to run on trails—the Bridle Path in Central Park is where I get my fix for dirt, rocks and maybe some mud after it rains. So when North Face asked me to join their Endurance Challenge Series at Bear Mountain State Park, I jumped at the chance. Not only was this my opportunity to run a new course (as an urban runner, I'm always looking for chances to keep my running routes fresh!), but in high school with my cross-country team Bear Mountain races were always my favorite. The park is gorgeous and the trails are ideal if you want that outdoor fix not far from the city.

Since my husband has recently picked up the sport of running (thanks to my reluctant nudging for him to do a triathlon with me—NYC Nautica 2012 here we come!), I signed him up as well. This would be his first race ever, unless we count the 10K he ran in elementary school he repeatedly pointed out. We made our way up to Bear Mountain from the city—a short trip by car or train—and I instantly got excited upon recognizing a place that looked basically the same as I last remembered it so long ago. We were set to do the 10K distance and knowing from the advice from trainers, this 10K would feel much longer and harder than a typical road race 10K would be. I knew from my April 2012 column on trail running (page 52) and the advice from Saucony coach Sharon Barbano that the tricks of the trail were to be followed: Take smaller strides for greater control on uneven terrain, pick up your feet more often than a typical stride and scan at least 10 feet ahead so I can see what's coming up on the ground. I was pumped and ready to go.

As soon as the race started we were off into the woods—our first path, an uphill run over rocks. Keeping my trail running tips in mind, I maneuvered my way up this not-so-easy hill (running uphill happens to be a strong point for me, even though my pace is level with a 9-minute mile, I can make up for time on hills!); however, the hills didn't end there. For another three miles, the course was completely up, up, up a rocky, muddy terrain, and the deep breathing from my other contestants felt comforting as I was feeling the intensity too. This course was more like that of a Tough Mudder obstacle course—over tree trunks, through small streams, trudging through muddy patches for meters upon meters. I don't recall looking ahead that often as my eyes were always fixed on the ground in front of me (maybe this made the time fly by too). But I do know that I loved every second of it! A bad fall after misstepping next to a rock told me to pull out my inner Katniss as I carried on. (OK, first aid did need me to stop to clean up my battle wound—I didn't fall lightly!) The camaraderie from the other runners was uplifting along the way too; if someone tripped or needed guidance getting over a rocky patch, we all would stop to help each other along.

I'm lucky to have a husband as my workout buddy. We did it!

The 6.2 miles of rocky, muddy and uneven terrain made me feel so much more accomplished as I crossed that finish line. North Face certainly gave us a challenging race to remember. The experience of running in the forest, being upon nature and the extra strength it takes to get through trail racing—you use so many more muscles and effort than typical road races—has me feeling hooked on this Hunger Games-like competiting. Now I'm in search of my next trail race! Any suggestions?

If you want to get your inner Katniss on too, check out the North Face Endurance Challenge Series—their next location hits DC on June 2 and 3. Maybe I'll see you there!

Now tell us: What is the most challenging fitness event you've ever completed and what did you learn about yourself during it?