My earliest running experiences were the unorganized, free-for-all child kind. I didn’t participate in “fun runs” or youth cross country. I just ran.
I grew up on a 92-acre farm in Kentucky, in between Louisville (the state’s largest city) and Frankfort (its capital). I had a seemingly endless expanse of forests and corn fields waiting to be explored.
And, like any child with too much energy and nowhere to go, I would run — not walk — from place to place. Even running down the slope of our driveway was exhilirating.
I pretended to be a Native American, inspired by books like “Little House on the Prarie” and “The Indian in the Cupboard.”
I pretended to be knight, or some such, from medeval times.
And I ran. Through meandering trails in the woods, through rows of corn, across fields waiting for the next planting.
So it is no surprise that trail running is one of my favorite things to do.
I’m primarily a road racer, but to some extent, that’s just out of laziness. Road races are plentiful and have more recognition with the general public.
My ego plays a role, too. When you run trails, you’re slower than your road pace. So your race times don’t sound as fast, even if you’re at the front of the pack. And I’ll admit that my main reason for racing is to do well.
Sure, I enjoy running in general — but if I’m signing up for a race, it’s to go fast. Or benefit a worthy charity … but I still want to go fast.
But if I need to clear my head, think something through or just relax, I need to be on the trails.
A winding, tree-lined switchback puts me at ease any time.
And, trail running brings me back to a fundamental enjoyment of running and being with nature. I lose both those things on the roads.
On a normal run, especially by myself, I’m often bored and distracted. I’m looking at my watch. I’m thinking about dinner. I’m looking at the crazy amount of holiday decorations some person put up before Thanksgiving.
But not on trails.
Not to sound like a hippie, but I can just “be” when I’m on the trails. I don’t have to talk to my running companions, I don’t have to keep myself entertained.
Just run. Run like an 8-year-old barefooted girl, streaking down the gravel drivewway like there’s no tomorrow.
I used to live about a half-mile from a trailhead in Louisville and would hit the dirt a few times each week, especially for recovery runs during high mileage weeks.
Now I live farther away and it’s usually easier to just run from my house. Plus, it’s winter and dark all the darn time, so it’s harder to get in a trail run.
We do have marvelous places to trail run in Kentucky, though.
Otter Creek Park, Jefferson Memorial Forest, Bernheim Forest and Arboretum … all near Louisville and spectacular places to hit the trail. I wouldn’t describe any of them as “easy” — but no trail runner wants that, anyway.
Last month, Otter Creek Park was home to an annual three-distance trail race that’s been going on for years — except for the few when the park was shut down due to budget shortfalls. Each year, Headfirst Performance offers 8 mile, 16 mile and marathon options on a loop course. There are amazing vistas of the Ohio River, a couple creek crossings and a beer-and-chili lunch that follows.
I’ve run the race four or five times and it was my first trail race. I’ve always loved it. This time, I ran it as an easy long run with a group of friends and twisted the bejesus out of my ankle at mile 3.5. Almost two weeks later and it’s still messed up, but that’s probably what I get for running the rest of the race on it.
In February, the same race organizers (Todd and Cynthia Heady of Headfirst Performance) host Louisville Lovin’ the Hills at Jefferson Memorial Forest. Scheduled annually around Valentine’s Day, the race offers 6 mile, 15 mile and 50k options — and is not for the faint of heart. The 50k involves some 13,000 feet of climb.
Yes. You read that correctly. Jefferson Memorial is a mean, mean place.
There’s also Land Between the Lakes in March. Located in the far western corner of Kentucky and a tourist destination in the summer, LBL is home to a 23k, marathon, 60k and 50 miler each year.
The two longer races even give out belt buckles to finishers within established time limits.
LBL is a friendly course, just shy of 4,000 feet of elevation change for the 50 mile and only 2,000 for the marathon.
There are numerous other short trail races in the area, although fewer since the aptly-named Trail Store closed.
For me, though, trail running isn’t about racing the same way road running is.
Trail running takes me back to those days of litterally running across our farm, not a care in the world, living out whatever daydreams and fantasies I envisioned.
And still, like when I was a child, there’s no better place to be.