Am I ROAD or am I TRAIL?

Posted on Thu, May 09, 19

Our PC has written an incredible piece on the differences of Road and Trail marathons. If anyone is going to be able to give an expert opinion on how the two compare it’s PC. He frequently races twice each weekend, he constantly pushes his own physical and mental limits and is quite simply a central pillar to our Maverick family. This piece of writing by Paul will leave you with goosebumps and make you really think about the reasons you run. Grab a cup of tea and maybe a tissue as if you’re anything like PC you may well shed a tear at the end.

Am I ROAD or am I TRAIL?

by Paul Christian ‘PC’ - MTD Local Heroes

There is a chance that I’m unusual! I have never felt pigeon-holed as a runner. I like the idea that I’m a trail runner, love the idea that I’ve become an ultra-runner, but embrace the fact that my foundations are those of a road runner. This year I will race distances from 1 mile on the road to 100 miles along the trails of the North Downs Way. I will literally run anywhere, on any surface, for the simple love of running…as long as there is a medal at the end (or a gilet). As the craziness of the Spring marathon season comes to an end, after racing through the streets of Paris and London, I’ve found myself reflecting on the differences between running marathons on roads and running them on trails. Which is better and which am I? 

PC in Paris

PC ran both the London and Paris city marathons this year and smashed his PB along the way.

My comparison is going to start at the end…the Finish line. The scenes at the end of a road marathon are that of pure euphoria, as you would expect. But if you look closely…most faces convey relief that finally the excruciating pain is over. There are scenes of joy at achieving the distance.  There are scenes of success at finishing inside that desired time. But mostly there are scenes of pain. Bleeding nipples that look like they were caused by an angry Ramsay Bolton, armed with only sandpaper. Wobbly runners being dragged across the line by strangers, without a notion as to where they are. Runners with third-degree friction burns from chaffing. Runners who have had an unfortunate…err…accident in the short department. By contrast at the finish line of a trail marathon I usually see smiles 26.2 miles wide. There has been be pain and discomfort, but runners are generally in much better shape and don’t look like they have been fired out of a blunderbuss. They are altogether happier. So do trails make you happier and if so why!

For me, road marathons are mostly stressful! So much work has gone into getting closer to 3 hours and maintaining progression. Confidence is mixed with fear that my body won’t perform and that I won’t achieve that pre-set target…TIME! Always thinking about TIME! Maranoia sets in and every twinge in my legs becomes compartment syndrome or a stress fracture…the smallest cough becomes an attack of the Ebola virus…I’m injured and/or getting sick! Then I realise that I’m ok and its race day! Once I’ve gone to the toilet 168 times and shuffled along in a tight crowd towards the start line like an Emperor Penguin trying to get back on the ice shelf, it’s all about a precise and regimented routine. GU gel 5 mins before. Cross the start...get into stride...check pace…avoid the person dressed as a Rhino who can’t see properly and the maniac weaving in and out! Check my splits. Water stations! Gel every 40 mins…check my splits…time…splits…push…always…looking…at…watch! It’s intense and competitive. But with that road marathons are the purest test of athletic ability and endurance. They measure where I am! In the same way the bleep test did at school. They hurt on a whole different level if you run for a time. But achieving that goal after months of hard work is the best feeling and spurs you on to achieve more. A road marathon is a test as to the level at which I can perform and a measure of the progress I have made.

PC In Snowdon

PC ran the Maverick X-Series Snowdonia Marathon with us last year. Luckily this photo isn’t of him going through the bog where many tears were shed.

Trail marathons by contrast are much less stressful because there is much less emphasis on time. Road marathons are measured accurately within the nearest millimetre, but if you are ‘lucky' a trail marathon can be 2-3 miles longer than it should be. The elevation gain can be much more than advertised. The climbs steeper. The conditions more technical than expected and there can be more natural obstacles. You can discover a friendly horse that you need to take a selfie with! The smooth tarmac surface of the road is replaced with trails that are constantly changing and an obsession with the watch is replaced with an obsession for the trail in front of you. Spotting where to plant your feet. Avoiding the roots and the loose rock. No two strides are the same and it becomes a technical challenge. Avoid that hole. Run straight through the puddles. Keep your concentration. Don’t break an ankle! So, trail marathons become more about beating the distance and terrain than achieving a predetermined time. I go into them much more relaxed and in a much less competitive state of mind. I’m going to have to walk at some point and when I do it will be steep. Walking would be unthinkable in a road marathon!

Road marathons are generally in urban locations. Depending on the city they can pass by some stunning and iconic landmarks, like the Eiffel Tower or Buckingham Palace. Some, like Bruges and Amsterdam, quickly leave the city and pass through beautiful local countryside. But most are urban and can be bleak, like Berlin in my humble opinion. Which isn’t necessarily an issue in any way because you’re too busy looking at the splits on your watch to notice or care and all you really care about is that they are flat. The complete antithesis to this is the trail marathon, where the surroundings and wild beauty of the route are almost the most important thing. A well-designed trail marathon will pass through some of the most stunning areas of countryside on the planet and regularly make use of areas of outstanding natural beauty. They allow runners to truly escape and satisfy a primeval desire for adventure, challenge and exploration, whilst facilitating a reconnection with natural and the countryside. It’s rare to have an accident in the short department in a trail marathon, for the simple reason that the woods are never far away.

I don’t like talking about injuries and I won't for long, but I have noticed a distinction between road and trail injuries. My road injuries are limited to mainly soft tissue and tendon issues. Luckily so far nothing serious or long term. They are related to speed and result from pushing myself to maintain speed when fatigued. Trail injuries are limited mainly to bone and ligament damage as a result of rolling ankles, hyperextending knees on technical descents or from essentially falling on my arse! I also bleed much more on the trails as a result of running through gorse bushes or barbed wire but have yet to bleed during a road marathon!

In terms of equipment, road marathons are run very minimally unless you are one of the Rhino guys! I run in lightweight Inov-8 kit and only take four GU gels. Complete freedom of movement is required to maintain that pace. Trail marathons are a different story and I sometimes feel like I’m going into battle. I carry at least 1 litre of water in a pack loaded with enough food to feed a Scout troop a mountainside picnic, a first aid kit that would keep a military field hospital running for a day and enough adverse weather gear to kit Kilian Jornet out for a summit push on Everest. Aid stations in a road marathon consist of just water usually, but in trail marathons they sometimes put wedding buffets to shame! 

PC with the MTD

Camaraderie is such a huge part of Trail Running and PC is a central pillar to our family here at Maverick.

Camaraderie is my final comparison and an important aspect in comparing roads with trails. Road marathons are competitive! There will be pushing at the start and there isn’t a lot of friendly conversation amongst runners. People are focused, probably nervous and getting in the zone. They have worked hard to get there and want to achieve their goal. By contrast, spectator support on the road is always exceptional and the level of encouragement you receive from hundreds of strangers is incredible. It can make you quite emotional, as people cheer your name from start to finish. Runners do support each other but mainly towards the end, once the wheels have come off and all ideas of grandeur have been eroded by bleeding nipples, chaffing, dizziness and an inability to see colours or shapes. The sense of camaraderie during trail marathons, however, is exceptional and is one of the things I like about them most. The less competitive and more relaxed atmosphere ensures that there is a genuine sense of community. People look out for each other on course, have a feast of cake and jelly beans together at aid stations, pull each other out of the mud, pull each other into the mud, take photos and help each other through. Trail marathons are a race, of course they are, but they have a unique sense of community that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. 

In summary, I will always love road marathons and will continue to work very hard to achieve a lifelong goal of going sub 3. They are enjoyable and painful in equal measure. They are an excellent excuse to travel the world and visit new cities. They are a true and brutal test of speed endurance and a way to measure yourself...against your past self. There is great excitement surrounding them and they leave you wanting more (after a couple of days). But I cannot say they are as enjoyable as trail marathons or running on trails in general. Trails provide escapism. A sense of community. A reconnection with the countryside and nature. A pathway into the wilds and a reason to explore. If I was only allowed to run one marathon again in my life, I would pick Maverick X-Series Snowdonia and that says it all. I am trail!


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