Trail Running 101: How Not to Trail Run

I’ve been hitting the trails my whole life and running for over 35 years, and running trails for over 30 years. I’ve gained a lot of experience over the years and I pretty well qualify as above average when it comes not just to running, but to running trails. There isn’t much I haven’t encountered or dealt with, yet I recently received a reminder that I’m not perfect.

A friend of mine recently completed his first Ironman (140.6, the real deal) and is looking for his next challenge. This summer he also read Scott Jureck’s book “Eat to Run”, and he is now looking to do his first ultra with a long range goal of running a 100+ mile ultra some day. He knows I’ve done three 50k’s and am looking to do a 50 mile within the next year. So, he invited me along when he planned to do his first 50k. Unfortunately the race was already closed, but undeterred he decided we should just do a 30 mile trail run in its stead. I agreed and less than two weeks later we inked in to run.

He got online and started looking at a trail and figuring out logistics. He quickly decided on the Appalachian Trail and found a place where we could start which would have us hitting a gas station 5 miles later, and a place to park his car with supplies 5 miles beyond that. The plan was to drop off his car and take my truck back to start point. We were to run 15 miles out (15.6 actually, he wanted 50k) and then turn back. With the gas station and his car we would have “aid stations” at 5, 10, 20, and 25 mile marks. Everything sounded perfect, except one teeny, tiny, thing. Neither one of us had ever seen the section of trail we were going to run.

Morning of the run came and he drove over to my house. I then followed him through the narrow, winding mountain roads to where we were going to drop his car. It was still dark and we didn’t know exact spot where trail intersected road. After driving a while and knowing that we were getting close we found the spot where a trail hit the road and parked his car. I dropped off my supplies in his car, conferred with him about what he had and then we headed to out start area. By the time we got to our start point it was light enough for us to begin, so we geared up and set out.

I have to admit, that despite his having a fairly well thought out plan and course I did have some apprehensions. The first and foremost was the terrain that we would face. I didn’t care about the ascents and descents, I knew they’d be there and they’d be long and steep, I was concerned about the trail itself. I had some fear that trail could be so rocky that running could be virtually impossible. In addition, we had a lot of rain recently, and who knows what that could have done to the trails.

Anyway, after putting on our camelbacks, off we went. We had about 100 yards on the road until we hit the trail, and were quickly there. Unfortunately, one of my fears was already showing its ugly head. The trail was immediately too rocky to run. The trail was nothing but rocks, some loose, some not, some suspect, but not runable. In all fairness, it was also a very steep climb that we may have walked anyway to save our legs for the run ahead. We slogged our way to the top, and got some sketchy, but runable trail and took off.

Back in the early spring I started developing some problems with my right hip. I went through bouts of better and worse through the rest of the spring, all of the summer and into the start of the fall. I was starting to feel better, but going into the run I was concerned it may not hold up, and within first mile I found out that it wouldn’t. Our first downhill I slipped and came down hard on the heel of that same leg. I immediately felt a sharp, searing pain in my hip, and quickly lost strength in that hip. I could run, with little pain, but I wasn’t able to lift knee of that leg as high, and that would quickly prove a problem.

The trail continued to be very rocky, and impossible to run in many places. It got to the point where we were desperate to run and we were running every possible opportunity. Unfortunately, since I was having trouble lifting my right leg, I was catching more and more rocks and roots with my toes and aggravating the hip further. I could have turned back, but I’m not that smart and it goes against my deepest beliefs, keep running until you can’t.

After over an hour of running we reached the gas station that marked the five mile point in the run. We stopped for a few minutes while Doug (Jr as I refer to him) got something to eat. We both grabbed a quick drink as well and continued on.

The trail didn’t get any easier, and if anything actually got harder. The footing was horrible and we had some pretty steep ascents and descents. It resulted in us doing a lot of walking and slow jogging, but when we hit a decent stretch of trail Jr would take off. I did my best to hold on to him during those stretches. For the most part I was holding close to him, but it got harder and harder to do with each passing mile. I found myself focusing on just making it to the 10 mile mark and his car. I wasn’t going to quit, but I couldn’t look any further ahead than that point, or I would start the negative downward spiral mentally.

Almost two hours after leaving the gas station we finally reached the road where Jr had parked his car. Unfortunately, the trail didn’t cross the road where we thought it did, but it was close enough. We only had about 100 yards on the road to get to his car, where we pulled out our stash of food and drink. While refueling we discussed how long it had taken for us to reach that point, how far we had left to go, and terrain that we would most likely encounter. We quickly came to realization that instead of the 6-7 hour run we had thought we were going to do, that it was more likely going to be well over 10 hours. This was more time than either of us really wanted to put into the run, and to my relief, Jr agreed that we should turn back.

A few more minutes of rest, food, drink and foam roller and we started back the way we came. I had tightened up pretty good during that stop and really started to struggle to keep up. Jr was running strong, and now that he knew we weren’t going 30 miles, but rather only 20 miles which he’d done before (though not on trails), he started pushing the pace. I was struggling to lift my right foot enough to clear the rocks and roots so I wouldn’t trip or injure him further. As a result, I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have been on where I was stepping with my left foot. I was only concerned with getting enough lift with my right.

About 2 ½- 3 miles into the return I paid the price for my inattention to my footing. As I was swinging my left leg through I smashed my pinky toe into a large rock, and the momentum of my foot and leg kept them traveling forward. Unfortunately my pinky toe remained with the rock (remember, I wear Vibram Five Fingers). The toe was forcefully ripped to the side and I felt an immediate sharp burning pain sear through my foot. I’ve stubbed many a toe over the years, and some of them very hard, but I knew instantly that this wasn’t a stub. It was broken. Plain and simple, there was no doubt in my mind, I broke my toe.

Despite the quick eruption of pain in my left foot, and the shout of pain that escaped me, I kept running. Jr heard me, glanced back, saw that I was still running and so he continued on not knowing what I just did. We still had over 7 – 7 ½ miles left to get back to my truck. I could have stopped and turned back for Jr’s car, but we had already shortened the run, I didn’t want to totally kill it for him, so I kept running.

The rest of the run was just a painful blur. I could no longer push off on my left foot, and could lift my right. This resulted in me catching my right foot more and more often on roots and rocks. Each time that I did so, the hip got a little bit worse. And, because of how rocky the trail was, I kept banging and catching my broken toe on other roots and rocks, most of which with healthy toe wouldn’t have been that bad, but were now causing me a good deal of pain. After what seemed an eternity to me, we reached the gas station again, which meant only 5 remaining miles to run.

We both got something to eat and drink while we were at the gas station. Jr inquired about my hip, and I told him it hurt, but I’d make it. I decided not to tell him about the toe just yet. I didn’t want him to try getting me to stay at the gas station while he went for truck, or to cause him to quit the run. It is just a pinky toe after all, and though it was painful, and I could tell very swollen, it wasn’t going to kill me. I’d been struggling to keep within visual range of him on the good sections of trail, and was taking some risks to try and catch back up on the bad, but I thought I could make the remaining distance without slowing him too much. So when he was ready to run again, so was I.

Not really much to say about the remaining 5 miles beyond that it got harder and harder for me and I kept falling further and further back. He started waiting for me at start of each of the bad sections and once I caught up, he’d start off again. Finally, with about 1 ½ miles left I confessed what had happened to my toe after he’d had a lengthy wait for me to catch up to him. I told him to go ahead and I’d be along as soon after him as I could. He refused to go and kept waiting for me, and so we very slowly covered the remaining distance. When we got back to road that my truck was parked on, he smoothly accelerated down the road the short distance to the truck. I was able to run a slow hobble behind him.

On the day mistakes were made, but things were also done right. It is always good to either scout the trail you plan to run, or get a good description from someone who knows. You can head into it blind, but may find yourself doing very little running as we did. Also, I probably shouldn’t have attmepted anything like that until I knew my hip was fully recovered and healed. Trail running is much more strenuous than running on roads. However, we were smart enough to run with a partner in case something happened. Jr had done an excellent job of figuring out logistics for keeping us fueled and hydrated. We had our cell phones with us, and we were smart enough to turn back (well, at least Jr was) when we knew trail was going to be too much for us to do the distance we had planned.

After the run, instead of letting me lick my wounds, my wife had me out digging a new garden. Pinky toe and hip aren’t that important…

Oh, and thanks to Doug, aka Jr, whose pictures I stole for the post…

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About Douglas Sawyer, MS, ATC

I am an athletic trainer who is also a very avid athlete. My first love is running, but I also love cycling and triathlons and many other activities. I'm not a swimmer though, I just don't drown for 2.4 miles... As a athletic trainer I work with sports injuries. I currently work at a school with athletes in 7th-12th grade in a wide variety of sports. I can be found on twitter at two different names: @IronmanLongRunr - where I tweet about run, bike, tri, & more @Longrunr - where I tweet about athletic training
This entry was posted in Appalachian Trail, Athlete, Athletic Trainer, Athletic Training, Athletics, Barefoot Running, broken toe, fracture, hills, hip, Injury, Running, Running Injury, Sports, Sports Medicine, Trail, Training, VFF, Vibrams and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Trail Running 101: How Not to Trail Run

  1. Thank you for the link. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Putting Down Roots « Cape of Dreams

  3. barefootclay says:

    Oww!! Thanks for sharing your painful experience; maybe it will help others (like me) avoid similar injury. I wear VFFs as well, and trail running in them thing makes me very, very nervous. Hope you heal up soon!

    • You’re welcome, and I do hope you can avoid it. I knew stubbing toes in vff would hurt more because toe takes full force of, whereas with shoes it is shared among all, but never considered the fact that a toe would pulled to the side like that. Live and learn… just glad it wasn’t anything worse.

  4. Pingback: Putting Down Roots | Cape Of Dreams

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