What to expect at your first trail race

Recent news in the trail running world has been all about the Western States, a 100-mile race with over 40,000 feet of elevation change. Ultrarunning’s extreme distances and climbs seem to claim most of the trail running spotlight, but if you’re a trail newbie, rest assured that you needn’t prepare for an ultra in order to to race on trails! Trail races exist for every distance and over any type of terrain, and you can likely find one local to you. If you’re brand new to trail running, I have a guest post over at Fit Foodie Mama all about how to get started on the trails. And once you’ve gotten some experience and want to register for your first trail race, here’s what you should know that might differ from what you’ve experienced at road races:

It's not quite the same as a road race - 7 things to expect at your first trail race

Expect odd distances: I have run several trail races of 7 – 7.5 miles, while I don’t think I’ve even heard of a road race that distance. Available trails limit the route options; plus, you can’t just place the finish line at an exact distance, since you have to get to the end of the trail! Some trail races have standard distances, and may start and/or finish on roads to get the right course length.

Expect a small race: The biggest trail race I’ve run had a cap of 300 runners. (Much) bigger trail races exist, but even those don’t approach the size of popular road races. Only so many people can run on a narrow trail at the same time, plus races held on public lands require permits that may limit how many runners are allowed. If you enjoy races with thousands of runners, just remember the smaller race size means shorter lines for the bathroom before the race and for food afterwards.

Expect fewer aid stations: Aid stations require relatively flat, open spaces to set up, and those spaces can be sparse along trails. If there’s no vehicle access along the trail, someone also has to haul all the supplies up. Plan to carry some water if there’s more than 2 miles between aid stations. Some trail races are even self-supported, with no aid stations at all.

Expect pace to vary a lot (and be slower overall): I know not everyone has nearby mountains for trail races, but almost any trail offers its share of hills, rocks, and roots. Your pace may slow by as much as several minutes per mile on especially steep uphills or rough footing. On the other hand, you can take advantage of the downhills to speed up. And if you are running a mountain trail race, expect to walk. Possibly a lot.

Expect to get stuck: Stuck behind other runners, that is. You may encounter narrow sections of trail with nowhere to safely pass along the side. If you catch up with another runner along one of those sections, you’ll have to slow down until you get to a passable area. And if you’re the runner who’s caught up with, don’t feel too bad about slowing others down; it’s almost inevitable that trail runners will end up on both ends of this situation at some point.

Expect to end up all alone: Okay, that’s a little dramatic. In contrast to the previous point, you’ll probably also end up running for a while with no one else in sight. You (probably) haven’t strayed off course; this is normal for trail races.

Expect better scenery: Isn’t that the reason you signed up? Even if the race takes an hour longer than you expected and has you questioning your sanity, remember to enjoy the scenic views.

What was your first trail race?

Any tips to add?


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8 Comment

  1. I’m actually running my first trail race this weekend. It was capped at 200 runners. Though I think only about 100 signed up. It’s a 5K. And I’m unsure of the course. But I’m glad you addresses passing. That’s been a question and concern of mine.

    1. Hannah says: Reply

      If there’s room to pass, people are usually accommodating – there’s just the occasional section where you have to wait for a bit. With that few runners, you may not have to worry about it!

  2. I’ve never done any sort of race but I bet trail races are much tougher! It’s hard enough trying to pass up a few walkers on trails – let alone a bunch of racers!
    Kristy @ Southern In Law recently posted…Recent Things: Trixie Videos, Pokemon Plus-Sides and Oops!My Profile

    1. Hannah says: Reply

      Fortunately the racers are usually more on the lookout for people passing than walkers are!

  3. Rachel says: Reply

    I love trail running. I’ve yet to do a trail race, though. But I do notice my pace drops significantly when I run trails for training runs.
    Rachel recently posted…What To Do When Injury StrikesMy Profile

    1. Hannah says: Reply

      Definitely normal, but you do get faster on trails when you trail run more!

  4. I would absolutely LOVE to run a trail race- I’d definitely have to train for it first though. After reading your post you shared on my blog last week I realized how different it really is!
    Annmarie recently posted…Gluten Free French Toast Sticks with Blueberry SauceMy Profile

    1. Hannah says: Reply

      I actually ran my first trail race without training for it. Not recommended!

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