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Running Is Better When You Hit More Trails

Pros and everyday runners have extended their joy of running by moving off the pavement. Why it’s time for you to add more trails as well.

Magdalena Boulet
Andy Cochrane

After trekking through darkness in the later stages of the Leadville Trail 100 in August, Magdalena Boulet finally started to see some light when she approached the finish. There, waiting for her, she saw the ultimate gesture of support: her husband, Richie Boulet, and son, Owen, holding the finish-line tape after supporting her throughout the 20-hour race. With one last burst of energy, Boulet leaped over the line with the exhilaration of victory, then embraced her crew.

This moment exemplifies one of the many reasons why Boulet, 46, has jumped into trail and ultrarunning after decades of racing on the track and roads. It’s a form of running that not only has extended the Olympian’s running career, but also has offered an opportunity for reinvention in a sport she loves.

For athletes who’ve spent years worrying about splits and qualification times, trail running offers a refreshing outlook. There’s the chance to seek new goals and explore different terrain, all while embracing a unique support system ready to help you reach that next finish line. Start hitting trails in the new year, and you just might fall in love as well.

Embracing a New Challenge

In 2013, as Boulet was about to turn 40, the 2:26 marathoner knew she was not going to get faster over 26.2 miles. Yet she yearned to push herself. At the encouragement of a friend, she found that challenge in her first trail race ever, a local Bay Area half marathon. It humbled her.

At one technical point on the course, Boulet had to stop running and hike—a shocking yet pivotal realization.

“Part of me felt that I had this tremendous room for improvement, that I really sucked at this, which was really exciting,” Boulet says.

A self-described “learner” at heart, she researched races, consulted with fellow trail and ultrarunners in the area, and paced training partners. Inspired by their efforts, Boulet ventured out beyond the manicured trails to the rugged, vast network of routes that surround her Oakland, California, home.

Two years after her first trail race, Boulet won the 2015 Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, her first attempt at one of the most grueling events out there.

Similar stories have played out with other pro runners. Frustrated after missing qualifications of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track Trials, former steeplechaser and 10K runner Addie Bracy, now 33, competed in her first trail race that July, the USA Mountain Running Championships—and won.

“When I go out and train, I don’t feel as bogged down about having to hit a certain time,” Bracy says. “It’s a lot more off of effort and feel and pushing myself.” It’s also a way of exploring her limits without having to chase time standards all the time.

While Kara Goucher is just beginning to scratch the surface of her trail-running potential after finishing fifth in her debut at the Leadville Trail Marathon in June, her transition has already been rewarding.

“I still get dropped all the time, but there’s something about that that I kind of like,” Goucher says about her mind-set to training on trails. “I don’t have to lead the way. I can follow, and that’s really cathartic.”

While the paces may be slower than when she was running in the Olympics, Goucher is on a path of discovery filled with new trails and life-changing perspectives to gain in the next chapter of her running career.

“I think when I was an elite, I felt like everyone was watching, and so there’s something really freeing about stepping out on top of the mountain and looking out and realizing just how small I really am,” Goucher says.

Journeying With Others

In trail and ultrarunning, there’s also a team putting in a different kind of effort with you.

Boulet often includes her family by inviting them on hikes in the redwoods after she completes a long run. By the time she reaches the point of total exhaustion on race day, she is reminded of the joy that comes with sharing the overall experience.

“It made me realize that the power of going on a journey with other people is so much more meaningful than cranking it out all by yourself,” Boulet says.

To connect with other runners, look at local groups. Many runners who come to Trail Roots, a club founded by coach Erik Stanley in Austin, Texas, have suffered from injuries as a result of racing on the roads. Trail running is not a “cure-all” for injury prevention, but Stanley does see a reduction in regular pain for the athletes who make the transition—they run easier, and the uneven surfaces help them develop versatile muscle strength.

Stanley will often choose an unconventional trail route for group outings. He’ll trek with friends through a dried-up creek bed not knowing where the path will take them. It’s the true spirit of trail running.

“We’re running and training and pushing,” he says, “but a lot of people in our group see it as their time to goof around and just play in the woods.”

Routes You Have to Run

Boulet’s Pick
She loves the trails in Redwood Regional Park, located near her home in Oakland, California. If Boulet ever needs a boost, she does her runs on the singletrack of the French Trail.

Goucher’s Pick
She’s discovered the beauty of Devil’s Thumb Lake Trail near Nederland, Colorado, and the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail through Rocky Mountain National Park.

Bracy’s Pick
When she’s not enjoying #VanLife, the mountain running champion runs the Mesa Trail often, but her favorite route is the Longs Peak Trail. Both are located near her home in Boulder, Colorado.

Stanley’s Pick
When he’s home in Austin, Texas, Stanley loves to explore the Barton Creek Greenbelt Trail, a 13.8-mile trek with waterfalls and streams to jump in along the way.

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