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Trail Tips

How to Choose Your Trail-Race Schedule

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Winter is the time of year when lots of trail runners plan the upcoming race season. If you aren’t careful, you are at risk of making decisions that are not best for your long-term love of running.

The process of choosing and signing up for races is a lot like going to a crowded grocery store when you’re starving. The aisles are packed with hundreds of equally hungry shoppers. You might really want chocolate, but won’t get it unless you show up at 5 a.m. that morning to stand in line. Instead, you convince yourself that you’re a big fan of olives because that’s what everyone else likes (plus you’ve seen some engrossing olive documentaries). Or, you notice that clam chowder is on sale and come home with three cans of it, even though you’re allergic to shellfish.

In other words, filling out your spring and summer race calendar is complicated and can be a bit stressful. You have your own wishes; but you also have implicit pressure from your peers. To make things worse, you have seemingly unlimited choices. What is a hungry shopper to do?

Here are three guidelines for deciding the best races for you. Remember, different things work for everyone, so these guidelines may not be applicable to your worldview, and that’s okay too.

1. Know your “Why”

Before most ultras, I pose a simple question to each of the athletes I work with: “Why do you want to do this?”

I don’t care much about the specific answer; I just want each athlete to probe his or her true motivations. By internalizing your “why,” you’ll have a joyous, adventurous race experience. Fail to think about it in advance, and you may find yourself having a mid-life crisis at an aid station.

After we’ve answered “why,” I ask two follow-up questions.

First: “Is your ‘why’ based on comparison?” If it is, think about the implications of self-evaluation for your long-term happiness. For some, the comparison trap (even self-comparison, like trying to beat a PR) could lead to conditional self-acceptance. To avoid despair, read the fine print of any self-acceptance contract before signing on the dotted line.

Second: “Would your ‘why’ survive even if you DNF?” If an athlete answers “no,” he or she might be too focused on the finish line and not enough on the process.

Finish lines come and go. Often, when you reach one, nothing changes. A person who has raced 100 miles is worth no more than a person who has raced 50 miles or five miles; a person who has won a 100-mile race is worth no more than someone who has DNFed from a 100-mile race. Process matters; results are temporary.

A ‘why’ that endures as a positive force in your life irrespective of the finish line will set you up for a fulfilling, long-term relationship to running.

2. Do not idealize the event or the training

When you’re staring at a computer screen, it’s easy to distill a race into numbers and lose sight of the emotions, stress and pain you’ll experience along the way. Running up steep hills, running at 5 a.m., bonking … trail running is not an easy sport. Challenge is a big reason why many of us trail run in the first place; but losing sight of that difficulty when making race commitments can lead down dangerous paths.

To avoid biting off something you don’t want to chew (like olives), think about what an event actually entails. When an athlete is contemplating a big decision about a race, one of my time-tested traditions is to give the athlete a hard workout that approximates the demands of race day.

For an intense race, do 5 x 3 minute hills hard, contemplating your decision while full of hurt on the fourth interval.

For an ultra, do a 20-mile run and end with an all-out 10-minute hill climb. Decide at minute four.

There’s an old adage that says something like “You need to love your partner at their worst to deserve them at their best.” Trail races can be fickle partners, so make sure you know them intimately before committing.

3. Consider life stress

Running is just one part of your identity, and in order to be fulfilling long-term, racing cannot negatively compromise other parts of what make you a unique person.

If you enter a race in New York, but live in California, what does that mean for other aspects of your life? Will you spend the whole trip feeling like a bad parent or bad partner? If so, find a race more suited to your personality.

What about training for said race—does the process sound fulfilling, or does it make you anxious? It’s okay to leave your comfort zone, but not so much so that training causes mountains of stress and oceans of misery.

Think about whether the race you are signing up for—and the training—seems more like a vacation or a business trip. Vacations are fun, relaxing and enjoyable; business trips are stressful and focused on results. Commit to events that are adventures, not obligations.

David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.

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