Trail running releases both the inner child and earth mother in Jen Schaller. By 4:30 a.m. every Tuesday and Friday, she hits the trails near her store, RunWell, in Edwardsville, Ill. She opts for the trail once a weekend, too, and “would be out there every day if I could. I remember as a kid digging in the dirt so long that my legs got cramped and stiff. Then you grow up and people say, ‘Don’t get dirty.’ Trail running makes you feel like a kid again.”
Andy Koziatek also invokes his childhood when describing the joys of trail running. “It’s a great escape from being around the cars and the city. You’re exploring. You could run the same trail in the winter, spring and fall and have three different experiences. I just relax and enjoy the moment.”
They are two of the area’s evangelists for the joys of trails, and both have succeeded in spreading the word. Schaller says about 15 percent of the runners who frequent her shop give trail running a try, “but we are turning more on to trails. It’s my mission.”
To that end, she launched Tortured Soles in November 2014. For $25, participants sample five trails, with routes of as few as 4 miles or as many as 15. From 75 runners in its first year, Tortured Soles grew to 250 last fall.
Koziatek coordinates Fleet Feet’s Trail Running program, which covers nine area trails in a 10-week span starting in May. A good portion of participants, he says, are road runners “who don’t go to the gym a lot. It’s an easy strength-building tool.”
Fleet Feet’s Trail Running program has grown from 36 participants in 2013 to 109 last year. “Pretty much every year, at least half are returning,” Koziatek said, attributing the growth to runners seeking the next great thing and more trail races.
“The parks we have here have great trails,” he said, noting that Gateway Off-Road Cyclists (GORC) is constantly doing more work to expand and maintain multi-use trails in the region. “People who wouldn’t have thought about it before have friends on the trails who love it, and they get pulled in.”
Some of the popularity stems from the trail variety: hilly and flat; rocky and dusty. Many incorporate streambeds, which can be dry or wet depending on the time of year. About the only reason people shy away from trails, Schaller says, is fear of injury from a fall.
So, what’s holding you back? Though Fleet Feet suggests that people who join their trail running program be able to run 5 miles on a road — which equates to about 3 miles on a trail — both Schaller and Koziatek say they get people who don’t run at all but want to jump straight onto the dirt.
They both agree, though, that some special gear is necessary:
Trail running shoes: You can get by with traditional running shoes for a flat, hard, dry, short trail run. In most cases, however, trail running shoes are essential. Reinforced toes and rock plates protect against bumps and bruises from stones and roots. Deeper lugs for added grip are essential for better traction in rain, mud, snow or along slick streambeds.
Hydration pack or vest. Without SAG support, trail runners have to be self-sufficient. The pockets and pouches in these accessories offer multiple places to stow water, food, gels, headlamps or extra socks.
For shorter runs, consider a hydrosleeve: an armband version of the hydration pack, or a water bottle with a wrist strap. Koziatek notes these can also take some of the impact on a fall, reducing the likelihood of hand and wrist injuries.
Buff: A fabric cowl to protect your neck that can serve double duty as a nose mask or headband.
Gaiters or spats: Pulled over shoes to keep gravel, mud, water and snow out of your shoes and socks.
Trail running socks: Koziatek notes that even trail-specific socks are not 100-percent waterproof, “but they tend to keep feet dryer a little longer when you’re in creeks. And they’re a little longer to keep debris from sneaking in there and causing unwanted rubbing.”
Bug spray and/or sunscreen: Insects love sweaty people in bright, primary colors. Be sure to slather on the bug repellant. Sunscreen is also important to help protect against sunburn, which can lead to dehydration.
GPS device or phone: A smart safety precaution, especially if you’re on the trail alone.
Tips for Trail Newbies
Even before hitting the trail, Schaller recommends adding a few extra flexibility moves to your warmup, “because a misstep is more likely.”
And when you hop on the trail for the first time, take it slow.
“Forget pace,” Koziatek said, advising that you start with short runs. “If you’re doing 10-minute miles on the road but go to Castlewood and hit the hills, chances are you won’t hold that pace.”
“It’s OK to walk a rocky or steep section,” Schaller added. “There’s no judgement in the woods. It’s just you and the deer.”
Other bits of advice:
- Shorten your stride and land under your body. Use your muscles to land softly. “Though midfoot and forefoot strikers in general make a quicker transition, heel strikers feel it right away and figure it out pretty quickly, too,” Schaller said.
- If you use GPS, don’t be a slave to it. “Most of the satellite stuff is great, but you occasionally get skewed distances,” Koziatek said. “So, have fun and realize you may get lost.”
- Unlike road running, where you can let your mind wander, trail running requires staying in the moment and being aware of surroundings.
- Leave the headphones at home. “I wouldn’t advise it on the trail unless you do it with one earbud out,” Koziatek said. “We’re not the only ones out there.”
- Keep a towel in your car and something to change into, especially if you’re running through creek beds. Clean, dry clothes make a world of difference on the drive home.
- After a run, Schaller advises, “go into recovery quickly. Get ice and raise your legs above your heart.” Koziatek suggests foam rolling and massage tools.
- Keep at it. “The more you do it,” Schaller said, “the more ways your brain finds to talk to your muscles.”
“It’s an adventure,” Schaller concluded. “I think people need to connect with Mother Earth and don’t even realize it until they’re out there. You feel more peace running on a trail than on a road.”
Beginner: St. Louis Trail Running Club, organized by local trail guru Dave McNaughton, is a great starting point due to its free membership, social feel and frequent runs held several times a week in and around St. Louis and St. Charles. meetup.com/St-Louis-Trail-Running/
Intermediate: Big River Running Company and Fleet Feet St. Louis both offer seasonal, paid trail running programs that consist of guided group runs exploring the St. Louis area. Distances vary from short to long, with program benefits including coaching and information on what you need to know to improve your skills. bigriverrunning.com and fleetfeetstlouis.com
Advanced: When you’re ready to log some serious miles, Terrain Trail Runners is your go-to. This free member group is made up of trail and ultra running enthusiasts in St. Louis who run mostly long distance but invite all experience levels to their weekly outings. The group also hosts a number of races and monthly social events. terraintrailrunners.com
Beginner: Flint Ridge Trail Run is a 4-mile/10-mile race held at beginner-friendly Indian Camp Creek in Foristell, Mo. Once you get a taste for the trail there, try Dark 2 Dawn, a 10k race held at night in the same location. bigrivertrailseries.com and dark-2-dawn.weebly.com/
Intermediate: There are a lot of options for intermediate trail runners — including Pere Marquette Trail Run (teamgodzilla.org), The Skippo (bigrivertrailseries.com), Battle the Bluff Trail 13.1 (offroadracingleague.com), Corps of Discovery Half Marathon (stlouistrackclub.com) and Quivering Quads Trail Half Marathon (fleetfeetstlouis.com/QQ) — which are held on more challenging, longer routes.
Advanced: With 2,300 feet of elevation gain over 13.1 miles (or 5,300 feet over 53k), Rockin’ Rockwoods presents one of the toughest and technical courses in St. Louis. The Berryman 26.2/50, held near Potosi, Mo., on the 70-year-old Berryman Trail, is a favorite for its classic Ozark backwoods setting. rockinrockwoods.weebly.com and stlouisultrarunnersgroup.net
Beginner: Get your feet wet, so to speak, on the Katy Trail or Al Foster Trail, both of which are rather flat and topped with crushed stone. Step up to Bootlegger’s Run Trail at Creve Coeur Park when you’re ready for some low-key single track.
Intermediate: Castlewood State Park, Lost Valley Trail and Lewis & Clark Trail up the elevation and technical features (roots, rocks and creek crossings), without frightening still-learning runners out of their socks.
Advanced: Whose ready to rock and roll? Chubb Trail, Rockwoods Reservation and Greensfelder County Park, all located in western St. Louis County, share a stony, slopy Ozark topography that will challenge the most seasoned local athlete, with the latter two parks offering multiple trails for extended runs.
Author: Kathleen Nelson is a regular contributor to Terrain magazine. She learned that endurance athletes and outdoor enthusiasts make the best storytellers through more than two decades as a sportswriter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.