Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Trail running: Less impact, more fun than road running

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com
Andrea Fisher runs to Twin Falls in the Barton Creek Greenbelt. She uses low-profile, lug-bottomed shoes that she can get wet. The shoes help her feel the trail better, allowing her to make corrections.

When the heat cranks up, the thought of running on searing pavement under a blazing sun can suck the motivation right out of your legs.

Thankfully, here in Austin we can skip the asphalt and run off road, in the shade, alongside flowing creeks.

Besides a nice change of scenery, trail running offers a less jolting alternative to street running.

You won't set any land-speed records scampering over roots and rocks, splashing through creeks and dodging tree branches, but impact-absorbing dirt means less pounding on your body. Instead of repeatedly striking your foot to the ground in the same position, you land at different angles.

Reduced impact is just one reason pro triathlete Andrea Fisher runs the Barton Creek Greenbelt three or four times a week, for 30 minutes to two hours at a time.

"I think it's my escape from the world," Fisher says. "MoPac (Boulevard) is right there, but you're out in the woods. I can turn my mind off and go run and there's not a ton of people. It's the same reason I go for a hike or a walk."

I love romping outdoors, too, but I haven't done much trail running. I arrange to meet Fisher for a run starting at the Gaines Creek trailhead of the greenbelt, above Twin Falls.

Fisher, 37, a former University of Texas swimmer, started trail running with a friend in the late 1990s, while preparing for an Ironman triathlon. Running off-road was more fun, she says, than slogging out miles on a paved road. Coupled with on-road speedwork, it helped get her ready for the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run.

"I could talk the whole time. We weren't going fast, just exploring," she says.

It's that off-the-beaten path, feel-like-a-kid attitude of trail running that hooked her.

"I never, ever, ever get bored. Ever," she says. "You might be on the same trail, but each time it's different."

Fisher and her husband, pro triathlete Jamie Cleveland, own Hill Country Running Co., where they sell all kinds of running gear, including the low-profile, lug-bottomed shoes preferred by trail runners.

"They enable me to feel the trail in a good way, so I can react," Fisher says of the La Sportiva Wildcat shoes she's wearing when we meet.

I want running tips. She tells me to keep my eyes on the trail about 6 feet ahead of me. Last-minute changes in direction are difficult, so she tells me to pick a line and stick with it. If I start to fall, I shouldn't try to stop myself. Chances are I'll just land in a bush.

Trail running, apparently, is like driving a big, floaty Buick.

Fisher takes off at an easy pace down the 3-foot wide path, and I fall in behind her. She doesn't run directly down the middle of the trail. She sort of hop-scotches along, bouncing from side to side as she picks her way around obstacles.

Her shoes stay on as we splash through the creek, trot up the opposite bank and plunge into the woods.

It's a good five or 10 degrees cooler down here than it is in the sun. The shade and the relaxed pace are good for another reason: Fisher is pregnant and due in February.

Just when I think I've gotten the hang of it, a root grabs me. I plow into a flowering bush like a 130-pound rhino bent on destruction. Fisher manages not to laugh, and I'm completely unharmed, so we forge on.

Later, as I'm running up a hill, something whacks me in the head. I've run directly into a low-hanging tree branch. I'm so clumsy!

The difference between road running and trail running, I realize, is like the difference between road biking and mountain biking. It's just a dirtier, more rugged and slightly more laid-back version of the same sport.

"I don't guess it's for everyone, and it seems like people either love it or hate it," says Amy Sugeno, another Austin trail runner who has tried to persuade me to try the sport. "Some of my running friends complain that they don't want to get their shoes dirty, and other friends have said they get frustrated because they can't get into a rhythm because they are constantly having to slow down, speed up or jump over rocks. But I just love it! I love the peace and quiet and beauty, and I love the challenge of having to negotiate the trail and deal with whatever Mother Nature throws at you."

I agree. I like it so much that before I know it nearly an hour has slipped away.

Because trail running is slower than road running, trail runners don't so much measure mileage as they clock time. And some of them like to go for really long runs that last all day or night. Fisher is one of those people.

In 2008 she ran the Bandera 50K trail race in 4 hours and 56 minutes, setting a new women's record by 10 minutes. Trail Runner Magazine named it one of the top three female trail performances of the year. That same year, she won the Palo Duro Canyon 50-mile trail race, finishing nearly an hour ahead of the second-place woman.

On such long runs, Fisher says, she moves beyond fatigue and numbness to euphoria. I take her word for it.

We cross back over the creek and head toward the trailhead.

I'm sweaty, dirty and blissfully happy.

A perfect run in the woods.

Trail running tips

  • 1. Keep your eyes on the trail about 6 feet ahead as you run.
  • 2. Take shorter steps.
  • 3. Pick a line and stick with it.
  • 4. Watch for wildlife, including snakes and wasps, and poison ivy.
  • 5. Carry water.
  • 6. Beware of slippery rocks.
  • 7. If you bring a cell phone, put it in a waterproof, zippered-top bag.
  • 8. If you wear a cap, wear it backward so it doesn't block your peripheral vision.
  • 9. If you run alone, let someone know where you're going and when you expect to return.

Good places around Austin to run trails

  • 1. Barton Creek Greenbelt
  • 2. Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park
  • 3. Bull Creek District Park
  • 4. Pedernales Falls State Park
  • 5. Muleshoe Bend Recreation Area on Lake Travis
  • 6. Pace Bend Park on Lake Travis
  • 7. Hill Country State Natural Area in Bandera
  • 8. Bastrop State Park
  • 9. Brushy Creek Trail in Williamson County

Looking for trail running friends?

Want to race?

  • The Capt'n Karl's Series, a series of trail running races at three different Central Texas parks, kicks off with The Lake on July 24 at Inks Lake State Park. The Falls is Aug. 14 at Pedernales Falls State Park and The Shoe is Sept. 4 at Muleshoe Bend Recreation Area. Each race offers 10K, 30K and 60K distances. Entry fees vary from $40 to $70, depending on distance and when you register. The 10Ks all start at 8 a.m.; the 30- and 60Ks start at 7 p.m. Register at www.tejastrails.com.