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The how-to book for trail running

Experienced trail runners know what Sarah Lavender Smith means when she writes, “All the way up to the summit and back down.”

Those new to trail running may not understand the thrill of ascents and descents. But there is plenty of useful information for them to embrace in Smith’s 296-page book, “The Trail Runner’s Companion.”

In her book, Smith covers everything new trail runners need to know — from training to gear to nutrition to trail safety to ultra racing to core exercises. The book is thorough, easy to read and educational. In fact, even the most experienced of trail runners will learn — or relearn — a thing of two about the sport they cherish.

Smith provided me a digital copy of the book to read and review. As someone who has more than five years of trail running experience, I was able to glean useful information especially as it pertains to ultras and trail safety (since the trails I routinely use lack any threatening animals).

In the chapter about tapering, she humorously advises, “Be wary of new or unusual activities that could hurt you. In other words, it’s not a good idea to take up rollerblading while tapering!

When it comes to nutrition, Smith dishes out her “8 Principles for Healthy and Balanced Eating.” She worked with a sports nutritionist in late 2015 and early 2016 to find the right balance for her.

Smith agreed to an interview about her running, writing and more. Here are some excerpts:

Question: Let’s go back to the days of the “burrito queen.” What would College Sarah think of Modern Sarah and her passion for running?

Answer: I think the “pre-runner me” would have felt optimism and motivation from glimpsing an ultra running version of me. I always had an inner athlete and a love of the trails, developed through horseback riding and camping trips. I wanted to be healthy and in shape. But I grew up in a household of smokers and did not have athletic role models. Running felt painful and like punishment in phys ed class. I needed to get off the track, and discover running on my own terms, to fall in love with it. I think the earlier version of me would have admired the ultra runner, because I had a rebellious streak, and there’s something fringe and wacky about ultra-distance trail running.

Q: The finish of your first trail race, a marathon, is a stark comparison to most road marathons. There’s little crowd support. You finished alone. Why does that seem to inspire you and others?

A: Perhaps because it’s so raw and pure. Big-city road marathons have so much hoopla and support. Tough, low-profile trail races become a test of you versus the trail. You get stripped down to the essentials of endurance and toughness.

Q: A couple of times in the book you write, "Take what the trail gives you.” Explain what that means.

A: It means, on one level, to do the best and adapt to whatever the trail presents. The trail is always unpredictable and changing, unlike a flat paved road. If it’s hilly and rocky, then do your best to get up and over it efficiently. If it’s so muddy that it’s sucking off your shoe, then laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation and get through the mucky muck with a relaxed sense of humor. If it grants you a smooth, buffed-out ribbon of single track that you can run, then make the most of it and run with your heart. The saying also is a subtle reminder that trail running is a gift, an opportunity presented to us. Don’t take it for granted. Appreciate the opportunity and access to run trails.

Q: In a couple of different places, you encourage runners to support local running stores. Tell me why that is important.

A: Independently owned local running stores do more than sell shoes. They form a community hub. They’re like bookstores versus Amazon. They employ locals, support local events, and dispense great advice. I encourage runners to support their local running shop to strengthen their community.

Q: You advise, “Be brave while trail running, but don’t be stupid.” Talk about the balance between a challenging adventure and when it’s wise to pick another route, or turn back due to weather or other uncontrollable conditions. What should be an indication to trail runners of when to call it a day?

A: It’s not a bad thing to feel fear. Sometimes fear is your intuition telling you that something is unsafe. If you are sensing a change in weather that could be risky, then be conservative and respond appropriately. It’s good to question whether you have enough calories, enough daylight hours, enough layers of clothing to handle an accident. If you had to stop for 20 minutes or more due to a sprained ankle, could you handle the weather and have enough calories and hydration? If your answer is no, then perhaps it’s best to turn back. I take a tough ‘Do not quit’ attitude when racing, but on a solo training run, I'm cautious and prepare for worst-case scenarios.

(Photo credit Mauna / Mauna Ultra)

Q: In the chapter about signing up for trail races, you compare the differences between lining up at a road race vs. a trail race.: “When I line up for a trail race, regardless of the distance, I feel a goofy, amped-up excitement, like a kid approaching Disneyland. When I join the crowd at the start of a road race, however, I feel like I’m back in high school about to take the SAT.” Expand on that thought — you’re an experienced runner, why is that you have different responses to pre-race emotions?

A: Road races are more intensely competitive, and minutes or even seconds matter. It’s highly stressful. In trail races, I generally do not really race others until the final one-third of the route. The first two-thirds, I’m establishing my rhythm, taking care of my body, minding my pace, enjoying the scenery. Then, I kick it into high gear toward the end. It’s more enjoyable, less stressful.

And ultra runners routinely find that pleasure from the start line to the finish line, though of course, there are low spots in between. Smith eloquently captures what makes trail running so special with a description of one of her races:

“With no one around to watch, I sprinted past trees and bushes in the final stretch and felt more heroic than when I ran past throngs in the final mile of the Boston Marathon. I burst over the finish line with a grand total of about a dozen people watching — the handful of guys who’d finished the marathon, the woman who beat me, the race director, and some volunteers. They applauded and greeted me as if I were a star. The race director hugged me. I high-fived the first-place woman and told her I thought she was amazing.”

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