Whether you’ve wrapped up your racing for the year – like me! – or still have a holiday-themed title to claim, you’ve undoubtedly lent at least a little thought to your 2017 race calendar. If you’re a roadie, would you consider hitting a trail? Or, if trails are more your thing, would you consider satisfying your need for speed on the road? Here are a few things to consider in finalizing next year’s plans.

Trail ‘pros’

  • Aid station hors d’oeuvres. Pretzels, peanut butter tortilla roll ups, cocoa covered espresso beans! Oh my! Trail marathons generally mean a plethora of snacks at aid stations that could almost go toe-to-toe with a star-studded super bowl party spread. Once at a trail race aid station, I feasted on quesadillas. Yeah, you heard me right. QUESADILLAS. Warm, cheesy, life-giving gooey goodness. I ate five.
  • Recover me. Racing on the trails often equates to running a generally slower pace, particularly in the case of elevation gain along the course. This notion, paired with the aforementioned awesomeness of aid station fuel break temptation, means the possibility for interruptions to racing stride. These bite-sized running breaks can add up for tired muscles needing a brief respite. By the third evening following each of my trail marathons so far, I was able to run without pain and at a regular training pace. A few good nights’ sleep, some solid post-run recover grub, and making mental notes of lessons learned were all it took before I was thinking about my next race.

Trail ‘cons’

  • Slighted spectator sightings. Courses winding in and out of trees up and down steep and sometimes technical terrain aren’t typically optimal for a lawn chair and picnic of snacks for the average spectator to cheer runners past. While a few kindred trail spirits may endure a bit of physical exertion to spot you, a trail marathon can often mean short and long stretches of single-track solitude. Be prepared for some good quality time talking to yourself; be aware that while challenging trails often are, this quality time may not always be pretty.
  • Tick, tock. Albeit more rewarding to feel bare earth underneath your feet and to see the city skyline from a distant peak – OK, OK, maybe I’m a bit biased here – properly training for a trail race may mean a greater time commitment to reach the trails. Even a quick training run just outside of the city can easily add up to a 45-minute drive for a run after work depending on traffic for me, and that means a little over an hour total (including driving time home) less to spend taking care of daily ‘to dos.’

Road ‘pros’

  • Supercharged spectator spunk. Whether a race turns out to be your best or worst, spectator support can make it a race you’ll never forget, especially when lining the course with costumes and offering fuel sources only found ‘outside the box’ – donuts, bacon, and even beer if you’re lucky! Road marathons are typically much more spectator friendly than those on trails, and a cheerleader or two can go a long way for motivation to maintain the facade that pain isn’t consuming any single part – or every inch – of your body and your thoughts.
  • Tick, tock. Training for the road is pretty convenient since roads are readily accessible just a few steps outside your front door. To quote one of my own favorite mantras, ‘the harder you run, the faster you’re done’ – and on to the rest of your weekday or the post-race party over the weekend … and that tasty finish line reward in the form of a cold, frosty adult beverage in exchange for the tear-away ticket attached to your bib. Smooth, flat asphalt courses mean faster race times and less time spent running, period. Prior to the Bank of America Chicago Marathon this past month, I had only run one trail marathon – with a course profile about as polar opposite as you can get from the streets of Chicago – four times. It’ll be awfully nice not to get funny looks anymore when answering questions of my marathon PR, previously just over six hours!

Road ‘cons’

  • Aid station hors d’oeuvres ouch. One of the best pieces of advice I got prior to my first road marathon was to prepare for slim pickings at aid stations. While excellent running fuel, the full menu – only available at a handful of aid stations, mind you – plastic cupfuls of electrolyte-fortified drinks and water, energy gels, and bananas – paled in comparison to the smorgasbordto which my spoiled trail running taste buds had become accustomed on race day.
  • Recover me! My run exactly one calendar month following my first road marathon attempt marked the first time that I hadn’t felt the aches and pains that began plaguing me a few hours after crossing the finish line. The constant running gait, uninterrupted by elevation gain and gourmet aid station grub, had taken its toll. Every slow and painful excuse for a step earned me only a few inches at a time to the point that hitting a porta potty, grabbing a frothy-topped beer, posing at a race photographer’s request, and collecting my drop bag on my way to the 27th mile post-race party took over an hour. I shuffled through the next several days, dreading any and all staircases and inevitably wincing to pull myself back up to a standing position after sitting for prolonged periods of time – a far cry from my three-day bounce back rule of trail marathoning.

No matter what your running palate’s preferred poison, consider taking on a different kind of challenge in 2017. You may find a new passion of a refined running taste.


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