Trail vs. Road Running: A Tale of Two (Very Different) Marathons

The London Marathon and the Blue Sky Trail Marathon are two very different races. Yes, one is a prestigious, fast road marathon while the other takes runners on a fun, demanding journey through Colorado’s Front Range with 3,500 feet of elevation gain, but that’s where the differences are just beginning. Let’s look at some of the differences in the case of Trail vs Road Running.

Written by Karen Peterson
Edited by Pavlína Marek

Coach Karen Peterson visited the Old Continent and Good Ole’ Colorado to put together the Tale of Two (Very Different) Marathons, finding and sharing good running advice one can learn from these very different environments. How does not only training but overall race preparation differ in trail vs road running?

The London Marathon: Fast and (not too) Furious

Now that travel restrictions have eased, I’m back at it with my day job as senior manager of special initiatives for an international conservation organization based in Berkeley. Thanks to that, I had the opportunity to finally return to Sri Lanka last month.

On my way through London during the homeward journey, I stopped for a few nights to hang out with my nephew who lives there. London is a favorite city of mine; gorgeous sites, amazing museums, fantastic food, and a diversity of cultures that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. Much to my delight, the London Marathon was taking place during my brief stopover. And my nephew’s partner and her dad were running their first 26.2-mile journey!

On race day, I dropped off my bags at my hotel and hoofed it through Hyde Park to the finish area, at The Mall adjacent to the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace. With 40,000 runners, logistics weren’t too crazy, and it was easy to find our runners and other celebrants after their finish.

Here are a few observations I want to share with you from hanging out at mile 25 and the finish:

  • SHOES: Don’t skimp – when it comes to footwear, you get what you pay for. Use your training time to identify the best shoe for you; take the time to go to an awesome local running store and get professional advice (AND buy from them).
  • SMILE: It’s been scientifically proven that smiling releases dopamine, endorphins and serotonin. Even if you aren’t *really* feeling it, smile during your training runs! You get to do this! Celebrate your healthy body and community!
  • FUEL: Think through your aid station stops. Be aware that they may be crowded. If you don’t want to carry your own food on race day, know what is being offered up in the food and drink categories and try it all out during your training to make sure it agrees with you. Don’t skip the goodies – if you have to wait a bit to have the awesome volunteers and race staff help you out, know you’ll make that time up by being better fueled for the remainder of your run.
  • SUPPORT: Enlist your fan base! Signs, costumes, and good old plain cheering on the part of friends and family will go a long way in energizing you during the race – and helping you take care of yourself after your finish. It’ll be important that your cheer squad take care of themselves too; just the logistics to spectate and cheer at a major marathon are a lot! Everyone needs to stay well fed and watered.
  • CHAFING: Use an anti-chafing product generously PRIOR to the start. Trust me, you don’t want to chafe in the areas where I was seeing blood at mile 25…
  • RACE DAY PLANS: Plan for before and after; I saw a woman with a medal around her neck trudging toward the train station with her suitcase in tow. She looked so tired! Try to plan an easy evening after your race is over; a celebratory dinner sounds great in the lead-in to your event but give yourself contingency plans and allow yourself to do what feels right.

Blue Sky Trail Marathon: Slow and Steady

I enjoy the trail-running community here in Northern Colorado a lot. I haven’t felt the racing bug going into fall, so in the past few weeks, I’ve volunteered as sweep (a volunteer who follows the final participant and removes course markings) at two half marathons and, last Saturday, a good part of the Blue Sky Trail Marathon, run on public lands in Fort Collins. 

A friend and I followed the final participant for 17.5 miles to the finish, gaining and descending close to 3,000 feet in elevation. This was the runner’s first marathon: picking a tough trail marathon that starts at around 6,000 feet of elevation sure was ambitious!

Here’s what I took away from that five hours on the trail:

  • PLANNING & ADAPTATION: Stick to your plan but adapt if you need to. This guy wore a pack with a hydration bladder, and he also had some of his own food packed, but he really dug the peanut butter pretzels that were offered at mile 18! The adage “don’t try anything new on race day” is legit, but you may have to gently follow a craving or two later in the race.
  • LISTEN & ACT: Be proactive about addressing how your body feels at any given moment; this guy stopped to stretch every few miles, and it helped him head to the finish stronger and looser. 
  • CELEBRATE: You. Are. A RUNNER!! No matter where you are in the pack, celebrate your body and spirit every time you run. 
  • EAT! Then eat some more! Our final runner took a few burgers for the road as he had a two-hour drive ahead of him. (Happily, his partner was there to take the wheel so he could lounge in the passenger seat with his pup.) Eating early on during AND after your race will help you kick-start recovery.

Volunteering: Your Personal Opportunity to Learn

Though your own race day may seem like a long time from now, look for opportunities to volunteer at local events. Running events are unusual in how essential volunteers are. I promise you that it will be very fulfilling and inspiring and will arm you with knowledge for your own race. It will also drive home how awesome YOU are for being out there, no matter what your pace!


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