It’s All About the Trail Shoes

Sunday Runday and with less than two weeks until my first in-person race in over a year and a half I found myself facing a morning run dilemma.

New shoes.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining about new shoes.

Quite the opposite.

While on vacation in the mountains a few weeks ago I finally found a pair of trail shoes in my size and splurged. The next morning I broke them in with an (a previously blogged about) eight kilometer trail run up some steep incline and early morning terrain in the wilderness beauty of our National Park system, and then …

… well … that dilemma I mentioned a couple paragraphs back compounded itself: I haven’t run any trail since, and the shoes had been sitting by my front door looking more forlorn than the dog when she needs her morning walk, and that other thing I mentioned in my opening sentence about an upcoming trail race kept nagging in the back of my mind.

In two weeks I’m headed back out to the trails we visited last month for our little adventure with the wasps. Apparently the wasp situation has cooled alongside the weather, but neither of those things cooling off negates the fact that I’m signed up to run a roller-coaster single track trail half marathon quasi-ultra later this month.

And as of this morning I’d run a mere eight kilometers in that brand new pair and brand new style (to me) of shoes.

I tossed them into my backseat this morning on my way to meet my running crew and humbly suggested that we maybe, possibly, if anyone was interested run some trails as our Sunday route.

There were some hefty dark clouds lurking to the west and the forecast (though cloudy and dry as we left) was for some light drizzle after a good soaking overnight.

We decended into the river valley and into the rain-soaked single track weaving through the forests. The leaves are starting to yellow as the days shorten and fall creeps ever closer.

By the time we exited that first stretch, my new shoes were clumped with mud and each weighed about a kilogram heavier than when I had entered.

I was also dragging a small branch clinging to my heel, and I pulled off to the side of the path to clear the worst of it into the wet grass.

A bit further down along we turned upwards towards a short ascent and into a utility corridor between the highway and the neighbourhood where the ankle-deep grass was still sopping with last night’s rain.

Onward looped us into more single track and by the time we found our exit back into the asphalt of the nearby suburban streets not only were all our feet soaking wet and muddy, but the rains had truly arrived and would not let up again until we were well done the other half of our morning run.

Soaked. Dirty. Tired. Epic.

All for a pair of trail shoes…

…and, oh, of course, the mental confidence that goes along with logging another medium-length trial run using those shoes, breaking them in, trialing them out, and generally assuring myself of their fit and function leading into that upcoming race.

Gear: Skin 4 Hydration Vest

As the summer runs get longer (and hotter) I’ve picked up a new bit of gear to assist with the ever-present runner’s dilemma: hydration.

I don’t think I need to write too many words on the subject of why water is important to … um … being alive, but certainly the effort of carrying enough fresh water (or other fluids that both fuel and hydrate) on a long distance run is a complex challenge for anyone who is out there on the trails.

Water, of course, is heavy and clumsy.

A bottle in the hand is something that needs to be carried, balanced, and on the trails two free hands are more useful than one might realize. On a short run taking a small bottle along is just fine, but an hour into a longer run the last thing I want to be carrying is a half-full plastic bottle that’s sloshing around in my hand.

I’ve used water belts in the past, but sloshing along with a couple plastic containers on your hip is a moderate inconvenience. And I have yet to do a race a not see multiple dropped belt-bottles littering the course, usually in the first five hundred meters of the race when someone’s carefully planned hydration plan is now just garbage and an obstacle for the next hundreds of people who run by.

I’ve tried a couple hydration packs in the past, the key differences from a hydration vest being the kinds of shoulder straps and the location of pouches. A pack is basically a light backpack with a water pouch. And my biggest problem with my previous pack solution was that usually within ten kilometers into a run I was running with my thumbs hitched up under the thin straps to limit the whole apparatus from that chafe-inducing jostling that was already well underway.

Last week I pried open my wallet and ordered myself what is probably the sports-car-equivalent of hydration solutions: a Salomon Skin 4 Hydration Vest, a snug fitting, light-weight, multi-pocket four-liter backpack-slash-vest designed to hold water bottles, a water bladder, gel packs, cell phones, car keys, and whatever else a distance runner might need quick access to while on the trails.

The new pack arrived yesterday and I wore it for our regular Wednesday evening adventure run.

The advantage of this pack, or so the logic of the purchase goes, is that it is snug. I have no honest comparison, but I assume it’s a little like wearing a sports bra overtop of a running shirt. This tight fit is both deliberate and a feature. It keeps the whole system from moving, shaking, jostling, and rubbing, and is meant to wear comfortably and securely for hours of running while keeping the hands free for trail navigation.

Our adventure run took us deep into some rolling river valley trails, the kind of terrain where your legs are slapped by branches as bumble through the trails and as you scramble up over steep dirt paths, grabbing onto tree stumps and protruding roots. I only carried a bit of water, as it was a short sub-ten kilometer run, but a set of car keys, my wallet and an iPhone tucked neatly into the pack and

… well … success!

I barely noticed the pack after the first few minutes.

A better test will come this weekend, as temperatures creep into the mid-30s Celsius and our distances move into the longer-than-a-half-marathon slogs through that same heat. I can’t say I’m not nervous about both the heat and the mileage, but at least now I’m pretty certain I won’t die of thirst.

*This is gear I've purchased for myself and not a paid endorsement of this product.

How should you dress to run in spring thaw conditions?

Here in the western prairies of Canada winter is usually a deep, frozen trio of months shouldered by an unpredictable autumn at the front end and a sloppy, scattered mess of thawing weather on the tail.

It’s Sunday, Runday, and this morning we ran a ten kilometer spring run through that some of that scattered mess of weather.

The thing is, I know how to dress for cold. And I know how to dress for summer. But this Spring thing is so unpredictable I still almost always get it wrong. So what’s my (modest) advice?

Flexible Headwear. I have this spring hat trick using a buff, one of those thin and multipurpose tubes of fabric. You can make a half-twist in the middle, invert one end over the other, and voila: you have a light touque. And then half way into the run when the touque is too hot, you can untwist it, make it into a single layer tube. Or if the wind picks up, you can pull it down around your neck. If you’re still too hot, you can scrunch or fold it up and stuff it into a pocket. And when you all stop for coffee at the end of the run, you can double it up again and pull it over your face for a makeshift pandemic facemask. The point is, it’s a flexible piece of clothing. The borderline weather of spring requires you to be ready to add, remove, add, then remove again anything and everything you’re wearing.

Waterproof Traction. Today our run wasn’t too wet, but last weekend the temperatures were a just the right temperatures that the paths were about one-third packed snow, one third overnight ice slicks, and one third ankle-deep puddles (in the sunshiny spots). This means if our feet weren’t slipping on slick patches of mirror-finished frozen puddles, we were sloshing through their thawed cousins. The thaw season is too short to buy special shoes for this, but double layer socks help, and it doesn’t hurt to keep the “winter tires” (those shoes with a little extra traction and a little less venting) out for another couple weeks until things dry up.

Light Gloves. No one ever regrets a pair of light gloves this time of year. What else is there to say? Warm hands are the best and no matter hot warmed up you get, the fingers are usually the last to benefit from increased circulation. And more importantly running with your hands in your pockets down icy trails is the quickest way to smacking your face into the still-frozen ground. You’re going to need those hands ready (and warm) to catch you when you inevitably fall.

Vents & Zippers. Long pants or shorts? Long sleeves or jacket? The temperature changed by five degrees during our one hour run this morning, and then between the sunshine and the shade it was another five degrees. Factor in body heat and that’s a lot of temperature variation. Jackets with zippers that can be unzipped and re-zipped are useful. Clothing with breathable air vents are handy. Light coats with big old armpit zipper vents are amazing and were made for mornings like today. It you can find a pair of running pants that somehow become shorts half way through your outing, you’ve struck it rich for a spring run.

Sunglasses. It can be sunny (and thus sunglass season) for much of the year, but there is something about that low spring sun poking between the tree branches that just begs for eye protection. Also, if you’re anything like me, you wear a brimmed hat in the summer which helps with the high sun, or you run mostly in the dark in winter when a headlamp is more useful. In the spring, especially at our latitude, the sun has just poked up out of the east when we’re setting out on the trails, and it takes the better part of the morning to climb out of that annoying band of the horizon where looking forward somehow also means you’re staring at the blinding glare of our nearest star. I could go without shades for ten months of the year, but spring has one of the months when I don’t run without them.

How should you dress to run in winter?

The saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad wardrobe choices.

Yet, as I prepare to post these words on this Sunday Runday it is -34 degrees Celsius on the other side of my front door and this morning I’m leaning on the fallacy of that statement: that’s actually pretty bad weather.

I do run in the cold, frequently.

When I run in the cold a few simple rules apply.

Layer. Head to toes, it’s generally seems more effective when I have multiple varied layers of clothing than fewer. Layering not only traps warm air in the spaces between the layers, which is what keeps you insulated and warm, but it provides opportunity to select different fabrics for different jobs: insulation, wicking, wind breaking. It also allows you to shed a layer as you warm up.

Tuck. As valuable as lots of layers are, I find they are even more valuable as things are tucked into other things. Sock cuffs pulled over long underwear legs. Shirt hems slipped between skin and the underwear band. Neck buff squeezed under the shirt collar. Half way into your winter run is no time to figure out that there is a freezing breeze sneaking through a gap in your clothing defence.

Head. I often apply the layering and tucking rules to the head and neck as well, but I call it out here because getting the right gear on your noggin is a specifically important point worth mentioning. Ears get frostbite very easily. The neck line and face are tough to work around with the need to breath and all that. And you can make a snug-fit inner hat by turning a buff inside out, twisting it a three-quarter turn at the 60/40 split point, then inverting the longer side over the shorter.

Traction. Often overlooked in cold weather running is proper footwear. Ice is everywhere when the weather turns cold, and deep snow can slip into the air vents of shoes quickly freezing toes and packing into the tips of toes leading to injury on long runs. Specialized shoes are a great investment if you’re a dedicated winter runner. Or, if you’re only sticking to cleared pathways a pair of pull-over traction grips like Yaktrax will last you multiple seasons and store conveniently with your winter gear or in the backseat of a vehicle.

Support. Having a support line is too often taken for granted in cold weather running. If your winter wardrobe doesn’t include easy access to a running partner, or a phone if you’re going out solo, don’t go. Someone always knows where I am on my winter runs. Things can go bad so much more quickly in the cold, and after a few kilometers of sweaty exercise, a damp runner who slips on the ice or twists their ankle in a snowbank can be in huge trouble.