Updated: Nov 15, 2019
Trail running seems to be a bit of a buzzword (or buzzwords, even) these days. But what exactly is trail running? Is it just reserved for those elite, hardcore runners who are bored of marathons and are looking for something more extreme? Or perhaps it's for Iron Man regulars or triathletes seeking some intense between-race training?
Or can anyone do trail running? Even me?
I say this while thinking about my measly 5km runs that I do a few times a week along the flat sections of the Innsbruck river. I’m not exactly perfect trail-running material, am I? Plus, when it comes to running, I’m a bit of a newbie since I have just taken up running again recently.
Despite my fears, I was keen to learn more about this 'new-ish' form of running (or at least, new to me), so I hopped on the train to Garmisch to discover what the fuss is all about. The 3-day 360° TRAIL event seemed like the perfect way to learn more about trail running and about the Tiroler Zugspitz Arena.
What is the 360° TRAIL event?
Over three days, you can test out materials from many of the sponsors, including Adidas, On Running, Garmin, Anita, and more while you take part in any of the trail-running events. You can also avail of afternoon pilates classes, learn about nutrition and running techniques, meet plenty of other running enthusiasts, both amateurs and professionals, and best of all, become part of an inspiring community of trail runners.
Why Zugspitz Arena?
The Tiroler Zugspitz Arena is the perfect setting for a trail-running adventure. Or any mountain adventure for that matter. Just in case you haven’t heard of it, the Zugspitze is Germany’s highest peak. So what better place to go trail running, right? Right???
All joking aside, the Zugspitze Arena is an excellent place, not just for trail running but for hiking, mountain biking, skiing, climbing, and whatever else you can think up in the mountains. And if you base yourself in Garmisch-Partenkirchen as I did then you can access all three areas of the beautiful Zugspitz area. Just don’t expect any flat trails!
But what exactly is trail running?
Trail running has become come pretty popular over the past few years. This pumped-up version of running is all the rage at the moment. It even has its own category of shoes.
Whereas just 10 or 15 years ago, it was difficult to find a pair of off-road running shoes unless you visited a specialised running shop, now they are in just about every sports shop. And brands like Adidas Terrex and On Running (two of the 360° TRAIL event sponsors) seem to be particularly knowledgeable about this type of shoe!
Why is trail running so different?
Well, on a road, you pretty much always know what to expect, apart from the odd hill or obstacle due to roadworks or unruly pedestrians or cyclists. But on the trails, the terrain is constantly changing from start to finish.
And finding the motivation to keep going on the trails is much harder than on the road. But it’s definitely worth it!
My foray into trail running
I have to admit that this was not my first encounter with off-road running. When I was a child, I took part in “cross-country”, which for all intents and purposes is a form of trail running.
Since I have nothing but fond memories of these yearly school events, it was with a touch of nostalgia, a hint of determination, and only a pinch of self-doubt felt as I headed to Bavaria for my first proper trail-running experience.
On the first morning, I enthusiastically signed up for a run. I was a bit groggy but super keen to get involved. At around 11 am, I took the bus with the other participants to the starting point.
And so it began.
We did a few warm-up exercises together and then started our ascent up the first hill. At the beginning, I hung at the back to get a feel for the level of the group. I was definitely going to be the slowest. But it didn’t matter. Simply being part of the group gave me an immense feeling that I was part of something special that day. And I knew if I pushed too hard uphill I would never make it the full 16-km distance.
The group naturally split into a separate groups. I was happy to join the “cappuccino crew”, which was the name we jokingly assigned ourselves because we were all more than happy to take it easy. We slowly made our way up the gradual ascent. The small stone path was surrounded by tall majestic trees and as I breathed in deeply, I could smell the pine trees. It was quite warm that day, but there was still that lovely cool mountain breeze.
In spite of my competitive nature and the desire to run faster, running is not something that you can just hop back into or simply go hell for leather and hope for the best. Being a decent runner takes time. Dedication. Discipline. So, I tried to pace myself.
After a few kilometres, I relaxed a little bit and it started to feel like I had really hit my stride. We continued to run through the most unimaginable scenery. Quaint country towns, fields dotted with grazing cows, and lush green trees that seem to get taller and taller as we made our way through the constantly changing terrain.
At one point, we rounded a corner and the scenery opened up to reveal a beautiful crystal clear lake. The water was a colour I had never seen before. An indescribable shade of translucent green-blue that glistened in the sun. The mountains towered around us and everything seemed so full of life.
Despite my lack of preparedness, the experience was incredible. If this is trail running, I thought to myself, I’m in.
The cappuccino crew included just three: me, another participant, and the lovely Sandra Mastropietro.
Sandra is a professional runner and a super impressive chick. Just a week before she had completed the epic trans-alpine run — 8 gruelling days crossing 3 countries via the Alps. Easy, right? So she confessed that she was more than happy to do a leisurely run with us that day.
As we ran (and sometimes walked!), Sandra chatted about her running career. She also told us a bit about her charity work in India and some of the highlights of her career as an endurance athlete. I almost started to forget that I was running.
And then reality kicked in
My body was aching and I was exhausted. I thought to myself: if I just keep going a little bit further I’ll make it. Mind over matter, right?
Wrong. By the 10th kilometre, I had to walk. I attempted to run a bit more. Then, defeated, I came to a stop after kilometre number 12.
My 'training' had proved to be seriously inadequate. And that day, I broke all the rules: Don’t increase your speed by more than 10 per cent; Don’t increase your distance by more than 10 per cent. I’m not sure if it’s even possible to compare the effort required for a leisurely 5-km run to the challenges of trail running.
When I finally stopped, I immediately had a vision of 15-year-old me coming dead last in a 1500-metre race. But this wasn’t a race or a competition. So, as the sun shone down, I mustered up whatever energy I had left to swallow my pride. No point in suffering through another four gruelling kilometres.
Plus, there were another two full days of adventure to come. So, I bid farewell to the other runners and headed in the direction of the main exhibition in Garmisch. Luckily, I managed to snag a lift with two of the event photographers.
Back at the exhibition area, I made a B-line for the taping stand. A bit of physio tape and some serious stretching would fix everything (hopefully) and get me ready for my next challenge the following morning.
The rest of the weekend
That night, all of the participants and organisers went to the 'Hüttenabend' at Gamsalm in Ehrwald; some ran and some walked. After my earlier exertion, I decided it was best to walk, which was equally enjoyable. Not least, because of the incredible views just before sunset.
For the remainder of the evening, everyone drank beers and ate delicious food in the gorgeous hut, before heading back down the mountain by torchlight for some much-needed sleep.
During the next two days, I had the opportunity to explore the exhibition, attend the daily pilates classes, to speak with all of the reps, and learn as much as I could about trail running. But the biggest surprise for me was discovering the amazing community that comes with it. I had no idea so many people were passionate about trail running — be careful, it seems to be contagious.
That weekend, I also had the opportunity to take part in a different experience — canyoning with Alpinschule Lermoos. I definitely recommend checking them out if you're in the area. I’ll spare you the details right now, but it was an altogether great day — who knew that jumping off cliffs into icy cold rivers and abseiling down waterfalls could be so much fun?
Then, on Sunday, I discovered the pleasure and the pain of e-biking! Not bad for one weekend. The Tiroler Zugspitz Arena has so much to offer.
So here are my thoughts on trail running (post-event)
My introduction to trail running was a humbling experience, but I’m definitely keen to keep doing it. I absolutely love running and trail running simply adds another dimension to a sport I enjoy immensely. One month later and I’m still just as enthusiastic about my future as a trail runner (amateur obviously!).
Even though I was a bit apprehensive about throwing myself into a new environment, the event gave me the encouragement I needed to start running more often and push myself a bit harder, and to hit up the trails around Innsbruck every now and then. So I guess my foray into trail running wasn’t a foray after all. Trail running may be here to stay.
Just last weekend, I made it up to Rumer Alm (near Innsbruck), gasping and exhausted, but overjoyed when I reached the top. And equally delighted that there was a nice cold Radler waiting for me!
I still sometimes get discouraged. But then one of those magical moments happens, especially in the autumn: As I am running along the river and deeply inhaling the fresh autumn air, the sun appears from behind the clouds and shines on the mountains, the buildings, and all the colourful leaves on the trees, giving the city a beautiful shimmer.
So I run a little faster, embracing the slight chill in the air, and I can feel the tiniest of goose pimples all over my body. I try to hold back a big smile (for fear of looking like a crazy person) but I can’t help it, and even though I’m in the city and every muscle in my body is screaming and I feel like my lungs might burst as I push my limits, I also feel calm, a clear head, and a sense of inner strength. And I’m reminded again why I run.
And trail running is just another awesome way to enjoy running.!
Learn more about 360° TRAIL here. The event was organised by Monika Fiedler and Sabrina Weiss of Fiedler Concepts. Check some of their other events including both winter and summer camps here. Also, check out my advice on how to survive your first trail running experience.