Monday, June 7, 2010

Review of "The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running" by Adam Chase and Nancy Hobbs

Ann Trason said that “Comrades is more for the head” and “Western States is more for the heart.” This key distinction may be due to several factors, not least of which is terrain. Western States is run on the trails of California’s Sierra Nevada. Comrades is a road race. “[At Western States] you're competing more against the trail than the competitors,” she said. “You have to know the trail and feel the trail and communicate with nature.” Anyone who has run through the woods or up a mountain can relate. There is magic on the trails. You know it.

In “The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running,” Adam Chase and Nancy Hobbs talk about the psychological differences between trail runners and road racers. “The attitudinal distinction,” they conclude, “is one between a quest for speed and distance versus pursuing something for an intrinsic, yet immeasurable, experience.”

Their book explores a wide range of topics about this fast-growing endurance sport, including equipment, clothing, stretching, strength training, nutrition, injury prevention, and running strategy. The problem with writing about such broad subject matter is that you can only cover the issues in a topical way. It leaves a lot wanting.

Some of the most fascinating issues are barely touched upon. What is the reason for the gender disparity in trail race participation (68% men, 32% women)? Why do so many runners have eating disorders?

Maybe it is unfair to expect answers to such questions from a guidebook. This is not an exhaustive study of the sport, but then again, it doesn’t set out to be. It is a helpful handbook, especially for beginning trail runners, touching on nearly every conceivable point. Particularly useful are the sections on running up and down hills and choosing a good shoe.

There are a few diagrams throughout the book, including charts on the effects of altitude on performance and illustrations of certain stretching exercises. The book could have used a few more illustrations, particularly ones identifying the various parts of a trail shoe and proper uphill and downhill running form.
Another problem: do you find the following training schedule to be, say, inviting to read?

I didn’t think so either. Possible tweak suggestion for the third edition, maybe.

The more interesting aspects of the book, if not the most useful, are the stories and tips related by other runners. Kami Semick writes a piece about ultra training, in which she recommends matching the training terrain on long runs to the terrain of the goal race. It’s always nice to read how the great ones do it. Jim Garcia, who turned in an impressive 14:35:27 performance at the Rocky Raccoon 100-mile Trail Run is reported to have eaten Boston Market mashed potatoes and gravy during the race. He stored his power food in a squeeze tube that he kept on ice in his drop bag.

What makes this book stand out from other trail running guidebooks is its final chapter on directing a race. Generously included are a pre- and post-race timeline, a sample race budget, and a sample press release. The authors have also provided a list of trail running organizing bodies, like the USA Track & Field and the American Trail Running Association. These inclusions are much appreciated. They serve to remind us just how varied the topic of trail running can really be. Ultrarunning is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s also skyrunning (high-altitude running), snowshoe running, and burro racing. Ever heard of hashing? Google it. Doesn’t it sound fun?

And you thought there wasn’t much to write about trail running.

It really is a magical sport and more needs to be written about it. It is not a new sport (trail races dates back to as early as 1068 in Scotland). Still there is much to write about. Advances in sports science and medicine are often being made. New running products come out all the time. More people are taking to the trails every year. We trail runners need books like these to help expand and develop the sport.

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