A couple of years ago, while walking through lower Sage Hills, I made a discovery.
Sun setting to the west, the trails meandered beautifully, like veins. Birds were singing, beetles crawling and flowers gratuitously blossomed. Then, silently, a man ran up behind me and passed on the left. I watched as he disappeared slowly over the crest of the next hill.
The first thing I remember thinking was, “Wait, you can run up this?” It had never occurred to me before. I felt like Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch version), when he didn’t know the earth went around the sun. And just like that, the seed of trail running was planted in me. I looked around to see if anyone was watching, and then, like stepping onto the ice with skates for the first time, I went for it.
My inaugural trail run was enlightening. Wait, what was this? Leaping joyously with nothing to distract me but the pounding in my chest, heavy breathing, and the occasional snake. This was something I could get used to.
Soon I found I had a lot to learn. While there’s nothing you really need to run up and then down a hill, there are a few things that will make your experience much more comfortable, or at least less painful. And if you’re anything like me, you’re more likely to take on a new adventure if it’s less mysterious. So here I impart a little knowledge of the universe of trail running gear.
First and foremost, make sure you bring fluid — lots of fluid. Hate to sound like your mother, but until you’ve been stranded at the top of Snakebite canyon after an hour-and-a-half long run in 95-degree heat with nothing but a tiny, lukewarm pouch of Gatorade to satiate your ever-closing, dry throat, you won’t realize the true importance of proper hydration.
So you’ll need a container. My first rule of running is symmetry. Whatever you carry on one side should be matched on the other. The slightest imbalance can throw your gait off and cause annoying and unexpected injuries. Some athletes carry water bottles in each hand. Or you can carry just one and switch hands mid-run. Try not to run with a standard water bottle. The rounded physique of typical water bottles is inefficient for reasons that I won’t bore you with.
One solution is a reasonably priced, ergonomic handheld bottle. These are formed to fit in your palm comfortably and have a little bag attached to them with adjustable Velcro that hugs your hand. They alleviate hand cramping and save valuable energy. Also, the bag is a great place to store your keys and a few extra calories. Typically priced at less than $20, these are great for shorter runs — e.g. under an hour, in moderate temperatures. Amphipod makes a good one, and you can find it at Arlberg’s.
If you’ve graduated to longer runs or are running in the heat, consider investing in a trail-running water-pack. Some people run with Camelbaks, which have a pouch in the zippered area you can fill with water. These are great, until you try to let someone else drink from it, and, well, awkwardness ensues.
I prefer a hydration vest. It has a place for two water bottles, one in the front of each shoulder strap, which leaves the backpack area open for more fluids, food or gear you might want to pack. Many have straps on the sides that secure trekking poles. Just make sure you pick the right size, which depends more on your height than width as most products can adjust to your specific body type. It is important, however, that they don’t wiggle too much and that the water bottles don’t rub against your arms as you run.
You’ll also need something to put in your containers. You can choose to bring water, but then you’ll probably need to stash some electrolyte pills somewhere. However, it can be difficult to swallow pills while exercising. They can get lodged in your esophagus, which is really annoying and painful.
Fortunately, many superior products exist. There are the obvious choices: Gatorade and PowerAde. Some people say these are too sugary. During the Chelanman races this year, they were handing out HEED (high energy electrolyte drink), which is less sugary and contains more natural ingredients. I kind of liked it, especially when my kidneys started cramping roughly six hours into the race.
However, pre-made drinks can get expensive, especially if you end up using them all the time. Do yourself a favor and make your own. It’s easier than you think, and you can start to tailor the beverage to your preferences. Start with a simple recipe that you can easily find online. Search ‘homemade electrolyte drink.’ Everydayroots.com has a couple of examples to go by. Then you can start adding something different and exciting.
Avoid whiskey, as tempting as that may seem. Your special recipe can also be a great pre-race conversation starter. You’d be surprised how many people are impressed by your ability to follow simple instructions.
Now it’s time to think about your shoes. I don’t want to say you need to buy trail running shoes. I did just fine for a good year-and-a-half without them. However, over time the importance of finding the right shoes has become all too clear. I have five pairs of Merrell PureConnect2s. They are minimalist shoes for typical road running and were my inanimate best friends. I thought for sure I could run to the moon and back in them. I was wrong.
Running on roads and standard trails, most people employ a mid-foot strike. Here, a flexible shoe with minimal support can allow for a more natural stride. I assumed, wrongly, that this was also true for trail running. Unfortunately, before long, my forefoot started hurting. A lot. Running down an incline can aggravate your plantar fascia.
Also, as you lean into a steep hill, you create an imposing force on the point of impact, a force no longer spread innocuously across the archipelago of your sole. The big toe alone can bear the brunt, undergoing an eccentric (lengthening) contraction. So while your legs try to propel you to new heights, your poor toe is taking a beating. Do this enough and soon pain may radiate from that big toe through the rest of your body.
Specially designed trail shoes are rigid, distributing forward forces more evenly throughout your foot and preventing hyper-flexion in your big toe. This helps to prevent tendinitis. I’ve seen some trail shoes with a ‘rocker’ bottom that resemble a snowboard, which lets them grip better and allows the forces during footfall to distribute evenly. I have yet to try those. My weapon of choice is the Salomon CrossRacer3s. Though not my inanimate best friends, sometimes I let them come running with me, like the person you invite to the party because they know everyone but nobody knows how or why (wait, that might be me).
I am beginning to appreciate them for their indomitable nature. I’ve seen these exact shoes on many avid trail runners lately, which makes me feel like I made a good choice.
Whatever brand you choose, make sure they fit comfortably and offer good support. There is a great variety of treads and waterproofiness. You’ll have to decide what you like best. Of course, the first thing I notice is color. It’s by pure chance I bought good shoes.
One can easily get by without trekking poles. I did for years and still don’t normally use them. I typically just crash through my descents helter-skelter elated by the near misses and undeterred by the painful, bloody falls. However, if leaping awkwardly from the side slopes of unsteady single-track dirt trail speckled with rocks, roots and critters and then predictably falling into large, jagged plants and leaving much skin behind isn’t your thing, you might want to invest in some space-age walking sticks.
Also, I’ve found it’s nice to temper the cadence of your footfalls by having your arms doing something interesting and fun. Imagine running with swords. It’s exciting. I have Black diamond ultra trekking poles. They are very light and are collapsible. When folded up, they fit nicely into my hydration vest.
If you’re new to running, I’ll do you a favor and mention the one thing you don’t know you need until you’re hurting: Body Glide. It looks like a stick of deodorant and you put it on the insides of your arms where they rub against your shirt.
Last, but not least, you’ll have to pick a trail. I would start with Sage Hills. I like it in there because there are so many convenient access points. Start at the top of Maiden Lane, or find the cute little Day Drive parking lot that fits four cars and it seems is never full.
The trails in Sage Hills meander like a labyrinth without walls. They split off from one another constantly and in every direction. If you head out for a 20-minute run but are taken over by the endurance bug, there are hours worth of trails to explore. You might never cover the same spot twice. Just ... don’t get lost. When in doubt, head back towards town, which you can usually spot.
Another popular spot is the Jacobsen trailhead near the Wenatchee Racquet and Athletic Club. This has a few designated spots for trail users. Many people don’t know that one can actually run up and over Jacobsen to Saddle Rock. This run is fun because you start in one place and end up in a completely other place and no one knows from whence you came, quite like “Alice, Through the Looking Glass.” I did, however, once find a shirtless man in the middle of the winter boxing sagebrush behind Saddle Rock. That’s OK, though — it just made me run faster.
If you want a super steep option that is a run/hike/bouldering hybrid adventure, head to Colchuk Lake, where pristine alpine shorelines await you.
Icicle Ridge is also beautiful and tends to be cooler than the Wenatchee Foothills with fewer snakes. Stairway to Heaven at the top of Number 2 Canyon is also an easier climb and has more trees and late blooming wild flowers.
Of late, my favorite trail run is Devil’s Gulch. The trailhead is a little hard to find but is well worth the effort. The trail is laden with trees and is at least fifteen degrees cooler than downtown Wenatchee.
For more options and better directions there are plenty of online resources. Visit runwenatchee.com, adventurewenatchee.com or justgetout.net/wenatchee/. These will steer you in the right direction with topographical maps, recent trail openings/closings and a seemingly endless list of new places to explore.