John Farah tackled the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru in 2005.
PHOTO: Courtesy John Farah
John Farah tackled the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru in 2005.

Story highlights

Running expert advocates going off-road to help runners train

Trails aren't just a test of cardio but of strength, agility, balance and endurance

"There's something deeply spiritual about being in nature," expert says

Editor’s Note: John Farah is the co-author of “Let’s Pick it up a Bit,” a memoir and a guide to help people lead an active life. He has run more than 430 races, including 123 marathons.

(CNN) —  

It’s 6:15 a.m. Saturday, September 22. A dark and quiet autumn dawn.

All I can see are tiny lights weaving up and down rhythmically in the darkness: miniature lamps strapped to runners heads’ like coal miners to keep them from getting lost, running into each other or running into something far worse.

“Roots!” someone yells, and like an echo the warning is repeated down the line, from one person to another.

Then “rocks!” and “more rocks!” and “stump!” and “more stumps!” until finally people realize there is no end to the roots, rocks or stumps, so they shut up.

This was the start of Dances with Dirt, a 50K trail run of mostly uncharted territory in southeastern Michigan. This was the Potawatomi Trail.

I first tackled Dances with Dirt 22 years ago. I heard the race’s slogan – “Not for Wimps” – and knew it was the race for me. But like most sane human beings, I originally stuck with running only a half-marathon.

This was my first time attempting the monstrous 50K; that’s 31 grueling miles that even seasoned runners speak of with awe. Now, after 15 miles of dodging swamps, fallen trees and poison ivy, I was starting to understand why. I was also loving every second of it.

I felt less like a runner and more like a character in “The Last of the Mohicans.”

Running off-road is smart for a million reasons, whether you’re taking part in a small local race or a national sensation like Tough Mudder.

Of course, there are the physical benefits. With all the natural obstacles, trails aren’t just a test of cardio but of strength, agility, balance and endurance, in the fullest sense of the word. A little bit of rain, and you could find yourself in buckets of mud, slipping and sliding over dangerously steep hills.

But I’ve found that trail running is about more than the physical.

There’s something deeply spiritual about being in nature, surrounded by the elements and having to blaze your own path. Maybe it’s because so much of life is also about blazing your own path on a figurative level: making your own decisions, choosing the direction that feels right in your gut and just going for it.

Or maybe it’s just the sound of sandhill cranes echoing through the trees or the glimmer of sunlight reflecting on the stillness of a river as you run by.

Whatever it is, with all its hurdles, its fallen trees and narrow, twisted trails, the Potawatomi Trail is one of the few places in the world where I find peace.

And that, more than any other reason – the thrill, the adventure or even the insanity – is what made me finally run the full 31 miles at Dances with Dirt.

Trail tips

Whether you’re taking on 31 miles or three, it’s important to be well-prepared before you make the move from a treadmill or road running to a rugged trail. Here are a few lessons I had to learn the hard way:

The right stuff: Make sure you wear long socks or tights to protect your legs from the brush – and, most important, poison ivy. If you run in shorts, use a cream like Ivy Block, which does exactly what it says it does. Light gloves can also be helpful in case you take a tumble.

Fancy footwork: I’ve found cross-trainers too heavy, but trail shoes can be great for added traction. Whatever shoes you wear, be alert for roots, mud and ice. Dodging obstacles is half the fun!

The buddy system: Especially if you’re going out on a long trail for the first time, take a friend with you – not to mention a map, preferably in a waterproof pouch in case it rains. If you sprain an ankle, the last thing you want is to be lost and alone.

Soak it up: Life isn’t a race, even if you happen to be running one. Don’t be afraid to slow down and enjoy the nature!

The finish line

Over the final 15 miles on the Potawatomi Trail, I got lost three times and found out the hard way that the second half of the race is even hillier than the first. It started raining, and I was sliding everywhere.

My legs were wasted, and my muscles cramped big time. Not a good thing when you have miles to go. I started imagining myself walking the rest of the way. It sucked.

Then, suddenly, right in front of me, I saw it like an apparition through the heavy rain: the finish mat. (A finish “line” would have been destroyed by the elements, so they used a mat instead.) I crossed it in six hours and 38 minutes.

In the days after the race, when I could barely make it down the stairs from the pain, I would ask myself, Why do I do this?

Then I’d remember the sounds of those sandhill cranes in the hills, and my legs wouldn’t feel so bad anymore.