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From the road to a trail—how I found a second wind on the trails

For those of you "road" or "track" runners, hitting the trails can be a glorious and exhilarating experience. Whether you are a trail regular, or just a newbie trail runner, we highly recommend hitting the dirt and exploring the wilderness around you. You never know, you may just fall in love with it, like our RADrabbit Craig Prater did.  Read more about Craig's transition from the road to the trail in his own words below:


From the road to a trail—how I found a second wind on the trails

Solo early morning trail in the countryside in France.

“Oh, you can keep running. You will just want to think about how long you want to go until your knee replacement.”  Wait, what???  This is the conversation I had with a physician’s assistant after my last knee surgery.  My second.  On the same knee.  More of my meniscus had been removed—not much left now—and the surgery had revealed pretty significant arthritis.  Not really the news I had been hoping for as a running addict. 

Flashback—I’d been on a great road racing streak. I started running in my mid-40s. At age 49, I’d broken the 3 hour mark in the marathon.  At 50+ I had a couple of half marathons in the 1:21-1:22 range and had broken the 5 minute mark in a local mile race (with downhill assist, but hey, I’ll take it), and run in the U.S. national master 8K championships.  And things were just getting better.  My tempo runs were starting to routinely dipping into the sub-six minute territory.  I started contemplating shooting for a sub 2:55 marathon and who knows? Then one dark morning in late fall, on an easy warm-up run with friends, relaxed conversation turned to stabbing pain and profanity.  “Are you ok, are you ok?”  No, I knew I wasn’t.  I’d felt that pain before.  I’d torn my meniscus. Again.  I trudged two miles back to the car, dejected, knowing that my race plans and goals were to be suspended.  Fast forward through doctor visits, MRI, surgical consults, waiting for insurance approval and then—finally—the surgery. And then the post-surgery consult where I got the news I wasn’t hoping for.  I could run, but I would need to cut back for the longevity of my joint. 

I’ll freely admit I’m an endorphin addict. I absolutely love the feeling during and after a hard fast run. Now I enjoy other forms of exercise—cycling, kayaking, paddle boarding—but nothing else gives me the same high.  But I also don’t want to be hobbled by pain later in life, so I knew I needed to dial it back.  So with a heavy heart, I retired from road racing, much to the disbelief of my running friends. 

Well, now what? Thankfully I already had an inkling of what I could do. For several years I’d had a latent interest in trail running.  I live in Santa Barbara, California sandwiched between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.  We have an incredible trail system ranging from trails on the cliffs overlooking the ocean, to gentle foothill trails to mountain single tracks that go straight up.  As a roadie, I’d always been a bit nervous about these trails.  I was always training for a marathon and didn’t want to risk rolling an ankle and putting the big race at risk.  But after achieving some of my road race goals, I started tentatively venturing out into the mountain trails.  I remember asking some of our veteran local trail runners about the absolute *easiest* mountain trail run I could do.  One where I wouldn’t get hurt or lost or eaten by a wild animal.  The trail runner community was extremely welcoming and encouraged me to come of one of their group runs. 

The view from Inspiration Point on my first trail run.

On February 16 2013, I ran my first local trail. I started with Jesusita Trail, a local 7 mile round trip. I was *extremely* nervous. Would I be able to keep up?  Would I get left behind and get lost? Would I fall and hurt myself? It turned out that my fears were overblown and the run was spectacular.  My running companions ran at a comfortable pace.  The trail started out gently, letting me warm to the idea of running off road. Hey, this is kind of fun… When we got to the really steep parts, we walked.  Walking during a run??? No problem.  Trail runners do it all the time. Halfway up we stopped at a water fountain installed courtesy of a kind-hearted property owner who has a ranch along the trail. Past a stable with a watchful horse, we started up the steep climb.  Switchbacks, back and forth, higher and higher, how long does this go on??? Right after I thought I couldn’t go any further, the trail evened out, and I was able to relax and run easy.  Then the final push, and we were at the top, Inspiration Point!  The view was magnificent, the foothills and city of Santa Barbara spread out below us and the sparkling Pacific Ocean beyond.  I was hooked.  When can I do this again? 

Trail guru Ken Hughes pointing the way with RADrabbit Lisa Dosch.

We got into a routine of hard marathon training runs on Saturday, recovery runs on Jesusita on Sunday. This was a fabulous recipe, recharging our bodies and souls after a week of hard road runs.  After a while, I started to look forward to our Sunday trail runs as much or more as our Saturday workouts.  I kept focused on road racing, trying to beat down that clock. A sub-3 hour marathon attempt in Boston, shot down by a hamstring injury.  And then the terror of the bombing.  Another round of training and then a successful 2:59:48 in Berlin. I followed that with a series of half marathons, 5K races, a number of PRs and age group wins.  And then the knee gave out again.

After I recovered from the surgery, I started running again. My fitness returned pretty quickly, but I stuck with my plans to avoid road racing.  I still did road workouts, but cut it down to 2 per week from 5.  And I decided I’d start finding more soft surfaces to run on.  I ran long meditative beach runs—nothing like dolphins, otters and crashing waves to sooth the soul.  And I started exploring new mountain trails.  And I fell in love.  I fell in love with the sense of accomplishment of looking down on a tiny spec of where I started an hour or so before.  I fell in love with the unevenness and unpredictability of the terrain.  I fell in love with the rocks, boulders, streams, flowers, birds, coyotes, and bobcats. I fell in love with the trail running community where the conversations generally avoided pace and mileage and instead focused on terrain, vistas, and true running bliss. I was hooked. 

Despite my new passion, locally I am still a trail newbie. I have been delighted to have the pleasure to run with local trail luminaries George Williams and Ken Hughes.  They both know essentially all the local trails by heart.  Ken specializes in knowing all the local history and points of interest, while George tracks when and where the wildflowers bloom each season. I’ve loved running on the Santa Barbara Trail Runner events, and many runs with my training partners from Santa Barbara Running and Racing.  I went on a fabulous trail running adventure in the Grand Tetons organized by road and trail stud Dan Rudd. We had a group of about 20 runners and ran and laughed our way through three incredible days in some of the most spectacular wilderness in the U.S.  And I’m very grateful to badass local runners Jenni Miller and fellow RADrabbit athlete Lisa Dosch who have joined me on many, many local trail adventures involving crazy ascents, splashing through creeks, waterfalls, bear dens and donuts.  I also especially love taking someone on their first ascent up a new trail. I will never forget the look on my 18 year old son’s face as he summited Romero Canyon Trail for the first time, where the merciless final climb is rewarded with an astonishing view of the rugged Santa Barbara backcountry.

Sometimes trails present some obstacles, but nothing we can’t overcome. On San Ysidro trail with Ironman athlete and trail runner Jenni Miller.

In Sept 2016, I ran my first trail race, the inaugural Island View trail race on Franklin Trail in Carpentaria, CA. I placed 8th overall, 1st in my age group.  Then the No Name 15K, with a 3rd place finish, 1st in my age group.  Next was the Red Rock half marathon, organized by trail running legend Luis Escobar, 4th overall, 1st in my age group.  Then I ran the Paramount Ranch half marathon and shocked myself with a 1st place finish.  Hey, I like this trail racing thing.  And in each race, I took pictures along the way, something I never would have considered in a road race. 

At the finish of my first (and probably only!) trail race victory

 Here are a few things I’ve learned in my short time trail running.

    1. Time doesn’t matter.When I was training for and racing road races, every second mattered. I was a slave to the GPS watch. Every training run needed to be run at a specific pace, not too fast, not too slow. I checked my watch probably 10 times per mile. Maybe more in races. I can probably recite my last 10 road race results down to the second as well. In trail races, I hardly ever look at my watch. Every course is different. You can’t compare your last trail race to your current trail race because the elevation profile and trail conditions are likely completely different. So why bother? Just run by feel and enjoy it. Running by feel is so incredibly liberating. And I think it makes you a better runner as you become tuned to your body, not your watch. I had the good fortune to actually win a half marathon trail race recently (how did that happen???) and afterwards people asked what my time was. I honestly had no idea. But let me show you the pictures! I love that I can race and take pictures at the same time.
    2. I *love* downhill trail running.I am an avid snowboarder and I especially like riding in the trees. I love the thrill of having to make quick decisions to avoid obstacles. Downhill trail running gives me the same thrill. I love the high speed puzzle of figuring out where I am going to put my feet among the tangle of rocks and roots to race down the mountain and still somehow keep my feet under me.
    3. Trail running is *gorgeous*.I ran my one sub-3 hour marathon in Berlin, Germany. Berlin is an amazing city, lots of wonderful sites to appreciate. My memories of the race course? Essentially nothing. I looked at my watch and I followed that blue line as close as I could. In trail races, I am greeted by monumental, soul searing vistas. I have my breath taken by the beauty. And the vistas are even sweeter knowing that I climbed to these views on my own two feet.
    4. Trail running takes you to amazing places faster.I’ve always enjoyed hiking, but it takes a long time and potentially requires a backpack to get any distance in the backcountry. But running the trails I can cover a lot more ground and travel much lighter.
    5. Trail running is great for making friends. Lots of road training is done at a pace where talking is discouraged or plain not possible. While there is lots of huffing and puffing, trail running is often done at a conversational pace, providing lots of opportunity for chatting. In Santa Barbara we have a trail running page on Facebook and people create events to share their plans for trail runs. So we have lots of opportunities to meet and run with different people as well.

Santa Barbara crew tackling Paintbrush Divide in the Grand Tetons National Park.

    Since 2013, I have run about 350,000 vertical feet, about 12 times the elevation of Mt. Everest. I love to travel and have had the good fortune to run trails in many different U.S. states and international destinations. Now whenever I plan a trip for business or pleasure, I pack my trail shoes and can’t wait to explore.  If you are not already a trail runner, I hope you discover the magic. Happy trails!

    Bear tracks!

    - Craig Prater, RADrabbit



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