Group of trail racers crossing the start line

5 things you’ll learn about yourself at a trail race

It’s funny to think of myself as a trail runner. If you’d have told me last year that I’d be running trail races, I would have thought you were nuts. But fast forward a few months, and I’m already training for my fourth trail race.

All trail races are incredibly different, but the one constant is what they can teach you. I’ve learned a lot about myself as a person and as a runner in the few trail races I’ve run, and want to share my newfound insights with anyone who wants to give trail races a try.

1. Your body can handle way more than you think… don’t let your mind tell you otherwise

Group of trail racers finishing a race

Races always bring out such an awesome group of people and it makes the day a super fun experience.

When you’re faced with tough situations, you realize just how true this statement is. My first-ever trail race went swimmingly; it was part of the MEC trail race series, the terrain was easy and it was a sunny day. My second race, however, was the complete opposite: it was cold, rainy and the course was incredibly challenging with slippery roots, rocks and muddy switchbacks.

I thought of quitting every kilometre. I was out of breath, I felt nauseous and my legs were shaking. I tried to keep up with some of the runners and kept falling back every time. My thoughts were anything but positive; I kept wondering why I was putting myself through this, why I’d signed up and why I was even running. I felt I’d bit off more than I could chew.

But then I started thinking about all the runners that inspire me, and that simple mindset shift slowly lifted my spirits enough that I kept going. Once I crossed the finish line, I was amazed by what I’d just accomplished. I was proud that I hadn’t given up and fought through the struggle. The race was a big eye-opener and showed I could endure way more than I previously imagined.

2. Don’t get cocky

Trail runners running on muddy trail

Running through puddles, on rocks and over slippery roots always keeps you on your toes.

It’s easy to gain momentum and confidence when things are going well. At my last trail race, there were some major downhill sections. The more I ran downhill, the faster I went, passing other runners and slowly making my way up the ranks. It felt exhilarating. But I had to slow down and remind myself that every time I’d felt overly confident during my training runs, it always ended up with me losing focus, tripping and falling. I had to check myself so I didn’t wreck myself.

Trail races have taught me the importance of staying humble on the trail and in life – no matter how good I’m feeling at a specific time – because you never know what’s around the corner. (And at a trail race, there’s a good chance it’s probably another hill.)

3. When you put in the work, you see results

I wasn’t expecting a foot of snow (and I’ll admit it made me nervous), but my training got me through it and made it a race to remember. Photo: Scott Robarts.

I’ve learned that if you solidly prepare for a race, you’ll be able to finish it, no matter what mother nature or race organizers throw at you. The day before a race in February, it snowed 30cm – and I was terrified. I’d explored the course a few days earlier, but I’d never run in fresh snow before.

To my complete surprise, I managed to get through the race without any major wipeouts, and I believe that’s because my body was ready for it. Proper training, stretching, nutrition and sleep are key to feeling confident on race day. I’ve also attended some of the MEC trail running clinics and they’ve been a huge help in preparing for my races. Although I always experience self-doubt in any kind of competitive setting, I’ve learned to trust my training and know that if I put the work in, I’ll get through it.

4. Smile, even when it hurts!

I always smile or throw a thumbs up to race photographers to spread the good trail vibes.

Trail running’s made me a better person because it’s taught me to smile and feel joy in moments of pain or despair. At a race, you’re surrounded by people who radiate positivity. I still haven’t quite figured out why, but one thing’s for sure, I’ve never competed in another activity where I’ve seen people be so happy.

Good vibes are contagious and I’ve discovered that smiling – even when I’m fatigued midway through a steep climb or near the end of a race – always makes any experience that much more enjoyable.

5. Express gratitude

Hugging trail runners at the finish line

Thanks to trail running, I’ve met some of the most awesome humans who’ve inspired me to push myself and become a better runner.

Running trails has made me realize just how fortunate I am to be able to run. The fact that my body allows me to move while experiencing magical views and moments in nature is unquestionably something to be grateful about. I’m also extremely grateful for the wonderful community I’ve met through trail running.

Can’t wait to see what lesson trail racing will teach me next!

Mel Offner author photo
Mel Offner

West coast newbie, originally from Toronto and Montreal (and a.k.a. @melsays). Lives for travelling, surfing and running. Always looking for the next outdoor adventure.