When you get to the race venue, things are already going to look a lot different than at a road race. Fewer participant numbers can mean less amenities, but also easier parking and shorter portajohn lines. Family and friends may be setting up chairs, pavilions, and coolers, and runners may be setting up drop-bags, personal aid stations and catching up with people they met at their last race.
Once you’re ready and it’s close to the start time, make sure to listen to the race director giving instructions. Beware of last-minute course changes that may add (or subtract) extra mileage to the advertised course distance, timing mats that may not be where you’d expect them and a race clock that’s only seen at the beginning or the end. The race director will highlight course conditions, details of the aid stations, and how to get help if needed.
And then, you’re off! This is where you’ll start to see one of the biggest differences from road to trail races: more camaraderie. The camaraderie in road races and trail races can be quite different due to the nature of the events. Road races are often larger and more competitive, with a focus on individual performance and personal bests. In contrast, trail races are typically smaller, more laid-back and emphasize the shared experience of running in nature.
Often, the goal in trail races is to finish the race, not necessarily beat others, which means runners are more likely to look out for one another. Also, due to the more remote and natural environment of trail races, runners often need to rely on each other for support and encouragement. This can create a strong sense of fellowship as runners deal with the same challenges of a hard incline, sandy patch or the unrelenting sun overhead. Strangers, who stop being strangers at the end of the race, help fill up bottles at aid stations, give you a hand to get up from the ground after you’ve removed a pebble from your shoe and share fuel or motivational quotes with their fellow racers.
You may also notice a difference in aid stations. Aid stations during a trail race go beyond the typical water and electrolytes you see at road aid stations, offering more substantial foods like sandwiches, soup or pizza. Since you will likely be on the course longer than you would for the same distance on the road, it’s essential to take breaks to fuel and make sure you’re getting enough energy. It’s also a good idea to carry more than you think you need, as aid stations may be fewer and far between, and they also may be left unmanned.
Finally, it’s important to follow trail etiquette to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for all runners. This includes yielding to faster runners, staying on marked trails and leaving no trace.