I’m a tripper. I wish I had a dollar for every time I said this in response to someone asking me if I do my weekly runs on a nearby pedestrian trail. The trail, which runs over the Old Croton Aqueduct along the Hudson River in New York, should be a runner’s dream. Particularly for someone like me who grew up in rural Massachusetts and enjoys being outdoors in the thick of nature. People living in this area who know me well would rightly assume the aqueduct trail would be my route of choice.
It sure beats running along sidewalks and, unfortunately in my little village, narrow roads without sidewalks with many turns and spirit-crushing hills. Being a mere twenty miles away from New York City also means these tiny, un-sidewalked roads are filled with way too many cars zooming by. The aqueduct, by contrast, is a welcome respite from all of this. A relatively flat terrain, lined with gorgeous old trees with lovely glimpses of the Hudson River and the steep cliffed Palisades on the opposite bank. Who wouldn’t choose that over the alternative? And I do choose trails and woods for walking and hiking. But, running?
This is why I’m quick to respond with,”I’m a tripper” to anyone who is giving me the “Are you crazy?” look when I tell them I don’t run on the aqueduct as often as one might think. My response elicits an understanding nod. This area is very rocky which means two things, particularly on the aqueduct trail. The most obvious, the dirt and grassy pathway is filled with rocks of all shapes and sizes jutting out at odd angles. Some are loose, most are fixed into the ground and don’t budge. The second is the tree roots can’t penetrate deep into the soil with all that rock in the way. Tree roots here twist and undulate in chaotic fashion just barely above the path’s surface. These, along with the rocks, make trippers like me very wary.
I possess the three characteristics of the classic tripper:
- I’m not a fast runner, I’m more of a jogger. And that means my stride keeps my feet relatively close to the ground at all times, too easy to get toes hung up on the unexpected tree root or clunky rock.
- I’m near-sighted. I’ve been wearing contact lenses to correct this since I was in 8th grade but anyone who needs lenses to function everyday will tell you we are hindered when it comes to perceiving contrast. Especially in the extremes – in both very bright and dim light. The older we get, the more pronounced these hindrances become. Trails often have spots that get direct sunlight and others that have lots of shade. If you’re not wearing sunglasses as you emerge out of the shade into a sunny patch, you’ll never see the hazards in your path. Ditto if you sink deeper into the tree canopy while you’re wearing shades.
- And, to complete the trifecta for what makes me a classic tripper, I zone out when I run. I’m not a competitive runner – I don’t do races and I’m not trying to attain a specific goal with my running. I run for pure pleasure. I put on my playlist and I run until my playlist is over. I don’t care how fast I’m going, how far I’m running or how many calories I’ve burned. I just run and get lost in the music or my own thoughts. If I do that on the trail, I’m in trouble.
My remedy for avoiding the noisy traffic of road running and the face plants of trail running is to run on a nearby outdoor track that sits on top of a hill with great vistas in quiet surroundings. It’s easy on the eyes, ears, brain and knees. But, summer has arrived and that lovely track has turned into what feels like a giant pizza oven. I can’t run on the track in the summer. Summer is when I run on the aqueduct and try my best not to embarrass myself or, worse, sprain an ankle or break a bone.
To help me embrace my trail runs, I remind myself of the advantages:
- They’re a brain workout. The concentration it takes to trail run helps to sharpen the mind and train agility and reactivity.
- The uneven surface strengthens ankle muscles. Yes, they are riskier for ankle turns but, by the same token, the more you trail run the better you guard against ankle sprains by strengthening the muscles, tendons and ligaments around the ankle joint and in the feet.
- The surface provides more cushioning compared to pavement, making trail runs gentler on the joints and back.
In order to enjoy the advantages, take precautions to lessen the risks of fall and injury, which are mostly about keeping your eyes on the trail and seeing the trail well:
- Sunglasses: Choose snug frames that don’t easily fall off no matter where they’re placed so you can quickly switch from resting them on the bridge of the nose to the top of the head when passing between direct sunlight and heavy shade without losing stride or taking your eyes off the trail. You can spend a little more to get sunglasses with lenses that flip up and down for a more seamless transition.
- Bug Repellent: Mosquitoes and ticks carry some pretty nasty diseases so this makes sense just from that perspective. But, I’ve found when I’ve forgotten to put insect spray on before my trail runs, gnats like to linger around the face, near eyes and mouth, making them a dangerous distraction as well.
- Proper Footwear: This is especially true if you’re prone to ankle turns or foot fractures. For those vulnerable, I recommend going to a running specific shoe store. These specialty stores will have staff available to help you find the correct combination of cushioning and arch support you need to safely trail run. You’ll likely pay a little more but it’s well worth it.
Yes, I have a love-hate relationship with trail running. I love the beauty, the quiet, the stillness but I hate the hazards. As long as I do my best to neutralize the hazards, I can focus on everything there is to love about it. You can too. Happy trails!