Trail running is easier on the body, and good for the spirit, no wonder everyone is loving it

A Q&A with runner and race director Jeff Rowthorn

Jeff Rowthorn is a well-known Ontario runner and race director for Happy Trails Racing. He's also one of our trail running and gear experts here at Get Out There. So, when we noticed a serious uptick in trail running interest, we decided to cover the basics with Jeff via this handy Q&A. Happy trails!


Jeff, what piqued your interest in trail running?

I grew up exploring trails while searching for snakes and salamanders.  I was outside for most days until I had to come home for dinner.  When I got into running as an adult, I primarily stuck to roads because I didn’t know that trail running was even a sport.  My running and my racing, of which I did a lot of, were all geared towards running the flattest route in the fastest time possible.  A couple of friends invited me out to run on a trail with them and I was instantly hooked.  I knew immediately that the trails were where I belonged because I found a strong connection with the trails and I felt like I was returning to my childhood roots. I started exploring new areas and I focused less on my watch. I have never stopped road running because I see great value in the benefits of it and I have made a lot of friends in the road running community but I definitely prefer the serenity as well as the beautiful scenery of the trails.

What did you enjoy about it that has kept you going and interested you enough to start your own race series?

I love the way that being in the woods makes me feel.  I love how every trail and every trail race is unique and challenging in its own way and how it is nearly impossible to judge your performance based solely on your time since there are so many other factors at play such as elevation gain and terrain. Most importantly, I love the community of runners that support and encourage one another and celebrate the successes of others. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to help provide events that allow trail runners to connect with one another, explore nature, and to challenge themselves as they work towards achieving their goals.  

What do you look for in a location for trail running?

There are a few boxes that need to be checked for me to consider a trail to be ideal.  My favourite trails are scenic ones with towering trees and lush vegetation.  I prefer trails that have a lot of winding single-track (narrow) dirt trails with some different options so that I can make my run shorter or longer, depending on how I am feeling.  I like trails that have technical sections with rocks and roots to keep me focused.  I also look for trails that have a lot of elevation change because steep hills give me a reason to walk and look around.  Finally, I love trails that have creek crossings and bridges.  The opportunity to see wildlife or a waterfall definitely earns some bonus points.  

Where are a few of your favourite trails in Ontario?

We are fortunate to have some amazing, world-class, trails in Ontario.  At around 900 km from end-to-end, the Bruce Trail is a treasure.  It is challenging, beautiful, and has hundreds of different access points. The Beaver Valley section of the Bruce Trail is really unique and offers some unbelievable views. The Ganaraska Trail is another great one to explore and has some really rugged sections for experienced hikers and runners.  I also love running in Hockley Valley, Bon Echo Provincial Park, and at the Limberlost Forest and Wildlife Reserve.

What does a new runner need to know about trail running in terms of unique challenges and obstacles?

Personal safety is something that trail runners should always be thinking about. It is really important to be aware of your surroundings and have a plan in place if something goes wrong.  For example, a twisted ankle can mean that you are in the woods for a really long time.  Be aware of the access points, don’t take unnecessary risks, and plan for the worst.  New runners should not explore trails alone and should start in areas where there is cell reception so they can call for help if needed but also so that they can access a map if they get lost.  New runners should also consider the fact that running on trails is a lot slower than on roads so they need to prepared to be out for longer. Always bring more food and water than necessary. The best advice that I could give for someone interested in trail running would be to connect with a local trail running club and join them for some runs. They will show you the trails and offer valuable advice. Don’t worry about being too slow since most clubs will have members that are excited to show new runners the ropes and will appreciate the opportunity to enjoy a relaxed pace run in the woods.

Do you need trail running specific shoes right away or are road shoes okay?

For most of the trails that I run, I wear road running shoes because I like that they are lighter.  The shoes that are required for a trail run mainly depend on two factors: weather and terrain.  Trail specific shoes are definitely better when running on trails in wet conditions and are also very useful when the terrain consists of rocks and roots since trail shoes typically give better traction.  If you are out on a trail that is both wet and rocky or has a lot of tree roots, then trail shoes are necessary.  Some trail running shoes have features that allow them to drain water more quickly and are usually made to withstand more abrasion on the outside of the shoes.  In addition, a lot of trail shoes will have a rock plate within the sole of the shoe, which will offer protection from sharp or hard objects that may be on the trail.  

What do you consider essential trail running gear?

The gear that becomes essential depends a lot on both the level of difficulty and the length of the run. For a short run, a comfortable pair of shoes is the only essential running gear needed.  For longer and more difficult endeavours I really like having a GPS watch, a hydration pack with plenty of storage, collapsable poles, sunscreen, and anti-chafing cream.  For most of the gear listed, there are a lot of different options depending on both budget and personal preference.  Remember that comfort should always take precedence over style. I have collected a lot of great gear over the years but there are only a few items that I use on a regular basis.  Remember that you don’t need very much to get started and that no amount of gear will replace hard work. 

What do you think are the major benefits of trail running versus road running?

I’ve run a lot of really long trail races and they certainly hurt. However, for me, nothing compares to the beating that my body takes from running a hard-effort road marathon. I recover a lot quicker from a trail race than a road race and I believe that there are a number of factors at play. First of all, the trail surface is a lot more forgiving than pavement. Second, the pace is slower and more varied on a trail. There will be portions of a trail that I run very hard and other portions that I am forced to ease up my pace, which allows me to recover a little. Third, my stride changes more during a trail run and I utilize a wider variety of muscles. Climbing up a steep hill, running down a mountain, and jumping over a fallen tree all use different muscles. As a result, after a trail race, my body is generally a bit sore all over rather than the very specific and isolated muscle pain I feel after a long road race. I also believe that many people will find greater longevity in the sport of trail running because there is more variety and trail running events typically place more emphasis on the social aspect of running events. Finally, trail running also offers unique challenges that many people are drawn to. These events are about much more than just your race time and they tend to highlight a particularly beautiful section of trail. There is a current trend toward seeking adventures in nature. A lot of people are drawn to a semi-nomadic lifestyle in which they spend their free time exploring and appreciating the natural world around them. Trail running really lends itself towards this lifestyle and welcomes everyone with open arms.

Lead image by Greg Rosenke



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