About 90 trail runners stretch their legs, running short sprints up and down the dirt road adjacent to the race's assumed starting line. Some keep to themselves and meditate quietly against the rich, green backdrop of Haw Ridge, buzzing with cicadas. Other runners huddle together in small groups and comment on the sick August heat, previous trail runs, their running shoes. And under the shade of a large tree, Knoxville Track Club officials check in last-minute competitors, while other workers prepare the digital timekeepers and other necessary race equipment.
And then there's me: an unorthodox and somewhat novice participant in the day's event, the sixth leg of the 2010 Treadin' Trodden Trail Race series. As I look around, mimicking the pre-race rituals of some of the other runners, it becomes obvious that I've entered yet another subculture of strange Knoxvillian beings. These people are unlike any type of athlete-warriors I've ever met.
Unlike the traditional street or marathon or track runner, the trail runner comes off as the Na'vi of the running world. Their minds seemingly operate at a different pace; there's a cool peacefulness about them that seems to synch perfectly with the trails they exercise, compete, and practically live on. Even the trail runner's body is built differently than that of the traditional road runner. Their muscles are long, their legs even longer; and if not genetically endowed with the ability to stretch their limbs, then the trail runner's body and mind make up for it with strength, extreme durability, fortitude, and an almost alien hardiness.
According to Michael DeLisle, the director of the Knoxville Track Club's annual trail-racing series, standard road running "uses a limited number of muscles, while trail running engages the runner in a more full-body workout, recruiting stabilizing muscles in the hips and legs, as well as involvement of the upper body in jumping, landing, and leaning around corners."
The most obvious characteristic of trail running (versus road or track running) is that it takes place on hiking trails. Rather than the gritty, unforgiving asphalt of the street or the smooth-curved sidewalks along city parks, the runway for a trail runner is an ever-changing path of pressed dirt and natural earth. Longtime road and trail racer (and TTT veteran) Laura Gearhiser prefers the "laid back" feel of trail running. "I feel totally free and at peace running through the woods," she says. "Centered." She recalls her mother and father taking her out on the trails as a toddler and likens the alternative sport to a refreshing return to childhood.
However, the terrain can be treacherous at times. Loose rocks, tangling roots, and toe-crunching stumps pave the way. The trail runner has to have a special kind of forward and peripheral focus that alerts him or her to a million different natural hazards: slick puddles of wet mountain clay, angry stinging insects, hidden snakes, low-hanging, face-whipping branches, horrible ticks… and depending when and where you run, foraging black bears. Yet, even with all of these seeming distractions, the seasoned trail runner runs through such impediments with a natural ease.
But could I?
A pair of blue dragonflies chopper around DeLisle's wild, curly head of hair as he wraps up his pre-race greeting. Awash in my own pre-race jitters, I hear very little of what he is saying. Something about snakes and poison ivy. My stomach gurgles with nerves. He mentions something about altered routes and then, in a quick motion, releases the trail-running horde into the hot day.
The mob pushes forward with such a tremendous force that I don't recall actually ever starting to run; I just go. The first (and final) part of the race is a quarter mile of country road, and I became lost in the heavy strides of all the runners positioned tightly around me. I am outside of myself, looking at the action from somewhere above. And then, as suddenly as the race began, the pack cuts sharp left, vanishing into the great green Haw Ridge wall.
It's a swift and steady incline up a large wooded hill. The path is narrow, and the thick mob of runners fall into an organized single-file line grinding steadily up the steepening trail. All I hear is my own labored breathing, foot stomping, and the high natural hum of the forest around me. The race is barely afoot and I'm already dangerously winded. Panicked thoughts of not being able to finish the race immediately begin to haunt my quickly unraveling, unfocused mind. One by one, the true trail warriors begin to pass me on the left.
Trail running in Knoxville, as with organized trail running throughout the country, has a somewhat recent history. An offshoot of the Knoxville Track Club, the trail running component came about in 2004 when KTC board members, due to a quickly emerging subculture of trail runners in the Knoxville area, met with Knox County and City of Knoxville representatives and created the Mayor's Cup Series. This initial trail-racing series, according to DeLisle, "drew small but enthusiastic crowds of trail buffs to wonderful and oft underutilized city and county parks for races on single track trails and on grass."
KTC saw the potential and positive aspects of the Mayor's Cup series, decided to bring trail running to the forefront of the "running consciousness" of the active Knoxville populace, and formed the KTC Trails Committee. The challenge for the newly created group was to create an ongoing comprehensive schedule of off-road events that would cater to the closet trail runner, as well as attract larger crowds and increase trail-running awareness. "Since its inception," DeLisle explains, "the Treadin' Trodden Trails series, along with its predecessor, the Mayor's Cup, has sought to introduce new runners to the exciting and rewarding world of trail running, as well as provide stimulating race courses for veteran trail runners."
The Treadin' Trodden Trails series typically begins around late March and wraps up in October. The committee designs the runs to begin with moderate difficulty with Belly of the Beast, a scenic 5-mile romp that takes the trail runner over slightly hilly meadows and through the peaceful and looping bends of the Clinch River. The next race in the series, the Forks of the River at Ijams Park, is slightly more difficult by design.
"We present each year gradual increases in difficulty and length of race as the season wears on," DeLisle says. "Spring races, generally 4 to 6 miles, are contested on grassy mown pathways or relatively easy trails through the woods, and lead later in the summer to daunting traverses of steep, circuitous trails that challenge even the seasoned trail runner, culminating in arduous 25k, 17.5 mile, and 50k races through some of the more rugged forested terrain this side of the Smokies."
The third race is The Trail That Can't Be Concord followed by the I.C. King of Trails race, both at local parks known for their deeply wooded hills. Panther Creek is next in the series and runs into the Haw Ridge Race, which works the participants up to the real monsters of the series: Norris Dam Hard Trail Race, Big South Fork 17.5 Mile Trail Race, and the mother of them all, the Cumberland Trail 50k.
The second annual Cumberland Trail 50k, DeLisle promises, "will be a grueling test of will and skill," as runners ascend from Cove Lake State Park onto a challenging, out-and-back route on the rugged New River section of the Cumberland Trail. The course is mostly single-track, with some stretches of gravel road, and promises to take contestants up to twice their personal best times for the 31.6 mile distance. Proceeds from the race benefit the Cumberland Trail Conference, a nonprofit encouraging development and land acquisition to meet recreational needs of park visitors and area residents.
Trail runners are a close-knit bunch with a sincere kinship apparent at any one of the TTT races. Due to heavy rain earlier in the day, some trails at Haw Ridge are treacherously wet and therefore extremely slippery. But every time someone bites the muddied dust, fellow racers instinctively stop and make sure they're not seriously hurt. At one point, just after I witness a runner in front of me slip and crash into an unforgiving oak, I lose my own footing, quickly become horizontal, and slam hard to the ground. Mere moments after this embarrassing and ugly fall, I open my eyes to a group of concerned runners huddled around me. My initial response is to sleep it off right there and then, but they know better, pulling me up and getting me running once again.
Fortunately for me, the impact was hard enough to help somewhat regain my focus, find a respectable pace, and continue running. Eventually, I pass the event photographer who clicks off a rapid blast of pictures for the KTC website, signaling that the end is near. I explode (in slow motion) out of the forest and back onto the same paved road from the start of the race, the finish line a forever-long quarter of a mile away. I keep my pace steady, if sloppy. I hear cheering, clapping from around the final bend. Someone with a sprinkler stands roadside and mists me with wet encouragement.
As I turn the last corner, I'm greeted by an enthusiastic crowd of participants and race organizers who cheer me on through the finish line. Exhausted and pushed beyond any physical, emotional, or mental point I've ever faced before, I'm still able to make it to the post-run festivities. Following every race within the series, the runner has his or her choice of generous tables of refreshing sustenance. Orange slices, cookies, and even tacos and burritos are sometimes a post-run option. Strictly BYOB, beer and other spirits are also in abundance for those who partake. And as the beautiful East Tennessee sun sets on the trodden trails and surrounding forest, the run soon transforms into a unique tailgating party of storytelling.
For anyone who is even somewhat athletic or challenge-minded, participating in any (or God forbid, all!) of the Treadin' Trodden Trail races is both a humbling and magnificent experience. To find out more about the Treadin' Trodden Trail series, future trail races and other organized running activities, check out ktc.org.