Spending time with trail runners this summer though I've come to recognize that they commonly think road runners are absolutely crazy. The prevailing thought is that we are destroying our bodies and missing the joy of nature. Like in most debates they are both right and wrong.
When the race started I stuck to a steady pace assuming most runners would go out too fast and sure enough I ended up passing several people within the first 3 kilometres. I ended up power hiking about a quarter of the way up (maybe more) and tried for the first time using my hands on my knees to give my legs an extra push. That seemed to help a lot, nobody passed me on the way up that I didn't manage to pass back again before the summit. I can definitely use more work on my power hiking as I slow down considerably and my heart rate goes up. It seems I'm more relaxed jogging but that's hard to maintain up steep loose hills. About 1.5km into the race someone had removed the trial markings so the second tier group of us behind the lead pack stopped for a couple of minutes to find the route. To be honest I was happy for the break though this did happen at my last trail race too so it seems to be a thing at these events which is kind of sad.
The downhill is where I really get into trouble though and where experience (or lack of) shows through as the wet slippery conditions did little for my confidence. In the end I just tucked in with another runner and we jogged down the mountain at a conversational pace. Navigating my footfalls at the same time as looking for trail marking tape was a lot for my brain to process. I would have preferred to have a faster runner in front of me to follow blindly without worrying about navigation. I noticed some runners cutting straight down the ski hill off course dropping me back a little in the race standings but I was kind of indifferent to it. Truth be told I was having fun and competition wasn't on my brain. As much as the uphill was hard work and the downhill was out of my comfort zone I was really enjoying the day in a way I don't when I'm pounding out a 10k road race.
The Mt Washington race itself is very fun. I believe this is the first year they have run up and down the mountain, usually they just run to the summit and finish there. On the way up you start off fairly steep but you're able to run it without stopping. You come to a dirt road and after a zigzag you start climbing much steeper sections where all but the most mountain goat capable runners will be hiking good portions of it. It was damp out but I never found the uphill overly slippery though it was loose in some spots. The top was foggy and wet pretty much eliminating any hope of a view. You think you reach the top when you see the ski lift but there is still a little more climbing to go and it isn't until around 5km into the race that you finally get to start going downhill. The downhill is fun and for the most part switchbacks down not too steeply. The course tape is often on low lying shrubs and you have to keep your eyes peeled for them. There are spots where your dancing over large wet flat rocks which I found hard. Near the bottom you hit cruise for the last kilometre to the finish where you could really turn on the speed but I ended up coasting into the finish.
I ended up 12th overall and 3rd in my age group which wasn't wonderful but certainly good enough. To be truthful I have a hard time getting competitive at a trail race at all. When I'm at a road race I'm very concerned about my place and my effort against my own personal best times. I like that and enjoy the challenge, but on the trails including at a trail race I just can't seem to convince myself to care a whole lot about the outcome. This isn't to say that trail races aren't worthwhile, they are a good test of fitness and it isn't to say road races aren't fun because I love the buzz and excitement. They are just different.
What I believe is happening for me is that as a marathon runner I'm used to expending effort for about 3 hours. When out on the trails even though the pace is often slower and the mileage is much lower the length of time used to travel around is exhausting to the uninitiated. After 3 hours my body clearly says "that'll be enough of that cowboy" and shuts down. I look forward to training myself differently.
In general my perspective on trail running and road running is that the best idea is to do both. The benefits of trail running have been an improvement in balance, ankle strength and hill climbing/decending. You have a lot of side to side motion in trail running that simply never happens on the road, it's really a different kind of fitness. The biggest benefit however is just getting out in nature and relaxing with your running rather than constantly hammering out kilometres per minute.
Road running has its benefits too though. Roads are always accessible right out most of our front doors. I do believe you lose speed when you never hit the roads, it's good to mix it up as I feel you lose leg turnover and cadence when you're always running on trails. In a weird way I find road running more meditative as well. I don't have to be as turned on and focused on the roads (I admit this may be my inexperience and need to concentrate a lot on the trails), I can just let one foot fall in front of the other and my mind go blank while my breath beats me into a calm rhythm. Heading out the door at 6am on a run through a quiet city is it's own special kind of magic, one that I personally enjoy.
So which is better? Neither of course but you know that. Just like I believe in the benefits of cross training (swim, bike, gym, yoga, etc) I believe we need to run on different surfaces to be a complete runner. I love the trails, I'm so glad I'm on them more often than I was. That will probably change when I go back to marathon training in the winter, but for now I'm happy with a 50/50 split.