I didn’t start the year planning to run a trail marathon, but I’m really happy it happened.

SHAEF has had a few great race reports lately, so instead of a blow-by-blow race account, I’ve decided to share five things I learned from running in this event, in the hope it inspires you to try stepping off the road and onto the trail for your own adventure.

For context, this was my second marathon, my first was the pan-flat and fast Berlin marathon last September. The Tribe x Maverick marathon was just over 26.2 miles, had about 3000ft of elevation gain, it was 90%+ on trails, and was set in the Chiltern ‘area of outstanding natural beauty’.

Lesson one: trail marathons are beautiful

We talk about the sights and atmosphere at our big road races, but boy is it beautiful when you venture into the sticks. This event was stunning. From the view at the start, over the Chilterns AONB, to the villages we passed through, the thick and ancient forests, the freshly ploughed farmers’ fields, the occasional field full of sheep, and the avenues and tunnels of interwoven trees.

The sheer variety of scenery in that relatively small area, the clean fresh air, and the way the light played through all that epic scenery was truly breath-taking. It felt so natural and liberating to run through that environment. At one point I focused on birdsong to try and take my mind off the pain. No, it didn’t work, but hey – it was an option!

The first descent into a village and straight up the hill behind it

Lesson two: you race other people, not your stopwatch

Fast flat road courses are effectively personal time trials, where we push ourselves to the limit of the pace we can sustain over that duration. The current pace splits, the average splits, heart rate readings, are good indicators of how our race is going. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but again, it’s liberating, scary, and exciting to realise that your data is largely meaningless and you have to run on feel.

With so many ups and downs, pacing is not about the average split, but about how your heart, lungs and legs feel. Because of that, you can let yourself either switch off and run with other people, or, get into some proper racing. In my case, I ended up in a fast group for the first 14 miles. We caned it downhill, hiked or ran as hard as we could uphill, and basically tried to keep up with each other.

Ultimately it was a bit catastrophic because I hit the wall at 15 miles and had leg cramps from 18 miles, but it was brilliant fun, exciting, and we pretty much all broke each other. After dropping back from the top 10 mid race, I clung on (partially thanks to some kind and motivational words from another runner who could see things were derailing fast), kept hiking hard, kept 8 minute miling on the flats, and clawed back some places to take 8th overall with a big smile on my face and absolutely no regrets with running a 4:01 overall compared to 3:11 in Berlin. The numbers don't tell the story in some of these events - that 4:01 was probably harder physically than the 3:11 - but who cares about the time when you’re having that much fun.

"The wall" just out of shot

Lesson three: it doesn’t hurt your legs

After Berlin my legs were in pieces. Even the build up to Berlin was tough on my knees. The impact of relentless road running takes its toll. I’m ok with it but for me it is unequivocally tough on the ‘long levers’ as my physio keeps calling them.

Trail running is a different kettle of fish. The hills are brutal and, combined with a very hot day and not enough hydration, I cramped far more than in Berlin. But the soft surfaces underfoot, squishy grass and boggy mud, meant that I was running two days later, had no knee pain after the event, and absolutely no other joint soreness. It was a game changer and really showed me how much of a bruising the road gives our legs. Mo advises to do 95% of your training on natural surfaces. Make it 100%, and feel the benefit.

Lesson four: you get free beer

In Berlin I got a pint of alcohol free weißbier. At the Tribe marathon it was an ice cold ipa passed to me moments after crossing the finish line in blazing heat, with the promise of more. Ok it took me an hour to drink it and was followed by 48 hours of nausea. But – free beer! And free limited-edition special for the event craft beer at that!

Beers' looking significantly more attractive than race finishers

Lesson five: it makes you a better road runner

This was unexpected. My training for this event was totally different to my regular road training pattern. Less intervals. Way more hills. Way more easy pace. Slower easy pace. Strength and conditioning (only 30 mins) once a week. A hilly trail half. I thought this would give me good endurance and hill climbing ability. But I wasn’t expecting to run a 5:11 mile three days before the event after months without proper speedwork, or to come 8th in my green belt stage.

Not only does the easier pace keep you fresh, the better strength and wider muscle toning from running off road really gives you some unexpected punch on road. I am now confident that if I come out of my first ultra (in July) uninjured, I have a real shot at some road PBs later this season with a bit of focus and some interval sessions. I feel fresher, stronger, and less beat up than I have since I started regular club running early last year.

Run for the hills

Five lessons I wasn’t expecting to learn but really enjoyed discovering. I’m not an evangelist for trail-only now, but it has changed my perspective. I now see it as an ongoing part of my yearly event-mix, a contributor to resilience, and something that can really bring out that joy we should all get from running, the thing that keeps us turning up after long days at work or home and getting those weekly miles in.

If you like the sound of this, take a look at the SHAEF race planner here and see some options for next year. A great introduction is the badger trail company’s Ooser half / full marathon next spring. I did their Hellstone half in April and loved it and have signed up for the Ooser half this time.