Five tips to fall in love...with trail running

Running has given me many gifts, but allowing me to really see the beauty of my adopted state of Michigan has to be among the best.

Sure, it’s been a great place to work and raise a family, but it’s also been a place where I felt like a reluctant guest. A temporary resident looking to the beaches of Florida and the Caribbean for long-term living.

As a runner, I’ve learned to embrace Michigan’s weather extremes outdoors instead of heading to indoor activities to avoid the suffocating heat or teeth-chattering cold. And there is no better place to do so than on Michigan’s trails.

Want to get out on the trails yourself? Here are some tips:

* Start slow. Making the transition from road to trail running can be jarring. Trail running can be hard but, oh, so worth it. Don’t plan to run your week’s longest run on the trails your first time out. Try a mile or two, then build up from there. I especially struggled with feeling confident as I stepped on and around tree roots, rocks and slippery fall leaves. It gets better with experience.

* Wear proper gear. If you enjoyed your first few outings, it’s time to switch over to trail-running shoes. They’re just sturdier and grippier because the treads tend to be deeper to help you navigate the terrain. Unlike road running, trail running also takes you away from things like water fountains, so you may eventually want to get a hydration vest or at least a bigger water bottle. And don’t forget your bug spray in the spring or summer, or your gloves and hat in the colder months.

* Be prepared. This city slicker has no sense of direction, so a well-marked trail frees me to enjoy my surroundings. I can simply soak in the lush greenery of a fern oasis on a river trail run or the way the sun hits tall grasses on a cold winter morning.

Before you head out, make sure to eyeball the trail map, take a picture with your smartphone or grab a printed version. Michigan trails are easy to read because posts will show you where you are and point you to the next spot on the map. Most trails, like the North Country Trail I visited recently, have additional markings that let you know you’re still on the right track. In this particular case, I kept my eye on blue markings along the trail, including spray-painted dots on trees.

* Leave breadcrumbs, or at least a note. You’re unlikely to get lost if you stick to the marked trail, but it’s still smart to let a friend or family member know where you are heading and when you expect to return. I’m anything but a survivalist, but I’ve learned it’s better for me to turn around and head back in the same direction when I’m unsure of where I am headed on a trail instead of risking getting lost.

* Watch out for deer and other wildlife. Bear, coyotes and other critters may share your trail at some point or another. In addition to a Martin (looks like a mink) that ran across our path, my friends and I saw bear scat right in the middle of our trail half marathon in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

On another run in the same area, I saw the biggest woodpecker I’ve ever spotted. It had a gorgeous red crest and a huge wingspan. The familia thought I was exaggerating until I later found a description in a book about Michigan birds (It was a pileated woodpecker, which the book says is about the size of a crow).

Inspired to give trails a try, but don’t know where to start? Try a state trail, ask around your running group, or search online for nearby trail systems. You may just fall in love with Michigan.

Written by By Gisgie Dávila Gendreau, 2016 Fitness Ambassador