Going Greenbelt: 5 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Trail Running

Sunday’s trail run was a long time in the making. I’d been somewhat obsessed with the very idea of trail running since reading Born to Run, but knowing that the concrete jungle doesn’t afford many opportunities for soft surfaces (save for the reservoir and a collective 20 feet on the East River), I gave up the thought pretty quickly.

I’ve been blazing the pathways of Manhattan for quite some time now though—from east to west, north to south. You’re more likely to find me trekking along the lower loop of Central Park on any weekday morning than under the covers of my blanket. Saturday morning? That’s reserved for Soho or the reservoir. And of course, there have been many fun runs in between, spanning the Queensboro Bridge…

…to the East River…

…to the West Side Highway and more. The farther I run, it seems, the more expansive my stomping grounds become.

More recently, however, I’ve been unable to shake my trail running urge, and so last week, Noah and I planned an outing in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island. Naturally, the night before, I woke up in a sweaty pool of fever grossness, and was unable to follow through with the day I had been waiting to come for so long.

Fortunately, I’d only have to wait a week before our second attempt at trail running. Spending Sunday – Mother’s Day – on Long Island gave us the perfect excuse to try again; we were getting a ride on the early side anyway and would be able to head out to Cold Spring Harbor with relative ease.

Finding the entrance to the state park was simple, and if you live on or near Long Island and have never hiked the Greenbelt Trail, then I highly suggest you do – even if only walking it. The vertical climbs alone are certainly tough enough to break a sweat.

By car, all we had to do was take Northern Boulevard (25A) out about 35 minutes east of Great Neck. There’s ample parking for the trail on the right, across the water, just past the Cold Spring Harbor library, and you can pick up the pathway there.

Everything was set for Noah and I to spend a perfect hour or so spent grunting our way through the woods, and yet I couldn’t help but wish that, prior to lacing up my sneakers, I was just a bit better equipped for what was to come. Call me naïve, but while I know that trail running is a whole different beast than even the biggest of Manhattan’s hills, until you’ve tried it, it can be really difficult to anticipate what’s to come.

New to trail running too? Let me make your life easier with the 5 facts I’d wish I’d known beforehand.

1. Save your energy. I know. It can be really, really exciting as you take those first few steps into the woods—especially if you’re coming from a jungle of urban sorts. But racing up the mountain was probably one of the biggest (and most rookie) mistakes I made on Sunday morning. Rather than working up my endurance and saving my strength, I exploded like a horse out of the gate and wound up spending the rest of the run trying to catch my breath.

2. Beware of living creatures. Snakes, to be exact. In case you didn’t know this about me (I’ve mentioned it once or twice), I have a huge fear of thunder, dark, deep water and snakes.

Fear numbers one and two really had no bearing on me on Sunday. And because I spent six summers at sleep-away camp and have a house in a wooded area in Connecticut, I know that fear number three is harmless more often than not. That doesn’t mean I won’t pee my pants a little at the sight of one though—even if it’s small.

Yes, while I was in the lead, Noah trailing behind me (otherwise he’d have raced past me in a literal cloud of dust; I set the pace when we were on relatively flat grounds), I spotted a tiny snake off to the side of the trail. To my benefit, because I was already running, I was already prepared to sprint away while screaming OMG snake. Noah obviously stopped to check it out, and proceeded to ogle this evil creature with another hiker who was passing by. Fools.

3. Pee first. I find this one unfair, because I actually did pee before leaving the house. Perhaps this tip should read, “Don’t drink an entire medium iced coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts,” but I did, and by the time we pulled into the parking lot in Cold Spring Harbor, I had to relieve myself again.

Naturally, there was no bathroom in sight—just a giant body of water to mock me in my pain. I figured the sensation might pass once we started running, and it did for a little while. About 1.5 miles in though, I really had to go. I stopped several times to attempt to squat behind a tree, but then I’d spot a family hiking in the distance and get shy. It pretty much took total desperation and the threat of actually wetting myself to finally stop and mark my territory. This is now my tree, in doggy terms.

4. Leave your ego in the parking lot. That may have been one of the more frustrating aspects of the morning. I suppose I envisioned myself gracefully galloping through the woods like a gazelle or something; instead it was more like a 5-mile asthma attack, and even flat surfaces made me wince by the end.

In truth, there were many inclines that I couldn’t even make my way up all the way to the top without walking, or even stopping completely in the middle to catch my breath. Noah said it was probably a combination of being unfamiliar with the type of conditioning needed for trail running as well as my lingering cough and sore throat. He’s probably right too. But still, I’ve never walked during a run, and I wasn’t planning to start on Sunday.

That said, trail running is very different than, well, non-trail running. I knew this going into it; I just didn’t quite internalize what that meant. Now, I have a new obsession: conditioning my body to the point that I’m a trail running beast.

5. Safety first. Seriously. The course we took could basically be broken down into three segments, the first and, what would presumably be the last, being by far the hardest and hilliest. As mentioned before, I exhausted myself almost right off the bat, and so a lot of the run was spent catching my breath and doing my best to stabilize my heartbeat as I pushed on through the woods.

The first time Noah suggested that we follow the road back for the last third of a mile of the course, we were exactly at our halfway point. I scoffed. I had already broken cardinal rule number one by walking during our run. (Granted, some parts were just too steep, and given my conditioning – or lack thereof – I didn’t have much of a choice. I was hitting wall after wall after wall.)

Skipping the last segment in order to – literally – take the easy road was out of the question. The second and third segments weren’t so bad anyway, and so as we backtracked toward the scary hills that defined those first 20 minutes of the run, I was feeling generally okay.

Had Noah not been with me on Sunday, I’d have unquestionably sucked it up and finished that final segment of the trail. I’m just stubborn and reckless like that. I also might have twisted an ankle, broken my pelvis or at least scraped my knee. He could see it in me; me legs were tired, I wasn’t picking up my feet like I should be. One misstep and I was a goner, or at least, I’d risk potentially injuring myself.

So I conceded. Noah and I jogged along the road to get back to the car, skipping over that final, arduous incline to top off our 5 mile run. Looking back, I’m definitely grateful that I had his wise words echoing in my head.

So there you have it. Sunday’s highly anticipated trail run was a major success, even if it had its – wait for it – ups and downs and was wildly challenging.

Don’t get me wrong; I love running in Manhattan. But even the best running routes can become monotonous after, say, 500 or so times. And although I plan on milking the summer for all it’s worth by waking up super early and hitting the scorching pavement as much as I can from now through fall, I’m also equally excited to keep checking out different trails periodically. If nothing else, it’s a great way to keep my body guessing and improve my conditioning—and the perfect excuse to escape the city heat.

  • Have you ever gone trail running and experienced any of the above?
  • Did I miss anything? What could I add?
  • Does snake repeller exist?

25 thoughts on “Going Greenbelt: 5 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Trail Running

  1. I hate when you have to go on the trail and it is not easy for girls at times, especially if the trail is busy and you know there is wildlife further off the trail. My other half goes full speed ahead while I am trying to pace myself the first 15 to 20 minutes of hitting the trail. Loving your post – thanks for sharing!

    • So hard to pace! Noah went ahead at certain times, but not too far. I basically let him speed up on the downhill portions since I know he’s a guy and likes running fast down dangerous slopes. On uphills and straightaways, he pretty much stuck with me – which was really nice.

  2. Yes, I have many of these feelings every time I run the trails! Luckily there are great trails only a few miles from where I live, so I get to go frequently. Running the trails feels like doing double the distance on the road. but I love it! I’m training for a ten mile trail run in July, so I’ve been trying to get to the trails for 2-3 of my weekly runs. As the slow runner of my trail-running group of friends, I learned a long time ago to check my ego before heading out. :)

    • It does feel like double distance! I was exhausted by the end, whereas 5 milers are nothing on the road now. Wow, a 10 miler – that would take me too long, at least right now. You’re so lucky, I’d love to be able to incorporate 2 to 3 trail runs into my week, but looks like this may be a once every couple of weeks – if that – type of activity for me. Boo NYC! Thanks for commenting…always nice to meet another ego-less runner. Good luck on your 10 miler! Hope it’s not as hilly as my trail was.

  3. Great post! I completed a 15k “trail” run a couple of years ago. That turned out to be a joke compared to the adventure I threw myself and a friend in on Feb 25 (NJ Trail Series FebApple Frozen 50). We had to get a long run in for marathon training and I saw the NJ Trail Series 21mile run listed on the Facebook page of my local running club. It turned out to be a 4:28:24 hike/death wish on a mountain at South Mountain Indian Reservation (near Seton Hall).

    All of the runners were experienced trail runners so I was able to speak to them and get some insight into trail running and the difference between trail and road running.
    -Do not ever take your eyes off the ground
    -Walk the hills when you need to
    -Wear proper trail shoes and clothes

    I would love to do more trails! I had a lot of fun (even though it was SO hard and I almost fell countless times). The NJ Trail Series definitely has some good races/courses in North Jersey (close enough to the city!) You should check them out! I am going to be MUCH more prepared next time I get out there, instead of just thinking I can join a 21 mile trail race “to get my long run in.”

    Good luck!

    • Oh my, that sounds like a real adventure – 21 miles. And I thought my 5 miler was tough! Not sure how I would have pushed on through that.

      Thanks for the tips! I was actually wondering while running whether there were special sneakers. Thinking of investing in some (no way that was good for my asics anyway). As for rule #1, I think that the ‘don’t take your eyes off the ground’ part is instinctual. I couldn’t have if I tried.

      I’ll have to look into the NJ trail series for sure – it’s definitely close to Manhattan. That said, I think I need to practice with a few more non-races first!

      Thanks for commenting!

  4. I love running trails, and try to get out to some whenever I can. I completely agree with all the above. I would also add “make sure you have a map/phone/intimate knowledge of your location”. I’ve done several trail runs that were longer than intended bc we thought this trail should connect to that trail. Needless to say, its not always as one would think. It’s pretty easy to get lost in the woods, and it can be very little fun.

    • Yes! That’s a good one. I think this one was less scary because the trail somewhat followed the road, but I did have my phone on me so I never thought about what it’d be like without a map. You’re very right though…thanks for the input! I have to get out there more more more!

  5. You definitely have to approach the trail run with a different attitude. Sometimes, you have to just walk the inclines and you have to tell yourself it is OK. I love trail running but it really is so different from road running. I tend to think of it as a combination of adventure and meditation. Adventure since you don’t know what is around the next turn or behind the next tree and meditation because you have to stay really focused on the trail. One thing I would add is getting trail shoes if it is something you do regularly. I run a few trail races each year and on the more technical ones, you can really see the difference when you are running with someone who doesn’t have trail shoes. Good for you for finally being about to get out in the woods and run!

    • Thanks for this insight Henry! I was actually thinking while running in the woods that I definitely needed to invest in a pair of trail-friendly footwear, and that was only my first time! I can imagine it makes a big difference. It’s funny, because running is my meditation, and being in the forest just takes it to a whole new level. I love it.

  6. It is insane to me the difference in trail running vs. road running. You aptly described me when you said it felt like a 5 mile asthma attack! As hard as it is though, I DO love it. It’s hard to focus on the trail and not trip with everything to look at.

    One thing to add to your list: Never run a trail alone. Often the trails don’t have great cell reception, so if something were to happen, you’d be pooched. If someone had to run it alone, tell lots of people where you’re going, what trail, and what time you think you’ll be done. Give someone access to your mapmyrun account so they can go and look on your map if you don’t show up for dinner. Both trail and road running has it’s safety issues, but you can get really hurt on a trail.

    The snakes don’t bother me so much, it’s the spiders. Especially running through the early morning cobwebs and knowing there could spiders hanging off of you. GAH!

    • Oo good safety tip, thanks for sharing! And I just laughed reading that. I think I inhaled about 40 cobwebs. It wasn’t even that early either!

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  9. So glad you were able to trail run! I rarely do anything else. My suggestion for snakes is if they’re striped up and down, they’re fine. If they have color “barrels” they’re not. Since you’re really far up north I imagine that you probably mostly have garter snakes and the like. I actually run with my dog and I let her go ahead of me on tall grassy parts so she can scope it out and make sure we’re safe. And most of the time, the snake will just freeze and let you run past instead of making itself known.
    Running slow is definitely the best way to start! I think that your next runs on the trail will get better and better. :) Let us know how they go!

    • I definitely slowed my pace and felt better, but it’s still a bit of a battle. Hopefully they continue to get better and better. Now, may I borrow your dog?

  10. So glad you were able to trail run! I rarely do anything else. My suggestion for snakes is if they’re striped up and down, they’re fine. If they have color “barrels” they’re not. Since you’re really far up north I imagine that you probably mostly have garter snakes and the like. I actually run with my dog and I let her go ahead of me on tall grassy parts so she can scope it out and make sure we’re safe. And most of the time, the snake will just freeze and let you run past instead of making itself known.
    Running slow is definitely the best way to start! I think that your next runs on the trail will get better and better. :) Let us know how they go!
    Oh, and usually companies make a trail version of the road running shoe you may wear. However, unless the trail is REALLY rocky and steep, regular shoes should be all right.

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  15. I just walked that trail yesterday. Even walking that trail could give you a nice workout. I’m always impressed by the people running it. Good job!! If you ever go again the CSH library is a a public library and therefore had public bathrooms inside. They also have ones for outside. Happy running!!

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