Yes, I’m a townie, but when it comes to running I’m a trail girl.
Like everyone else, I run not just so I can squeeze into my jeans, but also to escape the hurly-burly of everyday life: work, study, kids, errands, gardening and the inevitable load of washing demanding my attention. So given an opportunity to get out and run, the last thing I want is to plough straight back into that hurly-burly. Instead, I seek out quiet running routes that take me away from noise, traffic, fumes and long delays at intersections. I look for an off-road course involving a stretch of waterfront, a riverbank, a patch of native bush, a paddock, a salt marsh, or even the grassy perimeter of a park or school. I go on the hunt for trails.
And in this country we don’t have to go far. New Zealand has some terrific city trail options. Take Whakatane, for example. The town’s Toi Challenge Track, 18km of spectacular coastal trail, begins and ends right in the centre of town. In Rotorua, Whakarewarewa Forest on the south-east boundary of the city offers over 70km of graded bush tracks, the perfect spot for a lunch-time jog. Havelock North has Te Mata Peak. Even tiny Winton, deep in Southland, its population only a smidge over 2000, boasts the Ivy Russell Reserve with leafy trails looping through 7 hectares of kahikatea and native bush.
Recently in Oamaru and not being familiar with the town, I ask my hotelier to suggest a running route. She hands me a fold-out map. “Try here,” she says, pointing to a squiggly pink line. A couple of streets away, the pink squiggle becomes a meandering dirt trail. I climb a steep hillside through a shady pocket of dense trees, eventually emerging above the canopy. From there, still clutching the little map, I run over rolling pasture enjoying the swish of the long grass, the blast of salt air and views of the bay across the soft peach facades of the town’s historic buildings. A dusty descent takes me onto a side-street past author Janet Frame’s childhood cottage, through Oamaru’s manicured public gardens and back to the hotel, refreshed and de-stressed from a 35 minute central city run that was almost entirely off-road. It occurs to me that all New Zealand’s town planners must surely be runners because when it comes to urban trails, we’re spoiled for choice.
As a trail girl, most of my weekly mileage is on tracks in and around Tauranga: a mixture of salt marsh, boardwalk, beach, and bush trail, and I do all of this running in road shoes. Okay, so my knees are slighty dodgy and my friends refer to me as Sparrow Ankles given that I roll them so frequently. You can’t expect to run trails, even inner city trails, without the occasional spill. It’s the nature of trails; there are rogue rocks, gnarly tree roots and treacherously slippery leaves to navigate. Trails are craggy, uneven and occasionally boggy. All part of the fun, surely? My running partner, a trail shoe convert, begs to differ. On the slopes of Mount Maunganui, she urges me to switch to trail shoes. “You’d be so much more confident in trail shoes,” she assures me. Even after she leaves me for dead on the downhill, bounding away with no concern for loss of life or limb, I’m not convinced. I like my road shoes; they’re worn-in and familiar. Besides, I’ve been wearing this brand for years so it’s probably too late to change now. Tucking the conversation away, I pick my way down the loose scree in my trusty road shoes.
Not long afterwards, my friends and I sign up for the Cape Kidnappers Challenge, a 32km off-road event involving an 8km stretch of rocky beach followed by plunging hills on farmland so pugged up by cattle there is barely an even footfall, and finishing with no less than a dozen muddy river crossings. After hours of skidding and sliding on the rough terrain, I arrive at the line with two whopping great blisters, a bruised bottom and a wrenched ankle. Disgusted and limping, I decide my battered road shoes have had their day.
This is how, after a morning’s shopping, i end up at home, taking my new Salomon XT Wings 2 out of their box. I rush to the bathroom to conduct a highly scientific experiment. I can’t believe it! These trail shoes weigh the same as my old road shoes. I expected trail shoes to be chunky and man-ish. Slipping them on, I stuff the quick-release laces into the natty pocket concealed in the shoe’s tongue. There’ll be no need for double-knotting soggy laces with these. I show them to my son. “Hey, cool!” he says, proving that trail shoes with secret spy compartments can also up one’s street-cred.
The next day, I head to Mount Maunganui for a good mix of trail types to test my new shoes: packed grit, crushed shell, rock, and stairs. Starting on the ocean boardwalk, they feel not unlike road shoes, light and springy, which suggests some good cushioning. But on the rocky ascent, the shoes do the work of controlling any sloppy side-to-side movement while still allowing for the natural flexion of my feet. Standing on tippy toes isn’t out of the question, either. I use that on-my-toes technique and some huffing and puffing to get myself up the mountain. However, it’s on the downhill that I notice the biggest difference. I won’t say Salomon’s XT Wings 2 transform me into a winged Mercury, but the improved traction and additional stability over my old road shoes definitely have me feeling more sure-footed as I descend the mountain. Jogging across the beach to Moturiki Island, I finish the run with my ankles intact.
If you think about it, trail shoes make sense. After all, we wouldn’t dream of venturing off-road in a supermarket trolley. For a cross-country excursion, we opt for the protection of a four-wheel drive vehicle, decent suspension and tyres with seriously grunty tread. Why should it be any different when we’re running? And since all-terrain shoes typically perform well on the road, they save the need for a second pair of shoes, an added benefit that should please my husband. Even better, since they’ve got tread as deep as a castle moat, when they’re past their use-by mileage they’ll be perfect for stomping around the garden.
Published in Fitness Life, May 2011 p94-96.