Most runners will attempt a half-marathon and then a subsequent marathon at some point in their lives. These feats of strength are not for the faint of heart, and they can be both a test of willpower and endurance in addition to mental fortitude. Those with even more drive might embark upon an ultramarathon, some of which span a distance of hundreds of miles. And then there’s a completely different sort of beast that only the most patient, persistent, and capable runners will attempt to tackle: a trail marathon.
Many typical marathons are routed along streets and sidewalks, which means you’ll spend most of your time on pavement. While this can result in the same overuse injuries as those sustained by other professional athletes, they aren’t necessarily difficult for those who have trained in earnest. A lot of marathons also avoid hilly areas.
And therein lies the difference between a marathon and a trail marathon.
The latter option is for those who prefer a steep climb surrounded by the natural world. When tackling a trail marathon, you won’t have to deal with vehicular traffic — you’ll just have to deal with making it up that next hill, and then down the other side without sliding off a cliff. No big deal, right?
For example, the Iron Mountain Trail Run takes place in Damascus, VA (Trail Town USA) each year and costs a nominal fee to register. The race itself takes place on the old Appalachian Trail (which was eventual redirected to the nearby Grayson Highlands), which was renamed the Iron Mountain Trail. Portions of the route will take runners on the road as well, depending on the course chosen.
There are four options: 16, 30, 40, and 50 miles. That means the IMTR isn’t just a trail marathon — it’s potentially a trail ultramarathon.
Those who fail to train are doomed from the start.
Before even thinking about a trail marathon, runners should do things the old-fashioned way. Run regularly, bike, and swim to build muscle and endurance, but be sure to give tired muscles a chance to build back up. When you’re ready, try a half-marathon, and then a marathon. If you handle those with enough grace, then it’s time to train for the trail marathon.
You should go on long-distance backpacking trips in order to build the muscles that don’t get used during other forms of exercise. You’ll be surprised how much everything hurts after each outing, but slowly you’ll start to feel better about the upcoming trip. Once you’ve grown accustomed to backpacking, it’s time to start running up mountains on the regular. After a few months — you’re ready to register for a lesson in pain.