Once upon a time and not particularly very long ago, trail running in Western North Carolina was a fringe sport at best.
Hitting the trails instead of roads served as a refuge for longtime runners who couldn’t bear to give up their morning jogs but whose knees and joints simply couldn’t take the pounding anymore of feet-on-pavement. For other road-racing runners, trail running was a nice, scenic method of getting in some strengthening exercises. But in the main, serious runners primarily steered clear of focusing on trail running, afraid that while running off-road would indeed make them stronger, it might also make them slower.
No more. These days, trail running has burgeoned into WNC’s outdoor sport de jour. Some runners do nothing now but run on trails, avoiding road running altogether. Others, such as Brad Dodson of Haywood County, continue to enjoy both pavement and trails — Dodson, in fact, is currently training for one of the world’s premier road races, the Boston Marathon, set for April 15. He finds trail running complements his road racing.
Dodson, 43, said he finds it much easier to run for three hours on trails than to put in, say, 20 miles on pavement.
“Running on pavement is really hard on your body, especially as you get older,” the former college track runner said.
Not to mention, Dodson added, the sheer meditative quality of running in the woods.
“All my life I’ve been looking at a clock and worrying about time while running,” he said. “Trail running is less about the time, more about just being out there — and it’s about enjoying being in the woods.”
A new business niche for region
Even the Nantahala Outdoor Center, the area’s biggest and oldest river-raft company, is getting into the act of trail running. NOC is working now on improving a series of trails behind the business’ main headquarters in the Nantahala Gorge in Swain County, with the plan of hosting a series of trail races in the future. Additionally, walk (or run) into the outfitters’ store and you’ll discover a recently added complete line of trail-running gear — from trail-running specific shoes to handheld water bottles.
“We got many requests to add those, from a lot of customers who wanted trail-running items,” said Lauren Dieterich, a trail runner herself and a member of NOC’s marketing department.
The outfitting company also has teamed with nearby Fontana Village to hold back-to-back trail runs Oct. 29-30, “to give people a whole weekend of trail running,” said Charles Conner, the company’s marketing department director.
The demand for trail races is definitely growing, Conner said, which is what prompted NOC to focus on improving the trails nearby the center and to team with Fontana Village. By improving its system of trails, NOC will be able to hold a race and offer perks runners enjoy after a hard slog in the woods — showers, maybe a live band playing music and more.
Conner said there are about five or six miles of trail available to NOC now, and that the trails can be connected into loops. Plus a few more miles of trails might be added on as well.
In May, the trail-running community will converge on NOC via the 2011 Smoky Mountain Relay, a running event that starts in North Mills River and ends at NOC in Wesser. This is the second year NOC has been a relay sponsor.
Runners will cover 205 miles of trails, forest service and rural roads. Teams of 12 runners each will cover the course in 36 sections, with each runner completing three sections of 2.5- to 10-miles each.