The thick blanket of leaves covering the precarious rocky terrain - and its ankle-sabotaging nooks and crannies - made just walking the trail to Sunset Rock a challenge. Never mind running it.
Trail running is so much healthier for you," says Randy Whorton, a runner turned longtime trail runner and director of Wild Trails, a local nonprofit dedicated to promoting the use, expansion and protection of trails in the Greater Chattanooga area. "On trails, everything is different. You're using so many different muscle groups; you build stronger knees and joints. There's so much more upper body with trail running as well."
Whenever I think of trail running, it isn't the pleasant "SNAP!" of breaking sticks on a crisp fall day that I hear, but that of my ankles.
"You will fall and you will twist your ankle, those are just the common things," Whorton admits. "But it's so rare that a fall actually leads to any kind of significant problems. I would highly recommend that people never run on roads, period - you're just asking for injury. A lot of people I grew up with running don't run anymore because they stayed on roads and wound up having knee, hip, ankle or back problems. When you think about it, it really makes sense; I think trail running is so much more natural for us."
Being surrounded by nature is another of the sport's benefits. Lucky for us in the Scenic City, there are hundreds of miles of trails within a short drive of downtown. "We have amazing resources here that most people aren't aware of - Chattanooga is probably the best trail city in the world perhaps," says Whorton, giving a "conservative" estimate that 56 trailheads are located within 30 minutes of downtown. His hometown of Boulder, Colo., prized for its outdoor opportunities, has maybe only 20, he notes.
"Trail running is not only better for you physically, it's so much better for your mind," adds Whorton. "It's just good mental therapy to get out and be part of nature instead of just being part of a gym. You have all these positive distractions, so an hour goes by a lot quicker in the woods than on a treadmill, the Riverwalk or whatever."
Those "distractions" have even helped him and his wife maintain a focus on each other and their marriage. They are married not only to each other, but to the sport. "That relationship we have out in the woods has made our relationship a lot better than most people's marriages, I think," he says. "We're pushing our limits and doing these really cool adventures that lead to some really spectacular memories."
Capitalizing on others' experience is the best way to wade into the sport, Whorton advises. He is part of a Meetup group called Chattanooga Trail Runners that does group runs at least once a week. Once the days get longer, there will likely be two to three group runs each week, although Whorton notes that people are welcome to use them as an introduction to not only the sport, but also its enthusiasts. Even during those runs, some people - like me - prefer to just walk the trail.
ON YOUR MARK
For those still sitting on the fence in regards to trail running, Whorton recommends being part of a race. The first local race of the season is the Rock/Creek River Gorge Trail Race Saturday, March 23.
"A lot of people expect in a race you're going to be this macho stud, and it takes years to get there. But there are all kinds of people," he says.
Wild Trails hosts eight races, with a ninth en route for next year, that range from 6 kilometers to 50 miles. But, for those who can't yet comfortably run at least half the race's distance without major discomfort, Whorton says volunteering is the next best thing.
Contact him at email@example.com for more information.
Before hitting the trail, Whorton says you'll need good, sturdy shoes that provide adequate ankle support and tread, as well as a good hydration or fanny pack.
One of the reasons Whorton recommends joining the ranks of experienced trail runners before starting out on your own is to learn proper form, as well as good places to start practicing.
"You don't want to land on your heel. You want to land all of your foot on the ground at the same time; kind of barefoot running style," he says.
When you're ready to give it a go, the Upper Truck or Guild trails near Ruby Falls provide access to lots of great small trails. Once accessible by the public, Stringer's Ridge will also be a good spot full of trails that are "spectacular all-around."