Happy trails to run

Austin American-Statesman - - LIFE & ARTS - PAM LE­bLAnc

When the heat cranks up, the thought of run­ning on sear­ing pave­ment un­der a blaz­ing sun can suck the mo­ti­va­tion right out of your legs.

Thank­fully, here in Austin we can skip the as­phalt and run off road, in the shade, along­side flow­ing creeks.

Be­sides a nice change of scenery, trail run­ning of­fers a less jolt­ing al­ter­na­tive to street run­ning.

You won’t set any land-speed records scam­per­ing over roots and rocks, splashing through creeks and dodg­ing tree branches, but im­pactab­sorb­ing dirt means less pounding on your body. In­stead of re­peat­edly strik­ing your foot to the ground in the same po­si­tion, you land at dif­fer­ent an­gles.

Re­duced im­pact is just one rea­son pro triath­lete An­drea Fisher runs the Barton Creek green­belt three or four times a week, for 30 min­utes to two hours at a time.

“I think it’s my es­cape from the world,” Fisher says. “MoPac (Boule­vard) is right there, but you’re out in the woods. I can turn my mind off and go run and there’s not a ton of peo­ple. It’s the same rea­son I go for a hike or a walk.”

I love romp­ing out­doors, too, but I haven’t done much trail run­ning. I ar­range to meet Fisher for a run start­ing at the Gaines Creek trail­head of the green­belt, above Twin Falls.

Fisher, 37, a for­mer Uni­ver­sity of Texas swim­mer, started trail run­ning with a friend in the late 1990s while pre­par­ing for an Iron­man triathlon. Run­ning off-road was more fun, she

says, than slog­ging out miles on a paved road. Cou­pled with on-road speed­work, it helped get her ready for the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run.

“I could talk the whole time. We weren’t go­ing fast, just ex­plor­ing,” she says.

It’s that off-the-beaten path, feel-like-a-kid at­ti­tude of trail run­ning that hooked her.

“I never, ever, ever get bored. Ever,” she says. “You might be on the same trail, but each time it’s dif­fer­ent.”

Fisher and her hus­band, pro triath­lete Jamie Cleve­land, own Hill Coun­try Run­ning Co., where they sell all kinds of run­ning gear, in­clud­ing the low-pro­file, lug­bot­tomed shoes pre­ferred by trail run­ners.

“They en­able me to feel the trail in a good way, so I can re­act,” Fisher says of the La Sportiva Wild­cat shoes she’s wear­ing when we meet.

I want run­ning tips. She tells me to keep my eyes on the trail about 6 feet ahead of me. Last-minute changes in di­rec­tion are dif­fi­cult, so she tells me to pick a line and stick with it. If I start to fall, I shouldn’t try to stop my­self. Chances are I’ll just land in a bush.

Trail run­ning, ap­par­ently, is like driv­ing a big, floaty Buick.

Fisher takes off at an easy pace down the 3-foot-wide path, and I fall in be­hind her. She doesn’t run di­rectly down the mid­dle of the trail. She sort of hop-scotches along, bounc­ing from side to side as she picks her way around ob­sta­cles.

Her shoes stay on as we splash through the creek, trot up the op­po­site bank and plunge into the woods.

It’s a good five or 10 de­grees cooler down here than it is in the sun. The shade and the re­laxed pace are good for an­other rea­son: Fisher is preg­nant and due in Fe­bru­ary.

Just when I think I’ve got­ten the hang of it, a root grabs me. I plow into a flow­er­ing bush like a 130-pound rhino bent on de­struc­tion. Fisher man­ages not to laugh, and I’m com­pletely un­harmed, so we forge on.

Later, as I’m run­ning up a hill, some­thing whacks me in the head. I’ve run di­rectly into a low-hang­ing tree branch. I’m so clumsy!

The dif­fer­ence be­tween road run­ning and trail run­ning, I re­al­ize, is like the dif­fer­ence be­tween road bik­ing and moun­tain bik­ing. It’s just a dirt­ier, more rugged and slightly more laid-back ver­sion of the same sport.

“I don’t guess it’s for ev­ery­one, and it seems like peo­ple ei­ther love it or hate it,” says Amy Sugeno, an­other Austin trail run­ner who has tried to per­suade me to try the sport. “Some of my run­ning friends com­plain that they don’t want to get their shoes dirty, and other friends have said they get frus­trated be­cause they can’t get into a rhythm be­cause they are con­stantly hav­ing to slow down, speed up or jump over rocks. But I just love it! I love the peace and quiet and beauty, and I love the chal­lenge of hav­ing to ne­go­ti­ate the trail and deal with what­ever Mother Na­ture throws at you.”

I agree. I like it so much that be­fore I know it nearly an hour has slipped away.

Be­cause trail run­ning is slower than road run­ning, trail run­ners don’t so much mea­sure mileage as they clock time. And some of them like to go for re­ally long runs that last all day or night. Fisher is one of those peo­ple.

In 2008 she ran the Ban­dera 50K trail race in 4 hours and 56 min­utes, set­ting a new women’s record by 10 min­utes. Trail Run­ner Mag­a­zine named it one of the top three fe­male trail per­for­mances of the year. That same year, she won the Palo Duro Canyon 50-mile trail race, fin­ish­ing nearly an hour ahead of the sec­ond-place woman.

On such long runs, Fisher says, she moves be­yond fa­tigue and numb­ness to eu­pho­ria. I take her word for it.

We cross back over the creek and head to­ward the trail­head.

I’m sweaty, dirty and bliss­fully happy.

A per­fect run in the woods.

Jay Jan­ner pho­tos AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

An­drea Fisher runs to Twin Falls in the Barton Creek green­belt. She uses low-pro­file, lug-bot­tomed shoes, be­low, that she can get wet. The shoes help her feel the trail bet­ter, al­low­ing her to make corrections.

Jay Jan­ner AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

An­drea Fisher has set a record on a 50K trail race that got her no­ticed by Trail Run­ner Mag­a­zine. She runs three or four times a week for 30 min­utes to two hours at a time.

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