Training for the Trace

I spent my first year in WNC exploring more than 3,000 miles of backcountry. From Deep Creek to Bent Creek, I ran single track in cove forests, cycled car-free Forest Service roads, and hiked along the folds and ridges of the Smokies. One of my most adventurous solo excursions included a half-day ramble down Coffee Pot Mountain along the Trace Ridge Trail. Now, nearly a decade later, this Xpress staffer finds himself coerced into racing that same meandering, stream-hoppin’ foot trail, which traverses the North Mills River area of Henderson County in Pisgah National Forest.

Traditionally, the Trace Ridge Trail Race has been the opening act of the three-day Mountain Sports Festival (this year’s edition is scheduled for June 6-8). Last year, I canoed with partner Lani Anderson in the festival’s French Broad River Challenge (sponsored by RiverLink). This year, I’ve decided to expand my MSF repertoire, running the 9.3-mile footrace on Friday, then hopping up on Saturday morning to paddle 16 miles of flat water on the French Broad.

Fortunately, I still have more than four months to jump-start my training, whip myself back into shape and, hopefully, run a respectable time come June. To that end, I met with my friend/training partner Red Smith last month; together we mapped out a training path that has success written all over it. Our multilayered workout schedule includes several components that others might find helpful in pursuing their own quest to tackle the Trace.

We’ve included plenty of variety in our training bag of tricks: hills, speed, rest, long runs and a few time trials. And if anybody out there is interested in tagging along, grab a pencil and a calendar and come join the fun (see contact info below).

One unusual feature of our training schedule is that it follows an 11-day cycle, instead of the more typical Sunday-through-Saturday routine. Smith began crafting our training plan by targeting the actual race date (June 6), then working backward. After carefully calculating how much time we had to train (4 months), he divided those 122 days into 11 sections of defined workouts.

We’ve opted for a three-stage training program beginning with a conditioning period. In the second stage, we’ll gradually transition into hills and speed. Then, in the final month, we’ll ratchet up the intensity while decreasing the duration. In other words, we plan to focus on quality rather than quantity. Sounds pretty simple — now all we have to do is fill in a few blanks, train like maniacs, and the rest is gravy.

Wavy Gravy

Taking a cue from those climbers who creatively tag their first ascents with names like Rockwork Orange, Beam Me Up Scotty and Numb Hypothesis, I’ve decided to give our target race a more descriptive title. “Wavy” refers to the 12 stream crossings runners must negotiate during the first three miles. The long, downhill finish is a bit of “gravy,” compliments of course designers. And the famed Merry Prankster would undoubtedly have liked the six-mile “dose” of hills that’s thrown in just for the fun of it.

Two-time Olympic marathon-trials competitor Randy Ashley has mixed feelings about previewing the course. “First of all, who wants to tackle a trail run where you’re getting soaking wet the first mile into the run?” he said with a chuckle. This time of year, Ashley reports, the swollen streams may involve several waist-deep crossings. The best bet, he says, is to wait until at least April (or maybe May) to scout out the route.

Ultimately, Ashley says he was glad he ran a section of the trail before last year’s event. It gave him some respect, he says, for the “technical” single track and the “formidable” climb around mile eight. Ashley (who also directed the inaugural Tortoise & Hare 5K event in last year’s festival) finished second, behind Black Mountain resident Thomas Cason.

Base training

During February, Smith and I have scheduled two long runs. We’ve carefully orchestrated a 10-day recovery period that enables us to tack an extra five to 10 minutes onto each consecutive long run. Our goal is to gradually build up our long runs to two hours and 45 minutes.

The beauty of the 11-day cycle is the wide time margin it provides — giving us more room to squeeze in hill workouts and long runs without compromising rest days. Our hill workouts will start out conservatively, with roughly six to 10 hills of varying grades and distances. We’ll choose hills that mimic the actual racing conditions — long, gradual grades with a few short, steep hills thrown in for good measure. Shorter hills help runners maintain good form while ascending challenging inclines. Most runners tend to run hills that are so steep that they begin to lose their natural running form or can’t complete the scheduled workout.

Walking can also be a valuable component of regular training runs — it may even result in faster racing times. “Most of us will walk some of the steeper sections [of the Trace] … why not practice this in your training?” Smith suggests. Implementing short walking breaks into longer training runs is also an effective way for runners to extend their overall distance without feeling totally depleted after the workout.

Picking up the pace

By mid-March, we hope to have completed four hill workouts. In the second phase of training, we’ll introduce a sustained effort or “tempo” run. Besides being a great confidence-booster, this also gets us used to the discomfort associated with running at a faster pace. Twice a month, we’ll start a run with a routine 20-minute warm-up; we’ll increase our pace during the tempo portion of the workout, maintaining that effort for 15-20 minutes. Then we’ll ease up again, allowing ourselves a more relaxed 20-minute cool-down period. A few weeks before the race, we’ll extend our tempo run to roughly 35-40 minutes.

Most local competitive runners incorporate tempo runs on smooth surfaces into their training regimen, but few practice sustained-effort runs directly on the trails. If you’re currently training on the trails at a nine to 10-minute pace, try running 30-60 seconds faster each mile. For most runners, the accelerated pace brings surprises. Wide trails narrow to a twisty world of turns and jumps, while downhills create an out-of-control feeling. If you’re planning on racing the Trace, trail tempos might help you get ready.

To break the monotony of the training routine, Smith suggested working some of our favorite haunts into our schedule as motivators. This also gives us a clever excuse for exploring high-country ridge tops and secret training grounds, as well as the challenging trails of the Trace.

In mid-April, we’ll take our first appraisal run on the race course, which includes the 3.1 mile Trace Ridge Trail as well as portions of the Big Creek and Spencer Branch trails. Each time we run the course, we’re rehearsing for the Big Dance. A couple of times around the actual race route should be sufficient to imprint most of the details we’re concerned about. On race day, trail junctions and abrupt turns will be chalked to identify directional changes. But we still think it’s a good idea to get comfortable with a course before you race it.

Smith also advocates a few road runs each week. “To get faster, you need to train on smooth surfaces to increase turnover,” Smith enthusiastically explained during a recent workout. Turnover is similar to a cyclist’s cadence, which measures how many revolutions per minute an athlete completes while pedaling. For runners, this relates to how often the foot strikes the ground over a specific distance. Over time, runners going mostly on trails tend to decrease turnover and shorten their pace.


May Day signals the beginning of our final phase of training — a sharpening period that focuses on speed while decreasing our overall mileage. And if you’re not a fan of track workouts, don’t fret, because Smith and I won’t venture into the 400-meter arena during the entire four months of training. Instead, we’ll run our intervals along service roads, greenways and pre-measured courses. We do plan to use conventional track workouts, but instead of oval repetitions, we’ll stretch out our legs along linear distances that include gradual grades, cambered surfaces and more realistic racing conditions.

Both Smith and I believe in longer stretches of speed followed by short recovery intervals. In this final stage, a typical workout might have us doing eight 800-meter runs with a 200-meter recovery jog sandwiched in between the speed segments. We’ll also throw in some 200-meter sprints to help develop leg strength.

Finally, we’ve scheduled a local race a few weeks before show time to help us build a bit of racing confidence and evaluate our fitness level. This steppingstone approach to measuring our conditioning will help us make final adjustments to our personal goals for the Trace.

Speaking of goals, the most important element of the whole training program is enjoying the experience along the way. After the dust had settled from last year’s event, MSF organizer Stuart Cowles echoed the sentiments of most of us who love to adventure with a sense of environmental awareness, saying, “By actively enjoying the region’s variety of natural resources, visitors and locals alike have more incentive to protect them.”

Sammy Cox and Red Smith will lead a preview run along the course, located in Henderson County’s North Mills River area. For info on dates and directions, e-mail Sammy at To learn more about the Trace Ridge Trail Run and other 2003 Mountain Sports Festival events, visit

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