Mainers Find a Rush of Freedom Through Trail Running

Photo courtesy Marsh Island Trail Runners

What began as a pandemic necessity – with gyms closed and social distancing enforced – has become a bonafide obsession: Mainers all over the state have discovered or deepened their passion for trail running.

Alone or in groups, runners traverse the state’s many trail networks in an effort to maintain physical and mental health. In 2021, The Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands recorded an all-time high in visitor numbers at state parks, increasing eight percent on an already blockbuster record in 2020. What drives this fleet-footed trend and how can you join the pack? 

The Marsh Island Trail Runners have seen a surge in numbers since the pandemic began. “Last fall, we reliably had between four and ten people attending each week,” said organizer Brian Olsen. “Now it is more like 20 to 30.” Members include all ages and backgrounds.“We’re seeing folks who have been running all their lives and people who are trying this crazy thing out for the first time.” 

Photo courtesy Kate Ryan, Trail Runners of Midcoast Maine

What draws these enthusiasts back week after week, whatever the weather? “At its core, trail running is more technical than road or treadmill running, but also more rewarding,” Olsen explained. “With rocks, roots, downed trees, and different trail surfaces, the experience can change almost every step, and you work an entire suite of smaller muscles and tendons for stability that you don’t use on a consistently flat surface.” There’s a meditative aspect, too. “It’s easier to stay present on the trail,” he said. “And you have to use a trail to get to some of the prettiest places in our state anyway. I’ve found that trail runners tend to be less focused on speed and more on the route. They also may be a little crazier.”

Beyond the group’s weekly Tuesday evening run, keep an eye out for its most infamous race: TUCARD (Terrifically & Unnecessarily Complicated Adventure Race and Duathalon). “In a state like Maine, where most of the land is privately owned, good trail running depends heavily on private landowners providing public access,” said Olsen. “We started TUCARD a few years ago as a fundraiser for land trusts that preserve public access. At its core, the race is about adversity amidst absurdity. Because really, it’s a very silly race. In the months beforehand, you only know where the race starts and where it ends – but there is no set course and a bunch of absurd rules. We’ve had bonuses for piggybacks, three-legged races, and racing in costume. It’s like being stuck inside a giant board game, where the Game Master creates new ‘house rules’ along the way… but a benevolent Game Master who is raising money for a land trust. None of that Hunger Games stuff. We haven’t lost anyone yet!”

Photo courtesy Marsh Island Trail Runners

If you’re a veteran trail runner or just a newfound devotee, you might be ready to join Trail Monster Running Group of Southern Maine. This is no band of merry, fair-weather runners. The definition of a Trail Monster follows: “Someone who needs to run trails. There is no rain too heavy, mud too thick, snow too deep, or hill too big that a Trail Monster won’t run.” Intimidated? Run along. Intrigued? You’ll need to prove your dedication by showing up regularly to Saturday and Sunday group runs. Bradbury Mountain is the group’s most regular stomping ground. A strong sense of community is central to the Trail Monster ethos and members are expected to volunteer their time at one of the annual race series, which includes everything from snowshoe races to relays to the Riverlands 100, Maine’s first 100-mile ultra running race. Hosted at Androscoggin Riverlands State Park in Turner, intrepid soloists do four laps of the 25-mile route through rough, rooty terrain along the river and through dense woods within the 32-hour time limit. 

Come snow or sun, the Midcoast Trail Runners of Maine meet weekly for a jaunt among the woods and waterways of the Midcoast region. Describing themselves as “A community of fun-loving girls and boys who run amok in the woods and mountains of midcoast Maine,” the group welcomes all paces. The group meets on Monday nights for a run of up to six miles. The location changes weekly – updated via Facebook– so you’ll get the chance to explore your area on foot while building a community with a group of like-minded endorphin-seekers. 

Get the Gear

If the woods are calling, don’t go unprepared. Matt Bremermann at Fleet Feet Maine Running in Portland advises a few must-have gear items to keep you safe. 

“The big thing is shoes – you need a trail shoe that fits your foot structure,” he said. “Many have a firmer tread to support your feet on rough trails.” Brands like Altra and Salomon make sneakers specifically designed for this kind of adventure, while Kahtoola offers traction treads for slippery conditions. 

If you’re venturing out alone, it’s worth investing in a device to track your location. Garmin, Phoenix, and Apple products can also track your vital signs and statistics, so you can see how your health and performance improve over time. 

Beyond this, “visibility and hydration are top concerns,” said Bremermann. Look for a lightweight running bottle or pack with high-visibility details and consider a headlamp if running at night. 

Saisie Moore is a freelance writer and editor based in Portland, Maine.

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