Things to Consider When Choosing Your First Trail Race

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Things to Consider When Choosing Your First Trail Race Things to Consider When Choosing Your First Trail Race

Maybe you’ve run a couple 5k’s and want to take it to the next step (pun intended). Or perhaps you saw a friend post some pictures on social media of her triumphantly leaping over a fire with cutesie mud splatters all over her body and a big grin on her face. And you thought, “I also would look cute with mud smudges on my face.” Either way, you’ve decided to run your first trail race. Congratulations!

I began my love affair with trail races when I was 11 years old and decided to try out for the cross-country team to make friends. Trail races can still be extremely social and in fact, it is one of the first things on my list of things to consider when choosing a trail race. Before you sign up for your first race, here are 5 things to consider when making your final selection.

Group Social or Solo Conquest?

In describing the Tough Mudder Half (5 Miles and 13 obstacles), the race’s website states this race is “a unique, fun teamwork experience when another ordinary weekend just won’t cut it.” Some of their obstacles are designed intentionally to be completed as a pair or with a team (such as hoisting one another over barriers or pulling each other up a wall). On the other hand, if you primarily train by yourself and don’t know a pack of people who are capable of running long distances, you shouldn’t automatically think that trail or obstacle races aren’t for you. I ran a Tough Mudder Half several years back and I signed up solo. I had recently moved to New Orleans and didn’t know any other runners yet. I ended up catching up to and running alongside several strangers and when the team-based obstacles arose, I was wordlessly adopted into their mix.


It’s important to remember that all trail runs are NOT created equal. There’s the obstacle race as I mentioned above in which a trail or mud course is combined with obstacles to complete.

There’s also the type of race that’s designed to next-level test your endurance. In these, nature is part of the great challenge. An example of this is the Mount Marathon Race in Seward, Alaska. I watched this trail race in awe at its apparent difficulty. It boasts 60 degrees at its steepest incline and contains a perilous skidding decline. Some of the faster times of completion for a 5k were 45 minutes. That thing is rough.

There’s the meandering trail race, where the grass is short and the ground is firm. Or there’s the beach trail race where you run over cushiony sand as it gives resistance. There is no shortage of terrain in selecting a trail race, so decide what terrain you feel most comfortable with.


Just like choosing a road race, you can really find a variety of distances. I like to choose a distance that I am comfortable competing in on the road and then take that to the trails to further challenge myself.  If you have done a few 5ks, try a 5k on trails.  If you are experienced with the half marathon distance, go ahead and sign up for a trail half marathon.  I wouldn’t recommend your first time trail running to be at a trail race. Not to say it is impossible or that I haven’t seen it. It just may add to your race day anxiety if you aren’t properly prepared.


Cost can really vary in trail races from “Oh wow, I got such a cheap deal because this state park is hosting a race!” to “Wow, this feels more like destination race pricing.” Decide what’s in your budget and stick with it. Or if you think you’ll only do one or two trail races as a kind of novelty, it may make sense to splurge just this once.


Trail races tend to be removed from city limits so location is definitely a factor to consider. We all know sleep is important the night before a race so are you comfortable driving 2 hours in the early morning to the middle-of-nowhere to compete? Or are you going to make a weekend trip out of this race and pay for a hotel? Either way, since trail races can be remote, I do recommend leaving a bit earlier than you normally would for a race start in case your GPS loses location, you encounter traffic, etc.

What NOT to Consider

Your goal for your first trail race should not be about speed. In fact, if you look at your watch after you complete a trail run you might be quite alarmed at the seemingly slow pace. The thing is, you’re not slow; trail races can be tough! But there is a reason they are growing in popularity. The unique locations, the scenic views, and the endorphins after you’ve tried something more challenging and new to your normal routine are unparalleled. So if you’re considering running your first trail race, I say just do it!

Happy trails!


  1. Tough Mudder website, Challenge Series, Online publication