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Trail running: it ain’t about bein’ fancy

Emily Halnon reminds us that, at its core, trail running is simply about playing in the dirt.

Emily Halnon

April 24th, 2022

7 min read


I once got a last-minute invitation to join a crew of trail runners for a trek of the 40-mile Rogue River Trail. It was so last minute that I didn’t have time to load up on running fuel.

“I’ll stop and grab food on the way,” I thought, as I sprinted out of my house.

It turned out the only store that was really on the way was a rural gas station. The kind without any windows, advertising live fishing bait and still renting VHS tapes.

It also turned out that this gas station had everything I needed to fuel a long run.

After a few minutes and about 14 dollars, I walked out with an array of Cheez-Its, peanut butter pretzels, PopTarts, and sour gummy worms and I was set for 40-miles of running along the Wild and Scenic Rogue River. And that was not the last time  I fueled up at a gas station.

As our sport grows, we’re getting bombarded with an endless mountain of expensive gear, fuel, and technology. You can spend $375 on a pair of shoes. There are 30 different flavors of energy gels to choose from. And you need a Master’s Degree in Gear Speak just to translate the different sock offerings.

But at the end of the day, the sport of trail running is really just playing on dirt. And there are a lot of ways that the sport doesn’t need to be any fancier than that.

Fuel Up at a Gas Station

Skittles are a tastier, rainbow-colored version of any GU-like substance. The chips aisle is full of options that will give you the same boost as the saltiest aid station potato. You can’t go wrong with a Snickers bar (or, go for a melt-proof Payday if it’s a hot day). And you can usually find string cheese, beef jerky, and packaged pickles if you want to get really fancy and throw together a gas station charcuterie board.

And if the gas station is closed and you’re as desperate as Alan Abbs during the 500-kilometer Vol State Run across Tennessee, you still may not be out of luck. Abbs spotted a bag of discarded Lays chips on top of a trash can – and scored himself some much-needed calories.

Make a Not-So-Fancy Feast

If you’re going for a really meaty run and need something more substantial than a Snickers, there are a lot of solid options for not-so-fancy solid food. Many of which are even available at a well-stocked gas station. Cans of pork and beans have been a go-to for Western States Race Director Craig Thornley. One of my running friends swears by SpaghettiOs. And Coree Woltering has also shared that canned pasta is a win. He says he slurped SpaghettiOs straight from the can during his Ice Age Trail FKT, alongside the Quik Trip chicken sandwiches and cheeseburgers he ate to fuel his 1,200-mile run across Wisconsin. I learned the beauty of instant mashed potatoes during my own multi-day run. And many runners who’ve raced through the night know all about the life-changing magic of Instant Ramen.

And after a lot of experimentation, I can assure you that chain pizza is the sturdiest pizza and the best-suited for a long day in a hydration pack. My personal go-to is Domino’s 2-for-$12 special.

Gear Up at Goodwill

You don’t have to wear high-tech threads for a highly impressive performance. Pam Smith won Western States wearing a cotton T-shirt in 2013. Scott Traer snagged a Golden Ticket at the Black Canyon 100k this year sporting a saucy button-down from the Salvation Army. Hannah Allgood just won the Gorge 100k in a clearance tank top. Mike Wolfe used to run in polyester snap-button shirts that he thrifted for the grand price of one dollar. And I’ve personally run 100-milers in cotton t-shirts straight from the boy’s section (because that’s where you find the best volcano, tiger, and dinosaur shirts). And if you’re not quite ready to try cotton, your local thrift store almost certainly has a rack full of more traditional athletic apparel, including retro vintage race tees.

DIY Ventilation

Jim Walmsley’s DIY top at the 2016 Western States. Photo Courtesy of Trail Runner Magazine.

If you’re getting ready for an extra hot run or race, all you need is a pair of scissors to make your clothes a little cooler. Just ask Jim Walmsely, who ran the 2016 Western States in a hand-cut holey crop top. The homemade crop top, with or without holes, is a great way to add a little breeze to any hot day. Just make sure you slice the bottom of the crop to fall lower than the bottom of your hydration pack.

Heat Training Sans Sauna

You can skip the backyard sauna and get a Tyvec suit from your local hardware store for about $10 for some easy heat training. Bonus points for head-to-toe fashion. And if you want to adopt a slightly less biohazard-y look, you can layer up in your thickest sweats and an extra fleecy hat and hit the trails on a hot day for some dirt-cheap heat training.

Your House is Full of In-A-Pinch Trail Running Gear

Trash bags make a cheap waterproof layer… (who can forget John Kelly finishing the 2017 Barkley Marathon in a shredded plastic grocery bag?) Socks are mittens minus the thumbholes. Screws are one drill away from giving a pair of shoes permanent microspikes for winter running. Salt can be tossed in a baggie for easy electrolytes – same goes for Vaseline for easy lube. A lacrosse ball is a great recovery device for a hurts-so-good massage. And a plastic maple syrup bottle can also hold water – and was used by many trail runners in the early days of ultrarunning. And duct tape? Well, duct tape can fix anything.

Go Play in the Dirt

Long before Golden Tickets, lotteries, and waitlists – the original way to trail run was simply to go out and…run. One of the main reasons we all love this sport is because it helps us (re)discover the joy of playing in the dirt and being in nature. Just grab a pair of shoes and go solo, on a choose-your-own-adventure with friends, or via a local Fat Ass race without any of the extra frills. Pretty much any way you trail run – you’ll have fun, get dirty, and come home feeling happy. And that’s what trail running is all about.

Everyone seems to have a story about some weird, quirky, and most definitely not fancy thing they’ve seen or done on the trail, what’s yours?

10 thoughts on "Trail running: it ain’t about bein’ fancy"

  1. Michelle Goldberg says:

    This is brilliant. We humans have such a tendency to over complicate things unnecessarily. This is a great reminder to keep it simple, be flexible, and know that there are many ways to get the thing done!! Love it!

  2. Micah Ward says:

    Great article Emily. Yes, running of any type and on any surface is really very simple. I’ve run for 45 years and I’m amazed at how some people try to make it more complicated than it needs to be. The latest and greatest doesn’t always make things better, just different.

  3. Thea Gavin says:

    Thanks for this practical (and money-saving!) article, Emily . . . my own un-fancy-hack is to save $375 (or less) per pair of shoes by trail running with nothing on my feet.

    I’ve been barefoot running on trails for 12 years now (I started at age 50), and by planning my runs to avoid the hottest and coldest parts of the day, I’ve been able to log 10,000 + miles on my local trails (as well as several barefoot R2Rs at Grand Canyon).

    (Common sense caveat: of course I bring some lightweight foot covering when I run in a new area and/or extreme conditions. I like to have fun, but I’m not stupid 🙂 ).

  4. Jan Le Pouvoir says:

    Emily, to-a-T, you depicted us pioneers of the early ‘80’s of trail running! Real food like Top Ramen/burritos/turkey jerky and string cheese…heck, that original hard-as-a-rock Power Bar didn’t hit the shelves until 1986… no gels, no having to negotiate mindless hours of deliberation over which flavor best suited which energy or tummy condition…Electrolyte fluids came in just two styles: Gator-ade and ERG, easy-peasy! Cotton t-shirts or white dress shirts kept you cool those hot days (cotton DOES retain moisture after all), and yes, you didn’t need a PhD in shoe construction to navigate miles of footwear choices. It seems if you don’t sport the latest in hydro pack tech, you run the risk of damaging the image of today’s trail running corporations as you may choose to flaunt your still usable and workable fanny pack from the ‘80’s. I may not win any style awards out there, and no longer win ultras or even my age group any more, but, hey, I continue to stand out in my own way, I suppose, representing a throw-back to our roots. We DO need to know from whence we came, after all, in order to more fully appreciate where we are and where we’re heading. Run free, all!

  5. christopher J Sisneros says:

    Great article couldn’t agree more as a poor runner. Make my own electrolytes and use nerd Skittles or jellybeans when on long runs.

  6. Cynthia M Tacheny says:

    I’m not even a real trail runner (yet!), but I just did a (hot!) marathon Sunday starting with two PB&Js pinned to my outfit. Whatevs. I need real food, not goo. Granted, I’m not super speedy so I can chow and run, but I also didn’t need the medical tent at the finish. Go sandwiches!

  7. Alli says:

    I recall showing up at Smith Rock a couple years ago to run with YOU, Emily(!), and I forgot my food! You all had my back with extra goldfish…and I think some gummies?? Anyway, it was plenty to get me through a few hours in the dirt. 😉

  8. Curtis D Reimer says:

    good reminder

  9. LMFL - KG says:

    Brilliant!! While there are certainly considerations to get what you need, when you need it – what to carry, what to drop – I love this entire article! Sometimes I feel like it’s a waste to have a gel when I could have a delicious grilled cheese (at an amazing aid station) or a handful of PB M&Ms

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