A working mother of two teens, Vanessa Stroud could not have imagined the 100-mile trail races in her future when she first laced up a pair of running shoes the year before she turned 40. She had never been “a runner.” In fact, running was one of the activities she had spent 39 years avoiding. “I was in the school band so I didn’t have to go to Physical Ed. class,” she says. But suddenly she felt called to it.
Stroud came straight off the couch and signed up for a marathon. She also joined Team in Training, and the coach captivated her imagination with stories of ultra-runs. One of the training runs introduced her to the trails of Ruffner Mountain, where she fell in love with the feeling of dirt under her shoes and the easy camaraderie of the other runners who loved it too.
Now, at 45, she has finished four 100-mile races: The Pinhoti 100 (twice), Bryce Canyon 100, and Western States 100. Her wins include the Tuskeegee Fat Ass 50K (first female), and the Oak Mountain Equinox 50K (first female). What makes this even more impressive is that she trains an average of 35 miles a week. She rations her training load by what she calls the Domestic Tranquility Index (DTI). It factors in work, kids, marriage, and life.
RootsRated asked Stroud for her top tips for getting into trail running. Whether you’re coming from the road or the couch, Stroud is one of the friendly Birmingham trail-running locals who will encourage you along the way.
1. Find trail-happy locals
“Try to hook up with some trail runners who don’t mind taking you out and showing you some trails, going at a slower pace if need be. As a female, I don’t mind running trails by myself now, but I used to be very leery of it because I was new, and I didn’t have my anti-tripping mechanism dialed in. I still trip over things, but it’s more likely a penny in the parking lot. If the place you’re going is not really big, it’s great to explore by yourself. But if you get hooked up with some experienced runners they can show you trails that aren’t marked and more scenic.”
2. Join the community
“Your local outdoor stores—Mountain High Outfitters and Alabama Outdoors—can usually direct you to the right person. Also, get on social media. The Birmingham Ultra Trail Society (BUTS) hosts at least five weekly runs (check out the schedule here) and has a huge Facebook group where you can ask questions. Almost every day of the week, morning or evening, you can find someone to run trails with. Check out the blogs of local runners: Fiction Running by RootsRated ambassador, Zach Andrews, and Yo Momma Runs by Lisa Stout Booher are two great options. David Tosh, who hosts the Southeastern Trail Series, does some epic race reports, too.”
3. Start on less-technical trails
“Red Mountain Park is a good place to start out in Birmingham. They do have some pretty technical trails, but you can also find easy trails that are flatter and wider. It’s a small park, so it’s hard to get too lost.
Alabama Outdoors hosts the 5:30 p.m. Tuesday Night Trail (TNT) run, with leaders for different groups of paces, abilities, and distances. Oak Mountain State Park has some flatter less technical trails too, but it’s a pretty big place so you need to know where you’re going. The Family Trail and Lake Trail are nice and easy. At Ruffner Mountain , if you want easy, you can do the Pipeline, Lizard Loop, and Wetlands trails—they’re relatively flat, wide, less rooty and rocky than the rest of the mountain.”
4. Hydrate! And get enough salt
“Any time you go out, you ought to bring water. For a short run, one bottle is good. But don’t go out without bottles. What if you fall and injure yourself or encounter someone who’s hurting? Or maybe you’re just having a bad day and you need a little more hydration than normal? If you’re not familiar with the trail, you could get lost, and it could take you an hour to get oriented, and another hour to get out. Take two bottles or a 50 oz. hydration reservoir. If you’re drinking water instead of a sports drink, take a gel or two, plus electrolytes or a salt stick.”
5. Cross-train for core strength
“Trail runners can’t take strength training and cross training for granted. The thing that has dialed up my trail running the most has been working on core exercises, and strengthening my ankles. It’s important for when you trip. The biggest tool in my arsenal is a balance board. I work in grey cubicle-land, but I stand up all day at work and use a balance board for at least one hour a day. I’ll stand on it with just one leg and do controlled rocking. At home I’ll do yoga poses on it—dancer and tree of life pose are great—or one-legged dead-lift squats. Even one 30-minute session a week is better than nothing. When I started doing work on the balance board is when I started running longer, faster, feeling better in races, and having more fun on the trail. If I roll an ankle, I pop back up and keep on going. Very seldom do I fall anymore. I’ll stumble and trip but I’ll save it most of the time. That’s all due to core strength, because you’re able to right yourself.”
6. Find a race to train for
“There are so many great races in Alabama.” For less-than-ultra distance races, check out the Southeastern Trail Series (7 races in 7 months, from a 3-miler in April to a 50K in November) and the Xterra Trail Run Series . If you want to go for it with an ultra-distance race, here are some of Stroud’s favorites in Alabama:
Coldwater Mountain 50-mile and 50K (New! August)
Crusher Ridge 21/42/63K (October)
Pinhoti 100 (November)
Mountain Mist 50K (January)
Mt. Cheaha 50K (February)
Oak Mountain 50K (March)
Lake Martin 100 (March)