Reviews, The (Actual) Life of an Ultrarunner, Trailrunning, Uncategorized
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Review: The Trail Runner’s Companion by Sarah Lavender Smith

Last month I received a copy of Sarah Lavender Smith’s new book: The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras. I’ve read dozens of books on running (every other book on my Goodreads account is about running) and recently wrote an article, “What’s the Best Ultrarunning Book for You?” from beginner to elite. There are plenty of books I’d recommend to someone looking to try their first ultramarathon–but I would never recommend the same book to everyone, regardless of their skill set or experience in the sport.

Not so with The Trail Runner’s Companion.

At nearly 300 pages, The Trail Runner’s Companion is on the long side, but necessarily so. Totaling 14 chapters, each broken down into several sub-chapters with titles like “6 Ways to Adopt a Trail Runner’s Mindset” and “The Taper Crazies and Pitfalls to Avoid,” Sarah covers the spectrum of questions that every beginner might have: from buying the right trail shoes to handling rough terrain to race etiquette 101.

From the beginning, Sarah makes it clear that this is a book that promotes trail running both for the sake of trail running and for having a positive impact on other facets of one’s life. The introduction is spent detailing Sarah’s background with running (hint: it’s surprisingly similar to how most of us in the sport start!), eventually leading to her reason for writing this book: “to guide others towards this discovery of better running–and better living–through trail running.”

The author running in Telluride, Colorado. Photo by Howie Stern.

The Trail Runner’s Companion begins each chapter with an anecdote from Sarah’s long and successful career as a coach, journalist, and ultra-distance trail runner (having finished more than seventy marathons and ultramarathons in the past twenty years.) In this way each chapter, like the first chapter “Become a Trail Runner,” is well-introduced. Several sub-chapters, clearly bolded, provide answers to common questions like “Why Bother Running on Trails?” And “What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Trail Running?” The Trail Runner’s Companion includes overlooked explanations to commonly used acronyms and phrases that, while jargon to longtime trail runners, are confounding to newbies. In “How to Talk Like a Trail Runner,” Sarah presents a glossary of terms that “will help rookie trail runners understand the sport and speak the lingo.” Some examples include:

  • blow up(v): the act of having one or more things go spectacularly wrong during your trail race, causing to not finish (DNF) or finish miserably slower than anticipated. May be caused by bonking, gastrointestinal issues, blisters, going out too fast, general fatigue, or a combination of these and other factors. Hashtag for this trail race experience #showupandblowup.
  • Euroed-out (adj): dressing in running attire and using gear popular with European trail runners, who favor compression fabric, bright colors, trekking poles, European brands such as Salomon, and hydration packs stuffed with numerous newfangled gadgets. Antonym: old school.

Additionally, Sarah adds a great deal of humor, including phrases like this age-old disaster that every trail runner experiences at one point or another in their career: “shart (n,v): the thing that happens when a fart unexpectedly produces something more; a known hazard in trail/ultra running.”

The author with her friend and pacer, Clare Abram. Photo by Sarah Lavender Smith.

Humor aside, one aspect that makes The Trail Runner’s Companion stand out amongst a plethora of trail and ultra running books is its honesty. Sarah manages to tackle both the more basic aspects of trail running–hydration vest or handhelds? Trekking poles or traction devices?–while also covering topics that receive far less discussion (but are nonetheless worthy of attention.) Proper form, finding ways to fit in your run amongst real-life obligations, staying positive on rough, steep terrain, and eating healthy without deprivation are covered in ways that are incredibly engaging. Part of this is because Sarah manages to add personal stories that make even a beginner runner think of trail running as something approachable.

Photo by Howie Stern.

I was particularly happy to see a chapter that discusses menstruation (“How to Pee, Poop, and Deal with Your Period on the Trail”). While the title might be a turn off to more sensitive readers, Sarah was brave in including a personal story in which she deals with her period while on the trails. This topic is rarely covered in trail running books, yet affects almost all female participants at one point or another. As Sarah mentions, “try to time demanding trail runs or races with optimal phases of your cycle, when you are not experiencing symptoms related to hormone fluctuations.” If anything, I would have loved to see a further explanation of how females might achieve this through properly tracking their cycles. 

Whereas most trail running books provide 50K, 50-mile, and 100-mile training plans, The Trail Runner’s Companion opts out of this. A sample 70-mile peak week is detailed in the chapter “Go the Distance in Ultra Trail Races (50K to 100 Miles)” but Sarah never makes a full-training plan–and rightfully so. The point “beware of other’s training plans” is reiterated throughout the book and helpful in relieving pressure for those who are tempted to do what they read in a passing article. It’s easy to find a book with a standard 12-week training plan; it’s not so easy to answer questions about mental toughness, getting lost on course or during a training run, and knowing when to turn back or quit a race. This book answers all of those things. 

Photo by Howie Stern.

In a sport that often idolizes runners who complete the biggest, toughest, and most epic events no matter the injuries and burn-out that often comes alongside these victories, The Trail Runner’s Companion provides a way to stay in the sport for years to come. Longevity is well covered, with an especially thorough chapter devoted to conditioning. Here, dynamic stretches, conditioning exercises, and plyometrics are provided via colorful, engaging photographs and clear instructions. In fact, bright, relatable photographs, without an unfair focus on elites, are abundant. While Sarah does make mention of several top athletes and “celebrities” in the sport including Dean Karnazes, Scott Jurek, and Magdalena Boulet, an emphasis on athletes that are inspiring for their contributions to the sport as a whole–Cory Reese, for example, for his enthusiasm, or Stephanie Case, for her drive and humanitarian work– are also made.

The author demonstrating a push-up variation. Photo by Tonya Perme.

If I had to rewrite my article “What’s the Best Ultrarunning Books for You?” I would definitely choose to include The Trail Runner’s Companion. I might also add that whether you’ve never stepped foot on a trail or you have more technical shirts than all of your other clothes combined, this is a must-read. Sarah tackles a lot in this book, and readers will come away knowledgable, prepared and excited to head out on a trail run because of it.

You can purchase The Trail Runner’s Companion here.

For more information, check out Sarah’s website here.

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