Tuesday, February 28, 2012

To Step or Not to Step - Addendum to Fall or Not to Fall

Saturday while running hill repeats at Oak Mountain I was thinking about the difference between the trails I ran on in the Rocky Raccoon and the trails in here in Birmingham and the South Eastern United States in general.  I don't even remember seeing a rock at the RR although I am sure there were a few.  I grew up in Dallas and there were very few places where there were any exposed rocks at all.  Just dirt.  Those poor, deprived trail runners in Texas are deprived of the opportunity to run trails where you watch every step or DIE!  I guess "crash" is a better term.

I decided to write a post for those less fortunate individuals that do not live near the fourth oldest mountain range on earth, the Appalachian Range.  This post is also for those living near these worn down, rooty, rocky, mountains, but, for what ever reason, just don't run on the trails.  I see there people every year at the Stump Jump in Chattanooga.  There is a section starting at mile 18.8 called the rock garden.  For perhaps half a mile the trail is nothing but a pile of small boulders.  Running along this section you simply hop from one rock to the next.  This section starts out slightly down hill then turning up a very gentle slope.  The entire section is very runnable, yet it never fails, I pass 8 or 10 people in the section because they slow to a crawl  crossing this rocky section.

Many of these people are young and should be flying across the rocks, not being passed by a 62 year old.  I am sure most of these runners live in the area and have the opportunity to run on terrain like that.  The real key is to go out and find a "rock garden" and run on it.  The rocks teach you where and how to step.  If you do no or cannot run terrain like this, here are a few things to remember.
1.  If stepping on the rocks is unavoidable (all rocks, no dirt) you have no choice.  You have to step on the rocks.  Pick out large, solid looking rocks, and step on them.  Avoid small rocks or rocks that have edges in the air as they are likely to shift under your weight.
2.  Always try to step on the flattest part of the rock.  If it is shaped like a bowl, step right on the top.  This becomes much more critical if the rocks are covered in dirt or mud or leaves.  Stepping on a sloping, wet, rock can be a disaster.  Leaves can be just as bad.
3.  If you have no choice but to step on small or unstable looking rocks, slow down and use caution.  Piles of fist size to plate size rock are the worst.  Aim for the most stable, usually the flattest, and keep your arms out for balance.  If you have time, evaluate the rocks you intend to step on.  If it is small, but is solidly packed in dirt, especially if lichens or other tiny plants are growing around the base, you can be pretty sure it is solid.  If it is sitting in loose dirt and appears to have been moving around, it has.
4.  Do not step on pointed rocks or knife edge rocky angled in your direction of travel.  A slight mistake in foot placement could result in a twisted ankle.  Besides, pointed rocks are sometimes painful to step on.
5.  When running down hill, where possible, step behind any uncertain rocks using the rock as a foot stop.  When I first started training for the Imogene Pass Run I thought I would also like to try the Pikes Peak Marathon.  I ordered Matt Carpenter's guide book for training and running Pikes Peak.  In a section on running down hill he said he did not step on rocks on a fast descent.  He placed his foot up against the rock.  There are two reasons not to step on rocks while running down hill.  First, if the rock is not solid, it may move under you weight and dump you off.  Second, even a large, solid rock, as mentioned earlier,becomes treacherous with just a little sand  or mud on it. The sand acts like ball bearings and will send your foot right off the side.  Running up hill or on the flats, slipping of a rock can cause a painful fall.  Running fast down hill it can cause a serious injury.

Remember, going down hill, solid footing is critical.  While running uphill, you speed is usually fairly slow and a stumble or slip can usually be caught by simply putting your hands out and pushing yourself back up.  Falls on the flats usually hurt a little more but cause no major damage although an ankle sprain can sideline you for weeks.  Falls downhill can be serious or downright dangerous, especially in rocky terrain.  Be careful.

Another contributor to falls can be those trees and large limbs laying across the trail.  It is fun to launch of a fallen tree but always consider a few things.
1.  If the tree is a fresh fall and is still covered in rough bark, the footing should be solid even if it is angled a bit, so "take a flying leap."
2.  If the bark is worn off and only smooth wood remains and if the tree is fairly level and the wood is dry, it should be fine as well.
3.  If however that smooth wood is wet or muddy be careful, especially if the tree slants across the trail.  Stepping on a slick tree trunk can send you foot off the front, off the back or sliding down the trunk.
4.  If there is frost on the ground, don't step on any smooth wood on a tree trunk at all.  If frost in on the trunk, it is "slick as ice!"  Another profound statement.  If that icy tree is slanted a few degrees, instead of you foot just sliding off the front or back, it may slide down the tree and that can hurt.  And that is from experience.  Remember, sometimes it is much colder in a low draw than up high and sometimes it is much colder up high than down low.  Just because there is no ice one place does not mean there will be no ice everywhere.
5.  Watch those wooden bridges along trails too.  They can be treacherous when wet and especially icy.  "Bridges Ice before Roadway, sorry, Trails."

Saturday I ran the Cheaha 50K here in Alabama.  The trail is about a rocky, with piles of loose, small rocks as any place I have ever run.  There are stretches of 20 or 30, yards or more, where you never take one solid, sure step.  Next throw in sections of loose rock covered in piles of leaves and this is a section that probably need a warning sign that reads "Proceed at  your own risk."  In sections like this there is nothing to do but slow down and step lightly.  Assume that every step will be unstable and you will be fine.  Remember to keep your hands ready to catch a fall and help maintain balance.

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