Acadia Gantz is a trail runner in Maine, and often gets asked why she goes on the trails rather than the roads. Credit: Courtesy of Acadia Gantz

It’s early, like wicked early.

When my alarm blares, rousing me from half a night of broken sleep, it’s almost a relief. I move through the darkness, gathering my hydration vest and my trusty trail runners. I slip out the door, into my car and begin my drive to the trailhead just as light begins to show in the sky.

This could be one of any number of trail running adventures I’ve gone on in the past five years. So many times, when I set my alarm for an ungodly hour, I wonder if it will be worth it, but as soon as my shoes touch the dirt, it always is.

Why do I trail run? I’ve been asked this question numerous times during my trail running career. Why not just run on the road like a normal human? Or hike on the trails?

A few years ago I was on a glorious morning trail run in Acadia National Park. I had left from the Blackwoods Campground and gone up and over Cadillac Mountain. It was April, and I was alone, so the trails were blissfully quiet. I encountered fog, ice and mud and probably looked more like a yeti than a runner when I stumbled off the trail onto the still-closed Loop Road.

Just at that moment, two runners came jogging up the road and looked just as surprised to see me — wet, muddy and a little lost — as I did to see them. I asked for directions and continued on my way, smiling to myself. Little did they know the incredible adventure I had just experienced out there on those trails.

There is something different about running on a trail. There is a meditation to it, an intense focus that can’t be recreated on a road. Each step brings you across new and ever-changing terrain, which keeps your mind constantly working.

Trail running also brings you to places you never could have imagined. Moving swiftly through the woods, across ridges and over peaks, allows you to see more in a shorter period of time. A hike that might take you five hours now took you three, with the same incredible views. Covering distance in a shorter period of time might allow you to get home earlier, or it might allow you to go further in your day.

Of course, some people do it for the kudos. Whether they’re in real life (“Dude! She’s RUNNING on this trail”) or on Strava, no trail runner can deny the satisfaction they get from speeding past the crowds on their favorite trail. I would generally recommend steering away from this approach, however, as I’ve found that running for external validation can often lead to overtraining, injury and burn out.

Ask any trail runner why they switched to trail running or what they love most about trail running, and I can guarantee you that the word “community” will come up. Trail runners are some of the most supportive folks around, and for good reason. Running trails is not for the faint of heart. Sure, sometimes it’s a competition, such as when you’re racing, but even during a race, everyone is out there looking to accomplish the same, hard thing, and hard things are always easier with other people around you.

There is only one way to really know why we trail run though — go out and see for yourself, you might just find your new favorite hobby.

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Acadia Gantz, Outdoors Contributor

Acadia is an ultrarunner, midwife and UESCA-certified running coach living and playing in the Lakes Region of Maine. She is the founder of Canyon Wren Coaching where she helps runners navigate pregnancy,...