Book Review: The Trail Runner’s Companion

Book review written by Laura Clark for our Summer 2017 Trail Times Newsletter.

The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, 5Ks to Ultras, by Sarah Lavender Smith. Falcon, 2017.

The first thing I do when I approach a book is admire the jacket, glance at the table of contents and read the praise hymns on the back cover. From this cursory inspection, I gathered that The Trail Runner’s Companion would be a guide to all trail distances, relevant to newbies to elites alike. Already I was skeptical. Something that promises to be everything to everybody often falls short of its Herculean task. There are two methods of fulfilling such a grandiose undertaking: either produce a 1,000 word tome like Dr. Tim Noakes Lore of Running, or follow a more relaxed path, peppered with telling anecdotes and outlining generalized execution strategies. Sarah Lavender Smith, a veteran trail runner, coach, Trail Runner feature writer and cohost of, takes the latter approach.

Sarah makes it easy to pay attention by repeating her most telling trail advice in parable form. One of her favorites, the Boy Scout “Be prepared,” is illustrated by a fun run in Argentina that nearly proved fatal for her and her husband when they left for a short jaunt cocky and totally unprepared. We all know not to do that right? Many years ago a good friend of mine introduced me to the 7 Sisters Trail Race in Massachusetts. A veteran of multiple hundred milers he figured this twelve mile jaunt would be a piece of cake. It was the first hot (90 degree) day in spring over trails barely shaded with baby leaves. I urged him to wear a cap and carry water. He refused and the results weren’t pretty. Even old-timers need to be reminded that experience and skill do not grant superhero status. Anecdotes such as these, interspersed, throughout the book, make the content relevant to all.

Each chapter, whether detailing base building, race planning and final execution begins with a telling goal, summing up the essence of the material. For example, in Chapter 2 on Gear the goal is to Get the trail specific clothing and gear you need, but keep it simple. I laughed out loud when Sarah mentioned the “euroed-out” approach favored on the continent. Having lived in Europe for ten years in the late 70’s and early 80’s I was amused to discover the “clothes make the man” approach is still very much in style. Back then, Americans skied in jeans and Europeans were decked out with the latest bells and whistles. Guess who won most of the amateur races?

In the execution portion, Sarah states that,” The most helpful piece of trail running advice I ever got was Take what the trail gives you.” No grousing about weather that is too wet or too hot, hungry black flies, shoe-sucking mud or a missed trail marker. It is all part of the deal, a piece of the adventure. As a side-companion, Sarah muses that the thing you are most worried about, be it a tricky ankle or crew logistics will, most likely work out fine. It is the things you least expect like a rubbing hydration strap or a broken shoelace that may require all your coping skills. Acceptance and improvisation become the name of the game.

Finally, I am not a person who does well with training plans. That is why I like the freedom of the trails and not the lock-step of the roads.

Apparently, Sarah feels the same way. She recommits three key workouts” a midweek high intensity speed work session sandwiched between a longer uphill workout and the traditional weekend long run. For a shorter race, work up to the time you estimate it will take you to finish; for a marathon, aim for 75 percent of that time. No need to count miles. Yet another step to retaining the fun and keeping it simple.

Sarah’s insights reveal a relaxed, playful attitude that will encourage newbies to enter the woods with anticipation and confidence. And for you old-timers, how many of us seeking a PR, age group standing, or simply hoping to defeat the cutoffs, know how to construct a pace band focused on trail time? Or, have you ever judged the “runnability” of a mountain by the hat-brim trick? Read this book and learn how!

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