Despite growing up in the Wasatch Mountain of Salt Lake City, Utah, and referring to mountain goats as my spirit animal, I was actually born far from the mountains in the flat plains of Bismarck, North Dakota. Although trail running exists in North Dakota, trail races are few and far between, and the trail community is much smaller than in other parts of the country such as here in Colorado. However, as trail running continues to grow, the sport will certainly expand its reach and the community will grow throughout the plains of North Dakota.
I received a phone call earlier this summer from a family friend back home in North Dakota, Sean Korsmo, a Bismarck High School cross country and track runner, and one of the top high school runners in the state. He told me that he’d heard stories of my trail running and that he had watched a few Salomon trail running videos on YouTube. He said this style of running looked like so much fun and asked if I could help him understand what the sport was all about and how best to try it out. I told him that my trail running career took off when I competed on the 2015 US Junior Mountain Running Team in Wales at the world championships. This race exposed me to the wide world of trail running and I was hooked.
With his talent, I knew Sean Korsmo would have a shot at making this team if he could get experience trail running and post some standout results at competitive trail races. I suggested he attend the Peak Performance Altitude Camp in Keystone, Colorado to gain experience running trails and race the National High School Trail Championships the following week in nearby Salida. In this race, I knew he would run against some of the country’s best high school trail runners, including runners who had previously made US Junior or Youth mountain/skyrunning teams.
Sean Korsmo participated in both the camp and race, surpassing all expectations for a first time trail runner from North Dakota, and placed second in his first-ever trail race against a stacked field. In this article, I interview Sean Korsmo about his experience of trail running and he shares some of his tips for flatlanders looking to get into trail running but unsure where to start.
[TAYTE POLLMANN] The camp and race were your first experiences of trail running. What were some of the main differences between the XC/road/track running you’re accustomed to? What was more or less challenging?
[SEAN KORSMO] One of the main differences I noticed were the uphills. They were much steeper and longer than any hills I’ve run in North Dakota. They took some getting used to! I was told to shorten my stride while doing the longer climbs and that helped me manage my effort.
Trail running was challenging in a different way than I was used to. In North Dakota, I challenge myself with faster paced runs such as 6:20 pace per mile for a 60 minute run. When I was running in the mountains, I would get tired at slower paces and I felt a much deeper burn in my quads, glutes, and hips.
[TAYTE] What aspects of trail running took some getting used to and was anything harder or easier than expected?
[SEAN] The high elevation did take some getting used to, but it wasn’t nearly as bad for me as I thought it would be. Several people told me beforehand that I would feel the effects of the altitude (9,000 feet at the Peak Performance Altitude Camp in Keystone, CO), but I didn’t have too many problems. During the first mile of every run I was breathing heavier than normal, but once I hit the second mile, my breathing became more regular. I was told to drink lots of water and I took ibuprofen if I started to feel altitude headaches.
Another part of trail running that took some getting used to was the varied terrain. I learned pretty quickly that I needed to watch where I was stepping. On the trails, there are rocks, tree roots, and all sorts of debris that can cause you to trip if you take a wrong step.
[TAYTE] The majority of training runs at the 2020 Peak Performance Altitude Camp were on trails. How was this different from the kind of training you were used to and what did you think of training on trails?
[SEAN] Contrary to popular belief, running in North Dakota is not just running on gravel roads next to wheat fields. Yes, I do know a place where you can do that, but most of the running we have in North Dakota is on concrete. The majority of my runs are on sidewalks, streets, or bike paths. When I arrived in Colorado for the Peak Performance Altitude Camp, almost every run was on trail. I noticed trails are much softer than the concrete I’m used to and the mountain views were much nicer. I found it much more entertaining because it was more technical having to watch for rocks or tree roots obstructing the trails. I learned I really enjoy flying down long downhills!
[TAYTE] What do you like most about trail running?
[SEAN] My favorite part of trail running is the downhills. Before trying trail running, I thought downhills would be easier than uphills, but discovered that’s not always the case. The downhills are easier to run fast on, but you really have to pay attention to ensure you don’t have a bad spill while you’re running. I love to run fast and downhills definitely let me do that.
[TAYTE] What is your favorite trail run?
[SEAN] My favorite trail run was the downhill portion of the ski hill run at the Peak Performance Altitude Camp. We ran on mountain biking platforms, which involved many twists and turns and was unlike anything I’d ever run on before.
[TAYTE] Tell us about your first ever trail race, the National High School Trail Championships. Were the results what you expected? Did you feel prepared and what was your race strategy?
[SEAN] The National High School Trail Championships was wild. For only having started trail running eight days before the race, I thought I’d feel less prepared than I was. The Peak Performance Altitude Camp exposed me to many different types of trails and Tayte did a great job helping me prepare for the race.
I also ran most of the course the day before the race, which helped meI develop a race strategy. I don’t usually plan too much before a race, but I learned race planning can be a very important thing to do before a trail race. I knew I could definitely push on the uphills and keep up with the lead group if I needed to, so that was my main goal for the first mile. The second mile was more uphill, followed by a downhill. I figured if I fell back during the uphills, I could rely on my downhill speed to catch back up.
During the race, I didn’t fall back from the leaders and ended up using the downhill to move into moving into third place. The third mile was mostly uphill, but contained many short rolling hills. My strategy for those was to run hard downhill and use my momentum to carry me through the next small uphill. I knew the last two and a half miles were all downhill and that was where I could make a big move. Going into the downhill there were four of us running together. I quickly moved into second place and two of us separated from the others.
After that, we took off — or in North Dakota slang, we “let ‘er buck.” I wasn’t able to separate from the other runner, so we came into the home stretch together. The strongest aspect of my racing is usually my kick, so I pushed through until we hit about 300 meters left and God gave me the strength I needed to cross the finish line first. I later learned that I placed second because a runner in a later wave had run two seconds faster.
[TAYTE] How do you see yourself as a trail runner; what are your strengths and what do you still need to work on?
[SEAN] I know I have a lot to learn about trail running, but I’m happy to say I already feel comfortable on the trails. Downhill running is my strength. I’m able to open up my stride and run fast. It’s also super fun to be running across rocks and jumping over trees in the middle of a run. I would say longer, sustained climbs is the skill I need to work on the most. Those climbs work different muscle groups more than I’m used to. Trail running is tough but doable if you have the right attitude and push through the tough parts.
[TAYTE] What is your advice for other flatlanders looking to get into trail running?
[SEAN] Don’t worry about pace. In North Dakota I’ll normally run at 6:30 per mile pace, but when I hit the trails and started running uphill, a normal, hard pace was around 11 minutes per mile. Run by feel instead of pace. Also, if you’re running at altitude, drink plenty of water.
[TAYTE] Do you have plans for more trail running and trail races? How might this fit into your high school and future college running plans?
[SEAN] I hope to come back to Colorado to run more trails as soon as I can. I would love to run more trail races as well. I applied to be on the 2020 US Junior Mountain Running Team, so God willing I’ll be running at the world championships this November. I have no idea where I’ll be running in college yet, but I’ll see what opportunities God gives me to run in college and the future.
Tayte Pollmann’s articles are supported by American Trail Running Association corporate member Nike Trail Running. You can follow Tayte’s adventures on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you liked this article, read even more of Tayte’s articles on our website. Photo credits Andrew Simmons and Tayte Pollmann.