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I’ve gotten lucky early, often and globally. I know I’m sort of a trail running slut. My good fortune translates to having been intimate and logged many a dirty mile on trails in almost every US state and much of the world. And when I’m asked my favorite or even my top five trails, I struggle.
To compose an answer is overwhelming. My pea brain is flooded with a swell of memories of smells, sounds, tastes, feelings and sounds that leave a knowing, longing grin on my face. “That was a good one!” I recall with attention deficits that no amount of Adderall could touch as my eyes glimmer with fondness and I reflect back over more than three decades of trail running ecstasy. With great difficulty in the decision, I’ll kiss and tell about a few favorites:
My Top Five Trail Loves
1) Trails of the Italian Dolomites
When I was 14 I visited Italy and had a crush on a 16-year-old named Maria Pia … Wait a minute! That’s not what this is about …
If I were to speak another language naturally, it would be Italian—it rolls off the tongue with ease. I wish I could say the same about running the trails of the Dolomites, but they are some of the steepest and rockiest I’ve ever encountered and the word “piatto” or “flat” seems to be as lacking for their terrain as the word “lento” or “slow” does for their drivers. I ran a Vertical K in the Dolomites and thought that scratching my nose on the grass before me on the ascent was challenging, but then I ran a mountain marathon and learned to be grateful for the relative shortness of the beautiful suffering.
That beauty compensates for the difficulty: Trails climb up limestone peaks from mountain lakes and the eye-pleasing arrangement of the landscape is enough to motivate you to pass many a pleasant, rugged kilometer, especially knowing you will be refueled by some of the best of meals.
To conquer such trails, look no farther than the local cobblers. Italian shoe makers are known for their fashion consciousness, but the Montebelluna area is also known as home of some of the best hiking, climbing, ski and running footwear. Not surprisingly, La Sportiva, Scarpa, Vibram, Tecnica, Salewa and other companies from the Dolomites build shoes that grip and hold up well to the hard rock and steep terrain of their origin.
2) Trails of the Fjords—Norway/New Zealand
I do appreciate that Norway and New Zealand are completely opposite one another on this Earth. But geographically, they are remarkably similar, and their fjords are equally stunning—so why name one when it might make the other jealous? Or, rather, why decide if you aren’t forced to choose? I love them both.
Fjords aren’t the easiest to “run” per se but, fortunately, clever trail builders and adventurers have found ways to wind paths through rocky knolls and around cliffs to afford views of crashing seas below for those who dare ascend. And Norwegians and Kiwis are stalwart runners for a reason.
For ridge running, some prefer a trail shoe that holds an edge, so if you’re headed to run a fjord, consider svelte models with low-profile midsoles and aggressive tread like the Altra King MT 2.0, Air Terra Kiger 5 or Saucony Switchback ISO.
3) Trails of the Swiss and French Alps
The hills are alive with the sound of “more cow bell,” while inspirational views power you up long climbs and descents. The footing is often tricky, with unforgiving, slick granite or limestone rock, but trail running in the Alps is never dull. These trails are soft on the eyes and hard on the body—making the body hard and ready to tackle famed local races like Sierre Zinal, UTMB, MaXi-Race Annecy, Matterhorn Ultraks, and the TransAlpine Run.
Trekking poles come highly recommended, as do shoes with some substance to them, especially in the mid- and outsoles. Try the Salomon S/Lab Ultra Pro, Brooks Cascadia 14, Hoka One One Challenger ATR 5, or La Sportiva Unika if you are headed for an Alpine adventure.
4) Trails of the Asian Mountains
Trail running is growing like wildfire in Asia. Hong Kong has long hosted races like the Trailwalker 100k where you hone your stair-climbing prowess by tackling the eclectic mix of urban, mountain and jungle paths in that region. Japan’s trails are so steep they are known to feature ropes. Taiwan has a thriving trail running community and, once outside the urban sprawl of Taipei, the trails are surprisingly quiet and lush. And China is building trails and putting on trail races that cover some impressive parts of the giant nation. Pick your climate, elevation, or cultural preferences and you can find it in the Chinese trail running scene. And if you want hot, humid junglescape, Malaysia has plenty to offer.
With the exception of western China, many Asian trails are frequently soft and muddy so traction is key. Top shoe choices would be deep-lugged models like the Inov-8 Mudclaw G 260, Salomon S/Lab Speed 2, Topo Athletic Terraventure 2, and Altra Timp 1.5.
5) Trails of the Rockies
There’s certainly something to be said about loving the one you are with, and even though I’m a trail slut I’m still faithful to my true love, the Rocky Mountains of the U.S. and Canada. With their variety of conditions, footing, relief, forest and fauna, the Rockies provide unending entertainment. Gazing at mountain wildflowers, high-altitude critters and glacial ponds, blending of snow, rock, pine-needle cushioning, and exhilarating screefields underfoot—it is easy to want to spend whole days in the backcountry.
When I head into the Rockies, I lace up some suitable footwear like the La Sportiva Bushido 2, Hoka One One Speedgoat 3, Brooks Caldera 3 or New Balance Summit K.O.M./Q.O.M. These selections have ample underfoot protection while serving up the kind of performance you’d want for diverse terrain, allowing you to maneuver with precision while absorbing the knocks of western trails.
Trail slut that I am, I can’t stop with these five. Indulge me as wax a little about the “runners up” trails that came in as sloppy close ties for sixth place; all trails I adore.
In no particular order, some international jaunts I recall fondly are:
The majesty of the Andes, the awesome and slightly frightening peaks of Kyrgyzstan, the greatness of the NW Territories (and their frigidity in winter), the exotic demeanor of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, soft bounciness of the English fells and Irish hills. Abu Dhabi’s and Qatar’s towering dunes, the Dead Sea valley’s ancient canyons, Canary Island volcanos, and the glacial valleys of New Zealand. The smell of eucalyptus wafts in Australia’s Blue Mountains, Costa Rica’s fertile jungles, Hawaii’s wet and luscious coastal terrain, Iceland’s tundra-like footing. And historical treats: Southwestern France’s routes of the Templar Knights, the Amalfi Coast’s eye-pleasing Trail of the Gods, Greece’s cobbled and steep white ribbons, South Africa’s historical foot-paths.
And in the US:
San Francisco’s Bay Area magical diversity and inviting running climate, feeling elfin in Oregon’s towering forests, California’s inspirational coastlines. The great expanses of Alaska, the quaintness of New England’s woods (and their dramatic fall foliage splendor), Arizona’s and New Mexico’s hot, dry desert canyons, the rolling hills of Florida. The jolt of adrenaline that splashes off Midwestern lake shores, Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains rich, thick air, Tennessee’s rocky river valleys, and the freshness of the pine smell in the Cascades.
To all the trails I’ve loved before, I’m glad you lured me out my door. Here’s to many more.