Why do I trail run?

Why do I trail run?

Trail running has changed my life. Trail running makes me believe in myself. It makes me believe that I can do difficult things, that I can do things I thought I could never do.

I started trail running in April 2020. Before that, I didn’t even know what is ‘trail running’. Really. I had heard the word (polkujuoksu in Finnish), but I thought it had something to do with the way you run, like stamping style (how embarrassing is that!). Trail running is, well, running on trails instead of running on roads, concrete, tartan or other paved paths. It’s related but different sport from running. The core of trail running is simply being in nature. I would never had guessed how astounding impact trail running could have on my physical and mental wellbeing.

How did I get into trail running?

When I was a child, I lived next to a vast forest area. Pine trees, spruces, birches, cliffs, moorland, mires, ponds and fields surrounded my home. The forests were great for picking bilberries, lingonberries and cloudberries. A meandering trail to the forest started literally from our backyard. I still remember the magical feeling of flying when I was running on that trail (not running for exercising but like running as children run around), especially later in the evening when the sun disappeared to the horizon. Sometimes I ran barefoot, and sometimes I stepped accidentally on a pinecone (ouch!).

The feeling of flying really hit me again when I found myself running in a middle of a muddy and rocky forest trail with all the roots and rocks and branches that I tried to dodge. I had turned off from my usual walking gravel road to smaller trails in near woods to avoid the sudden crowds of people, that the covid-19 had pushed to the local nature parks. In the middle of the forest, there were just me and the narrow unpaved trails if there were trails at all. I guess I thought it was a jolly good idea to start running on those empty trails for social distancing. And before I noticed, I was totally hooked in trail running.

First, I realized I had been running 4.5 km without walking after every 200 m, then it was 6.5 km. And it was running, not just jogging. And it felt good, not like a chore or an exercise I needed to accomplish to have that chocolate bar. I had to go back to these mesmerizing new trails every day. After a week or so, I also left my earplugs home, as I didn’t need the beat anymore to get me going. I started listening to birds singing, the humming of wind in the trees, and the soft rhythm of my steps and the subtle sounds my running shoes made when they hit the rocks and mud.

In just a few weeks I noticed so many amazing changes in myself, both physical and mental. I had been suffering from extreme stress and declining ability to focus for a few months already. My body was in a constant fight or flight state and my mind run through a noisy labyrinth finding no exit signs. I was exhausted and had trouble managing my work. I lost my creativity and motivation, although I don’t think I was depressed, I just had a long meltdown period with my brain totally zoning out. Running brought my brains back.

My energy levels went up, and I had better sleep and weird peace of mind. Skin on my cheeks was glowing, muscles all over my body got stronger and my metabolism improved amazingly (I've been treated for autoimmune thyroiditis for several years, not every day is equal). But most of all, I was continuously a much happier person.

I totally amazed myself when I was able to run my first 10 km, from the beginning to the end. Then 15 km, which by that time felt like a long distance. Then after I had been running around six weeks, I run my first half-marathon distance on trails. After the summer I could run 30 km with a good pace. After the winter I finally run my first marathon distance, a year after I started trail running. I should have run that right after the 30K, but winter and snow came early, as did my EIB asthma and winter SAD symptoms. Long story short: it turned out to be a 6 h run, I ran 43 km instead of planned 50 km, a bit (a lot) crappy running day with serious stomach problems. But the thing for me was that I didn’t give up, and I amazed myself by having so much resilience.

I also bought myself a sports watch to monitor my progress. And I was progressing a lot. But around a year after I started running, I gradually lost interest in the pace or distance the way I was used to stalk them. They didn’t matter anymore. The experience of moving in nature itself had become much more important. I think the moment I let go of the statistics was the moment I truly reached the feeling of freedom that is the magic of trail running.

From trail running to trail ultrarunning

It didn’t take very long for me to realize what is it I’m dreaming about in trail running and what draws me to ultrarunning. I called it adventure running – moving in beautiful sceneries longer than just a couple of hours, running even several days in a row. I thought it was not exactly ultrarunning, as in my dreams it included making long pauses camping, sleeping and just chilling out gazing the views. I googled every now and then ideas and how-to tricks to advance my exciting mental sketch. From ultrarunning websites, I ended up to ultralight stuff, and from there to fastpacking. Heavens, this thing had a name too!

When you read various websites and blogs, it becomes clear that ultrarunning is not very strictly defined. In general, ultraruns are basically anything longer than the 42 km marathon distance. When you add trails, you get trail ultras. I’ll probably keep calling my longer trail running gigs adventure running (at least in my own head they are), whether they lasted a day or several days, whether I was sleeping and cooking during the run or not, or whether the distance was 50 km or 150 km. The adventure part is more like a playful state of mind and exploring trails that are not my everyday trails or trails that I can access straight from my home. And when I’m talking about trail running, I mean anything from running at 5:00 (km) pace to slow jogging, power hiking up and down hills and fells and mountains, walking or just lying on the ground to take a break while running on trails.

Anyway, there is just so much variety when it comes to trail running. From short to long distances, from gravel and forest paths to cliffs and bogs, running in rain or in sunshine. Heading off to cozy local woods or conquering new wilderness trails. The sky is the limit to go explore!

I’m not a great athlete, and I don't strive to be one. I'm happy with what I'm doing on the trails. I embrace my body for its resilience and pain tolerance, and I’m grateful to my body for being able to take me to incredible places and sceneries. Mostly I strive to be humble and kind to myself, and not take things granted. And although I don't follow any training program, nor have any weekly or monthly goals, I still have 'goals': to run a bit further and longer in beautiful sceneries. At the time of writing this the next goal is somewhere between a 100K and a 150K. It'll be more specific when I decide which trail I want to run :D.

I trail run, because I want to experience nature with that extra immersive dimension that running as physical movement and mental focus brings into it. Every single time I go to the trails I feel this unexplained gratitude, inner peace, happiness and joy. I feel strong. My self-esteem is healthier than ever before. I feel belonging. Even though I always trail run alone, I get inspiration from other trail runners and trail ultra runners without the need to compare myself to anyone.

Trail running has changed my life. Trail running makes me believe in myself. It makes me believe that I can do difficult things, that I can do things I thought I could never do. I love trail running to the moon and back, and I hope I’ll be able to run for many years to come. Funnily enough, I don't like basic running at all, but trail running is a totally different sport. If you suck at running like I do, give trails a go - you may get hooked!

Trail running Ultrarunning Wellness



  • Eric Diaz

    Eric Diaz
    16.5.2023 17:05

    Hi Aino,

    This is the second time I've read this piece. The raw purity you convey about why you love trail and ultrarunning strikes a chord within me as my feelings about them are very much the same. And what really strikes me is how you open yourself up in a way that speaks of encouragement to anyone to go out and grasp this thing that will strengthen you in ways you cannot know without doing it. Well written, honest... makes me want to drop what I'm doing, throw on my trail running shoes, and fly out the door into the woods.

    Eric from Vermont in the US.

    • Aino | In the Woods, Dear

      Aino | In the Woods, Dear
      21.6.2023 12:06

      Thank you for your comment and for sharing your thoughts! I think (social) media often portraits trail running (among other things) as too 'competitive, involving loads of special equipment and skills and runner characteristics' etc. I really would love to encourage all kinds of people to just throw on any sports wear you've got and head to the woods! It's all about connecting with nature, connecting with yourself, enjoying nature and movement, whatever the pace.

Trail Running in Finland: Forests and National Parks