Blue-gray pebbles and plump sand to the left. Cool, lapping waves to my right. A few steps farther, driftwood criss-crosses my path. I lift my shuffling feet off the ground to jump over the obstacle, glancing backward to my running partner, Pam, after landing on the wet slope.

“I’m good if you are,” she says, letting me know I can push onward, ahead of a couple of runners going at a slighter slower pace.

I veer left, off the hard-packed portion of beach and onto dry sand to leapfrog one runner, then another. Pam is close at my back. We remain single-file with a handful of other runners—this stretch of the half marathon trail race is a full mile of Lake Superior shoreline—but we’ve got a bit more space now.

Don’t forget to look up. Be sure to look around.

It’s the trail runner’s balancing act: safely navigate the terrain beneath while soaking up the landscape in which you’re immersed.

In this particular stretch, I’m reminding myself to take it all in every few minutes. It’s not often that I find myself in such a place as this, part of a trail race that includes 13.1 miles of breathtaking wilderness: towering, thick trees, rocky climbs, dirt-and-root-covered trails and paths alongside steep cliffs offering jaw-dropping views of our largest Great Lake and the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

Grand Island

This race—the Grand Island Trail Half Marathon in Munising—is my most favorite of running events. Then again, I find myself saying this pretty much whenever I’ve gotten off the pavement and into the woods to run.

Road running provides its own kind of joys and rewards. The bustle of city streets and urban paths, where passersby include fellow runners, walkers and cyclists, can be distracting in all the right ways, and for me, helps the miles fly by. But getting out on the trails is a sweet escape unlike any other. It’s a break from the noises of everyday life and from the sometimes seemingly relentless chatter and to-do’s in my head.

Any kind of run has the ability to clear my mind, but with dirt beneath my shoes and the blur of leafy branches in my peripheral vision, I find peace and contentedness. I turn a corner and catch sunlight streaming through the branches, spilling onto the path before me, and my eyes well at the simple beauty of it. I trudge up an especially tough hill and, with sweat sliding down my face and chest and arms, the power of my strength surprises me … or eludes me, because sometimes the trail just humbles you like that. And that’s not a bad way to gain perspective, either.

Maybe it’s the combination of nature and endorphins pumping through my body that fills up my soul, giving me a sense that I’d been missing something, but yes, here it is. It’s right here. The physicalness of a run—arms pumping, legs and lungs working together to propel forward—connects with the mind while on the trail. Like two puzzle pieces that click together perfectly, the mind and body partnership brings me back to myself, to center, to home.

Back south of the Mackinac Bridge, the trails in and around Traverse City call to me. Living on the east side of town, I most often head to the Vasa, a series of hilly, wooded loops popular among runners as well as mountain bikers and fat-tire riders and, in the winter, cross-country skiers. Other times I’m mixing up in-town road runs with detours onto the trails at the Grand Traverse Commons, or in Hickory Meadows near Wayne Hill. Trail races throughout the region, and into the U.P., are plentiful, and though I’ve run many of them, there are many more on my running bucket list.

“I’m too nervous to run on the trails,” more than one person has shared with me when we get talking about leaving the roads to run.

I can understand their concerns. The memory of landing wrong and hard on my left ankle during a 25K race on the North Country Trail at Tahquamenon Falls State Park a few years ago remains vivid. I’ve tripped on tree roots, lost my footing on gravel-laden declines, battled bugs (while kicking myself for forgetting to douse myself with repellent beforehand), and realized while in the middle of the woods and far from home that I really could use more fuel and water to get me through.

And yet, I also encourage anyone I can to give it a try, to get out there and experience an entirely different and challenging and awesome running experience. Trails provide shade in the summer and up-close color in the fall. Spring’s awakening is stunning when you’re logging miles alongside budding branches and a forest floor bursting with trillium. (Winter trail running is an option, too, though I strap on snowshoes … talk about a heart-pumping exercise when you try running in them.)

Take it slow, start with not-too-hilly routes, wear good shoes, have water with you … get lost in all the right ways.

Want more trail running inspiration? Check out this episode of the Michigan Runner Girl Show.

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