Why would an elite marathoner and two-time Olympian take up the rigors (steep terrain) and risks (bloody knees and worse) of trail running at age 40? For the same reasons ordinary runners make the move from roads to trails, it turns out.

Less than a month shy of her 41st birthday, Kara Goucher isn’t as fast as she used to be. The trails offer a new challenge, though, not to mention the majestic scenery of Colorado’s mountains. That’s why she will be running the Leadville Trail Marathon on Saturday, feeling very much like an intimidated newbie.

“It’s more for me and it’s more about continually challenging myself,” said Goucher, a three-time NCAA champion for the University of Colorado two decades ago who went on to become one of the nation’s top professional runners. ”That’s one of the things I always loved about running, wanting to know how good I could be and how fast I could be. Now that I’m almost 41, those days are over, so now it’s like, ‘How do I keep challenging myself and getting a lot out of myself in a new way?’ This just seemed like a great opportunity to give something else a try.”

The Boulder resident has no illusions about her first trail race after a stellar career that included finishing third in the New York City Marathon (2008) and the Boston Marathon (2009). In 2007, she won a silver medal in the 10,000 meters at the track and field world championships.

“I’ve learned they are two very different sports,” Goucher said. “I think I was pretty realistic about that. I’m not here to set the world on fire, I’m here to get my toe in the water and see how my body reacts. … It’s been hard and different, but that’s kind of what I wanted. I want to do something that’s really difficult for me. I have avoided trails or bumpy roads for 20 years. I just wanted to challenge myself and then add the element of being super high. Could I do this? Is this something I could even handle? We’ll see.”

Like any runner making the move from roads to trails, it’s been hard for her to let go of pace expectations, which are a big part of training and racing on the roads. Now she’s learning to run by feel, by perceived effort. Training runs on hilly terrain become more about duration than distance. And on really steep terrain, they can involve power walking rather than running.

“That was a hard thing for me to wrap my head around, looking down at my watch and seeing that I’ve run 18-minute-mile pace up a hill,” Goucher said. “I’m like, ‘Is this even running?’ But as the time has gone on I’ve been able to let go of that more. The one thing I’ve loved about it is that it really is about the beauty and the appreciation of running. The time doesn’t matter. It’s just about being immersed in the environment and testing yourself on these really crazy climbs and these beautiful trails you wouldn’t (otherwise) access because they’re so far into the trail system.”

What is Goucher’s advice for middle-of-the-pack runners who may be considering taking up trail running?

“I would say definitely do it, and just be patient,” Goucher said. “It is very different and it takes time. It’s very intimidating, coming from the roads; intimidating to have different shoes, to be on your hands and crawling up mountains and coming down slow. You think, ‘I don’t want to be a joke out there.’ But trust me, if I can get out there and gingerly come down some of these mountains, anyone can do it. It has been so great, just challenging myself at this point in my career, to find something I can accomplish and overcome.”

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