Steven Leibowitz is trying to run as fast as he can, but the trail is muddy and tree roots are hiding under the soil, slowing him down. Now there's a stream blocking his path, with no way to cross, save a few widely spaced rocks. But Leibowitz can't give up. He has to keep running.
It might sound like a scene from "The Hunger Games" or "The Blair Witch Project." But for a runner in the XTERRA Trail Run Series, it's just the path to the finish line.
XTERRA, a national multisport company, puts on races that are much more than your average 5K on the street. Its Trail Run Series, in which participants run grueling cross country-style courses in parks and trails ranging anywhere from five kilometers to a full marathon, is making its Maryland debut this year on April 6 at Seneca Creek State Park in Gaithersburg.
The 10K race is the second of four in the inaugural Atlantic Series, one of 17 regional series that feed into the national race in September. Series director Kristen Thomas said the abundance of great trails and parks in the region made adding this series a logical choice.
The challenge of trail running has been a draw for many runners in the area, such as Andrea Monroe, 32, of Baltimore.
"You can't just get out there and zone out and pound the pavement and go as fast as you can. You have to just constantly think as you navigate the trails," she said. "My favorite part about it is I have fun out there."
Monroe plans to run all four races in the series. She already completed the first race March 9 at Brandywine Creek State Park in Wilmington, Del., finishing third in her age group with a time of 1 hour, 11 minutes — a personal best.
Monroe, who trains on the trails with her pit bull, Alba, said her goal is to earn enough points in the series to win her age group. The XTERRA Trail Run Series awards a certain number of points to the top 15 runners in each gender and age group per race. The runner with the most points at the end of the series is crowned series champion, earning free entry into the national race.
Qualifying for nationals has also crossed Leibowitz's mind, although the Baltimore runner said it's more of an afterthought. Since running cross country in high school and for a year at Tufts, the 29-year-old ran on trails for fun, but hadn't ventured much from road racing until XTERRA came along.
"It's all kind of new to me," said Leibowitz, who finished 11th overall in the March 9 race. "In its bare sense, you really do feel more connected to nature and to everything around you and, by extension, to yourself. … It's a more encompassing running experience."
Trail running can also be much more challenging, which was evident in the first series race, Leibowitz said.
The biggest challenge of the Brandywine Creek course was the abundance of hills, especially at the beginning of the race. The weather also caused some difficulty — melting snow made the course extra muddy.
"It was a shock, it was very difficult," Monroe said. "While I was out there, I didn't feel like I was doing well at all."
Being closer to nature means many more variables to take into account, not just for the runners, but also for race directors such as Adam McCaffrey. The first course, for example, had to be altered because the melting snow made a stream too high to cross.
The race at Seneca Creek (which, coincidentally, is where "The Blair Witch Project" was filmed) is the first McCaffrey is directing for Adventure Geek Productions, the company that is organizing the Atlantic Series.
Organizers have to pay more attention to safety since there are more obstacles, and the course might be farther away from medical facilities, McCaffrey said. Mapping out the course also becomes more difficult.
"There's not as many distinguishing landmarks you can point to," McCaffrey said. "You can't be like, 'Hey, turn at that really big oak tree.' "
But he said the biggest difference between organizing a trail run instead of a road race is size — there's not nearly as much space on the trail and people can become crowded quickly, which can get dangerous.
Because of these logistics, the XTERRA series draws a smaller participant pool than many road races — about 140 runners are signed up for the Seneca Creek race. The smaller size fosters a greater sense of community, runners said.
"It's not like some of the big races in Baltimore and D.C. that have thousands and thousands of people. That can be fun, but as far as being personal, they don't have the same feel," Leibowitz said. "You definitely get that in a race like this."