I recently committed to running the Missoula Half-Marathon on July 8. At 13.1 miles, it will be the longest race I have ever attempted.

To help increase the odds that it also will be the longest race I have ever finished, I have been going on some pretty long training runs — way longer than I’m used to. As such, I have found it necessary to go out of my way to find new and exciting places to run. (Trust me, running the same 10-mile loop week after week is enough to drive a person to insanity.)

Plus, trail surfaces are generally softer than paved roads, which reduces the risk of running-induced bone and joint injuries — especially for runners and joggers who are logging a lot of miles.

Luckily, Missoula runners, hikers and bicyclists have tons of trails to choose from, with terrain ranging from steep mountain switchbacks to gradual inclines and declines.

This past weekend, I set out on a 75-minute jaunt through the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness. I started out at the Lincoln Wood trailhead and ran approximately 1.5 miles to the main trailhead.

Even though it was a bit cooler than normal, the temperature ended up being perfect for running. The trail wasn’t too busy, the sound of the rushing creek was pleasantly calming and I felt great despite having to power my way up a couple of high-grade hills. After exploring a few offshoot trails, I was surprised to discover that 40 minutes had already passed, which meant that it was time to turn around.

The cool thing about trail running is that what goes up, must come down. In the Rattlesnake area, you’re continually gaining elevation on the way up the trail, but it’s all downhill on the return trip, which gives your heart and lungs a nice break. (Although I must admit, my legs were feeling a little trashed by the time I stopped my watch.)

If you’re looking for a way to mix up your regular exercise routine, I highly recommend hitting a local trail. Worried about running into dangerous wildlife? Grab a friend and be sure to pack your bear spray.

Brooke is a 2010 graduate of The University of Montana, where she ran track and cross country for the Grizzlies. She is currently working as a writer and editor in Missoula.

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