My life drastically changed when I discovered running trails. I signed up for a half marathon in the Franklin Mountains of Texas without giving it much thought, after all I had been doing road running for a while. I showed up with a new hydration pack and road shoes, unaware of how much my view on life would change after that. I won the whole thing and it started my pro trail career…except that did not happen. It took twice as long for the same distance I’d run on roads, and it was the hardest thing I’d ever done, but I loved it.
For the first time I experienced a type of “self-talk” I had never given myself. I cheered myself on, I was kind to myself and I reassured my own person that I just had to keep going and I would get to the end. Before the race, this had NEVER happened in my life. For 13 miles (and 4 hrs and 5 minutes) I gave myself the type of pep talks I reserve for other people: “You’ve done 13 miles before, you got this!”, “You are so lucky to be here!”, “Remember to drink water!” I did not allow myself to jump into the familiarity of negativity, comparison or defeat. It was brand new territory.
The next year I returned to the Franklin Mountains to complete my first 50k, and it was then, at 33 years old that I knew I’d received a wonderful gift in the form of my first ultra. That was the starting point for more races to run and a lot of time spent on the trails, both by myself and (for the first time) with a wonderful group of people. The gift was not in the races themselves, the gift has been in the time spent on the trails.
I get a strange sense of comfort when I’m out in the middle of the mountains or a secluded trail. I love being in the middle of nowhere away from everyday life and completely isolated, it’s freeing and humbling. There’s a special sense of tranquility I can only find when I’m nestled in the middle of the mountains, with more mountains around me, and only the soft sound of the wind to keep me company.
Even more special is the part of my brain I get to tap into whenever I get to run on the raw Earth, dodging roots and stepping on rocks. I have to think about every step, one at at time, for many many miles to come. The faster I want to go, the less room there is for anything else in my brain, there’s only room for the Earth. I’ve fallen plenty of times. I assess the situation and then keep going, having faith that should it happen again, the Earth is there to catch me. Every time I finish tackling a technical section I get an immense feeling of gratitude. Gratitude for the beauty around me, for the rocks that support me (and keep me on my toes), for my lungs and my legs. I feel gratitude just for being able to be with myself and enjoy my own company. Several years ago this same thought only caused pain.
I was diagnosed as Bipolar II right before I started graduate school. That, in combination with the stress of academia and a psychiatrist who believed the only answer to everything was medications, created the perfect environment for a very nasty addiction to pills. An addiction that took a year to wean off of. Even as terrible as those years were (the dark years), that’s when I found running, and I clung to it for dear life (literally).
I couldn’t sleep and was an anxious mess. I was under the watchful eye of doctors and family members and desperately wanted to be ok. My new Dr. would always ask the same questions “Did you work out and are you sleeping?” The answer was always no and the reply was always the same “Try to work out, focus on your sleeping ritual and continue therapy.” It began with attempting to walk three miles on the treadmill. They were very slow and very painful, but I was desperately trying to stay alive. I kept trying, sloooooly building up to walk/runs. My friend knew I was making an effort so she invited me to her company’s 5K and offered to do it with me. I participated, and to my surprise I had a blast. Later that year I gathered the confidence to sign up for my first 10K, then it was a half marathon, then another, then came the marathon….you know the story.
As my mental health was getting stronger, so was my body and my running! With each year that passed, my mind got a little stronger and I unknowingly, was changing too.
All of the damage I had done to my body for the first 30 years of my life was in full display. The pills in particular had sent me into a sedentary state both in body and mind, and it was as if I was slowly waking up for the first time. Each time I worked through a new challenge running was there with me, steady and reliable, even when my mind wasn’t. I kept at it though, wrestling with a diagnosis I didn’t want to be defined by.
My first years in running on the roads helped me take control of my body, letting me know it was mine and it was my home. In the back of my mind though, I still wondered if this sense of wellness was real and if I was really ok. It was trail running that confirmed I was in control of my mind as well.
Trail running came to my life at exactly the right time. It entered my life when I was ready for it, and I’ve embraced it with a joy reserved only for puppies. I welcome the challenges, the surprises and the uncertainty of the trails, with open arms and and open mind. “If you had told me this 15 years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it… now it seems so natural.” This is what my college friend Christine said when I told her I was contemplating my first 50 miler and starting my Yoga Teacher Training. I laughed because it was true. In fact, five years ago I still wouldn’t have believed it either. But here I am, happy to be alive, and excited for the endless possibilities of life.