“So… uh, this pace might be a bit fast for some people and I just wanted to check… is this a good pace for you?”
I favored my climbing guide with a smile. We were cruising along the Blue Lake trail near Washington Pass in the North Cascades, en route to what was going to be my first multi-pitch experience. As we kickstepped through soft June snow, we certainly weren’t running, but we were moving at a pretty steady clip, despite packs heavy with gear.
“I’m a trail runner so this feels pretty great to me!”
Stoked that I was onboard with our speedy pace, he smiled back. “Oh, that’s awesome! Today is going to be great!”
Truth is, it’d been a long time since I’d really felt like a trail runner, or even much of a runner at all. During the first week of June, I had one golden week of excellent late spring weather before I started a new job, and while I told myself I was going to log some quality single-track miles, somehow that had turned into a week of climbing. After all, it was volcano season-that special time of year in the Pacific Northwest when long days and good snow make for great climbing on our Cascadian behemoths. Single-track time? Yes. Just single-track time in mountaineering boots hauling a full pack. I still get the same impatience when I’m on a stretch of single track; an urge to break into a light jog no matter what my footwear or how heavy my pack. Mentally I’d started a list of trails I’d love to come back to for running, but when given the opportunity I was consistently choosing climbing over running. All spring, the one thing that reminded me (and not flatteringly) of my running past was any time I tried to jam my not-so-beefy forearms into a crack on a climb, often with minimal success and a lot of extra effort.
It was a huge swing from 2018, where I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. In 2017, I finished my first 50 miler and then followed it up with volunteering at the finish line of a local 100 miler, Cascade Crest. A combination of liquid courage and enthusiasm from staring at the box of belt buckles for a day saw me hit ‘register’ for the lottery at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. I ran more miles and gained more vert than I’d ever done before. I toed the line in August nursing a bit of an injury but feeling confident and ready. It wasn’t meant to be my day however – by the halfway point I was barely walking. Pain in my heels had left me hobbling alone, in the dark and in the rain, wondering why I couldn’t stick to 50K’s and 50 milers like a sensible person.
I spent the fall recovering, and during that time I rediscovered my old love for rock climbing while I rehabbed the bursitis in my heels. Training for Cascade Crest had made me realize I was capable of more than I ever thought possible, and that shift had triggered similar changes across my life both personally and professionally. I decided to leave a professional field that no longer felt fulfilling, and found myself questioning self-imposed limitations. Maybe it was a summer of running trails and staring at peaks and climbing routes that led to a winter of soul searching and asking “why not?” By January, my calendar had races and running adventures but also items like “lead my first trad pitch” and “5.12 or bust,” as well as a formidable list of peaks I wanted to climb.
In the midst of all the goal setting, there was a bit of an identity crisis brewing. Was I a runner who climbed or a climber who ran? As the months passed by and I trudged through low-commitment running, increasingly it felt like the later. I had no hunger to train, and despite full-blown run deprivation anxiety, I didn’t really feel the motivation to run. By the night before the drawing for the 2019 Cascade Crest, I had already rolled over, cancelled, or transferred most of my race registrations, and each one felt like I was losing something I cherished. Pulling myself out of the lottery and pushing off the possibility of redemption felt like poking the final hole in my running ambitions for the year.
It felt unthinkable. After years of steadily building fitness and mileage, I found myself making excuses for not getting on the trail and more embarrassingly, intimidated by long runs and mileage in a way I hadn’t been for a long time. The miles I did get in were a struggle and felt uninspired, no matter where I was running or my trail company. I was incredibly busy with my career change, but I had managed to fit training and running around life before. The only times that I had gone so long without running consistently were times I was injured, and I had worked through that already. So what was up?
Throughout the years, I had struggled with a combination of being excited for new races and new goals, but also really longing for a time when I didn’t have a single race on the calendar and I could just run for the hell of it. Through my life, running has been everything from an anti-depressant and stress relief to simple expression of joy, but throughout endless training cycles and chasing goals, something had gotten lost. For lack of a better word, I’d lost my running mojo. No matter what schedules I drew up, or how I tried to inspire myself, mine seemed to have disappeared… Or maybe it had gotten swallowed up by my newfound climbing mojo. Rather than continue to drudge through the running doldrums, I decided I was going to embrace the downtime I seemed to need.
It took a few months, but that hunger to pursue goals came back. On a whim I decided to sweep for Cascade Crest this year, and about halfway through my section I found myself wondering how soon would be too soon to sign up for something. I already have a 50K on the calendar for 2020- it’s up in the air what’ll come next, but for the first time in a long time, I’m looking forward to building miles and getting consistent training in for something big.
Coming out on the other end, here’s some Do’s and Don’t for fellow Trail Sisters struggling with their running mojo:
- Don’t feel bad about trying new things and exploring new passions. Always been excited about something? There’s nothing sadder than not exploring it!
- The more experiences you have that challenge you and make you grow, the better you know yourself and the more opportunities for learning how you handle being outside of your comfort zone. These insights will pay huge dividends when you return to running. If you choose instead to keep pursuing that new passion, the bottom line is you’re being true to yourself and doing something you’re excited about. Exploring new mountains and seeing different areas has made me start a new list of trails I want to explore through running.
- Don’t feel left out when your trail sisters run without you. Sub-don’t: Don’t beat yourself up for not being able to keep up with them or cover the same distances. Where you’re at now doesn’t change the miles you’ve shared and the memories
- Don’t stress about losing fitness. Nothing is more exhausting than trying to “fake it ’til you make it.” Especially as you get older, the panic about losing fitness and then struggling to get back into shape is real. But if you wait until you’re really, truly hungry to get after training, that passion will more than make up for whatever fitness you’ve lost. You can also take comfort in some of the physiological research that shows even if you’ve had significant down time, your cells “remember” what hard training feels like and respond much more swiftly to the metabolic demands of hard training than someone who hasn’t had similar experiences. This doesn’t mean that you can skip running for six months and then jump off the couch and run a 50k, but it does mean that if you’re an experienced runner you’ll have any easier time adjusting to increased training miles and volume.
- Do take the lessons you’ve learned from running and apply them elsewhere. Remember how wrong that voice was that told you you’re not the kind of runner that would toe the line of a 100 mile race? It sounds an awful lot like that voice telling you you can’t send that pitch, doesn’t it? You get on that wall and you show that pitch who’s boss!
- If you are still running a little bit, do try to keep up with the stretching and strengthening exercises you did to keep your abs, core, and glutes happy. Make sure you’re still taking care of yourself and recovering!
- Don’t sign up for a race with minimal preparation and hope to jump start anything. Just because you’ve done lots and lots of race at distance x doesn’t mean you should sign up for one willy nilly next weekend.
Finally, do remember that you have to have an off-season to have an on-season, and do have faith that when you’re ready for it, that passion to run, and train and work towards goals will come back.
Great article. I am not much of a racer. I will sign up for 1-2 big ultras a year and that’s it. I really just love running mountains/trails. Yet people are very surprised when they ask me what I am training for and the answer is, “Nothing.”
I prefer this way because like you said, there is no pressure. I don’t have to worry if the trail I want to explore has enough miles to train or what the weather will be that day. Will I be sick or injured? Don’t get me wrong, I also love the challenge and accomplishment of racing, but I also believe the sport should simply be enjoyed :).