October 2018, my husband and I had just moved to Boston, and we were excited to check out the trails nearby. I had enjoyed trail running for years in California. I had done my share of 50ks and even a 50-miler; I’d paced by husband at Western States and done loads of training in the Sierra and Bay Area. But to be fair, I was also happy to run on the road, and I wasn’t a fan of technical trails: they scared me.
In Boston, just north of the city is Middlesex Fells, which features an abundant trail system. If you live in Boston, and you don’t have a car, and you want to get on dirt, this is your spot. So this is where we went.
I hated it. It was technical with not just rocks, but jagged rocks. Everywhere. Maybe there’d be a smooth swath of path where I didn’t have to fear for my every footstep, but then, rocks again. Or roots or something else that slowed me down and made me think I was just one step away from getting hurt.
I was scared. I was slow. I was awkward. I was frustrated. I couldn’t keep up with my husband. I tripped and fell. And I thought, “This just isn’t fun and I’m bad at it. If this is trail running in Boston, I’m out.”
And over the next year and a half, I went to the Fells maybe three times. I only went at the encouragement of my husband, who’d made this his trail running home. He loved it. I went reluctantly. I went because it felt like something I should do and something I should enjoy. And each time, I was just thankful when it was over.
I focused my running on roads. Well, focus is probably the wrong word. It was more like flogging: I flogged myself on the roads. Because around this same time, the reality of being a 48-year-old runner was starting to manifest; my body was changing.
But instead of accepting that with any sort of grace, I decided to pretend it wasn’t happening. I continued to train as if I should be able to run the same speeds I had over ten years ago, despite mounting evidence that I couldn’t. I set goals of running faster 5ks than I had 15 years before. I read the stories of other women (much younger than me), who got serious and dedicated and knocked huge amounts of time off their marathon PRs. I was inspired. I thought, I’m disciplined and work hard. I’ve been an athlete my whole life, including time on a professional cycling team (years ago). Surely I can do this, too.
So, I set up training programs that left me beat up, exhausted, achy, and defeated. I wondered why I never felt good. And the more I didn’t have those breakout moments, the more I beat myself up. What was wrong with me?
Then COVID hit. From March to June 2020, my husband and I holed up in our one-bedroom apartment. When we just couldn’t do it anymore, we decided to explore the western part of our newish home state. We set out for two weeks to see what the Berkshires were all about.
Turns out, the Berkshires are all about a lot of technical trails, including the Appalachian Trail. The road-running in Western Massachusetts isn’t great, but the trails there are plentiful and gorgeous. I decided I’d give them a go.
And something shifted. Maybe it was the joy of getting out of the COVID monotony of our apartment and realizing that there were beautiful places in the world I was still allowed to visit. Maybe it was because, for the first time, my husband and I made a policy that I would lead on the trails instead of running behind him. It made me feel in control and not like I was just trying to keep up. Maybe it was because I decided to stop beating myself up about being afraid to go fast on tricky trails and I allowed myself to slow down and enjoy myself: I flipped the script on my self-talk.
There’s also the distinct possibility that this shift came because the Appalachian Trail is truly made of magic and happiness. Whatever it was, I found myself actually having fun out on some really tough, technical trails.
And when those voices perked up to tell me I wasn’t badass enough or fast enough or strong enough or agile enough, little by little, I was able to tamp them down. I stayed committed to doing what the first sentence of just about any self-help book will tell you: stop with the negative inner dialog and say something nice to yourself. And over time, despite Herculean efforts by my critical inner voice to wrench back control, it actually started to work.
After that first two-week stint, we returned to the Berkshires several more times. And we drove to Lake Placid to experience some of the 46 Adirondack peaks. And the more we explored, the more I wanted to explore. I also realized that being on trails was saving my well-being in these tough times. I needed this.
I absorbed the stunning scenery. I thanked myself for getting to epic views. I delighted in finding colorful mushrooms. I was thrilled to see owls and woodpeckers and hawks and cardinals. And I started to get stronger and more confident on rigorous trails, and it sunk in that to get stronger and more confident on rigorous trails, it really helps if you actually spend more time on them. And I still hiked when I wanted and I slowed down when I wasn’t comfortable, and I kept telling those lingering and tenacious critical voices I just didn’t want to invest in them anymore. And little by little it sank in that I actually didn’t have to listen to them at all; that I’d actually created them and I could make them go away.
I paid attention to my equipment and got myself some super grippy shoes. They’re also very bright with aggressive soles, and they made me feel even more ready to tackle tough terrain.
Back home in Boston, I was curious to test my new enthusiasm on those trails I’d vowed to hate 18 months before. I chose a route rightly named the Rock Circuit: roughly 4 miles of rocks—sharp, abundant, at times loose rocks, and roots. With steep ups and downs, too. Strapped into my “let’s do this” adventure shoes and sporting my new attitude, I went to the Fells.
And there, I bounded and I hiked, I ran and I picked my way through. And after even just those four miles, I was exhausted and happy. I didn’t much care how fast I was. I knew I’d pushed myself because I could feel it, and that felt good. But most importantly, it was just so much fun.
And as the fun side of trail running builds, the judgy “you’re aging and getting slow” voices just don’t hold the same weight. I am getting older and my top end isn’t getting faster, those are truths.
But out on the trails, so many other skills come into play. Skills that I can keep improving as I get older: Staying relaxed and loose and agile. Being present and focused. Improving my mental game. Saying a lot of nice stuff to myself because look at what I get to do.
My joy on the trails has spilled into lots of other behaviors, as well. I’ve recommitted to my three-times-a-week home gym workouts, which focus on strength, range of movement, and core stability. I’ve focused on fueling better on runs, after runs, between runs. I make sure to get rest: both sleep and recovery. As in, I’ve actually started making my easy days really, really easy (you know, like every single coaching program advises) and leaning into making my hard days as hard as I can make them.
And it’s become this wonderful positive feedback loop, because here’s the crazy thing: I feel better pretty much all the time. My body is very happy with the variety of movement you get on the trails. It’s happier with the softer surfaces and slower speeds dirt dictates. It’s happier because I fuel it better and do all those sometimes tedious exercises that keep it moving well. And my mind is following suit by focusing on the can-do instead of spiraling in the can’t. And to say it one more time, from the rooftops, I’m having fun.
I am 51 years old, and I can jump around on rocks and weave through trees. I can get up to beautiful lookouts and run through streams. Sometimes I still get a bit scared. And every so often I trip and fall. But now, through it all, there’s one phrase I keep on repeat: Be nice to yourself, and have a blast. And no one is more surprised than me to realize, this is actually working.