An Evolving ‘Why?’

Hannah Belles is an avid trail runner in the summer, skier in the winter, and former physical therapist. Originally from New Orleans, LA, she currently lives and works in Salt Lake City, UT where she can stare at the Wasatch Front every morning. When not outside, she enjoys reading novels with short chapters, eating raw cookie dough, and cuddling with her maniac of a dog, Nias.

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I laughed and took a sip of beer as I listened to my husband, Nick, recount the events of our morning trail run to our longtime friends, Zack and Danielle. Danielle had stayed behind that morning in our Airbnb as Nick and Zack joined me for an 8-mile run near Durango, CO in preparation for my upcoming attempt at The Rut 28k. Zack had taken a fall in a comical, cartoonish fashion folding up like a roly-poly immediately. Fortunately, he was not injured – just a slightly bruised ego. We spent a few minutes poking fun at him until Zack and Nick rose from their seats to order another round. Danielle suddenly scooched a bit closer to me and asked, “Do you actually enjoy trail running?” I reflexively leaned back gearing myself up for a defensive statement. Well of course I enjoy trail running, I thought. Why else would I spend all this time training? As if almost reading my mind, she clarified, “I mean I know you must like it, but are you doing this for yourself?”

When I was 8, I began to study ballet exclusively. I remember standing at the barre on my first day of ballet class at a new studio. My elderly teacher stood in front demonstrating our first combination. I was hyper aware that this was an audition of sorts and my chance to prove that I belonged in a rigorous studio such as this. The first few notes of the music began to play. Suddenly, I instinctively knew how to carry myself. My arms felt light and my legs, strong. I gracefully performed the combination with attention to detail, coordination, and musicality. I felt like I was flying. Ballet became my identity after that moment; it was all-consuming. However, like most all-consuming relationships, they don’t usually end well. From this young age, I tied my self-worth with my ability to perform. Sacrifices were easy to make because I felt above my other peers. I handled my stress with a sense of superiority until one day I realized I was depressed, jealous, and riddled with body image issues. Although, I have since tried to unpack these emotions, they tend to creep up into present day. I still have this incessant desire to be the best at something…anything.

Enter trail running. Nick and I moved to Salt Lake City from Florida in June 2020. I was used to having active friends, but you would have thought we stepped into an arena of elite athletes. While introducing ourselves at a local run club, one person began to discuss his recent completion of the WURL that past weekend. Others spoke about their past adventures running 100 milers, soloing the West Slabs on Mt Olympus, and skiing epic backcountry lines. I was in awe of these individuals. Everyone was a badass. My adoration only grew as I learned more about this community, but so did my expectations of myself. I would frequently find myself frustrated with my own deficits. I was consistently dead last at run club. I wasn’t able to climb as hard of grades, ski as fast, or scramble ridges as efficiently. I dubbed myself the wimp of the group as an effort to use comedy to mask my feelings of inadequacy.

I had ran intermittently back in Florida while I was in school to obtain my Doctorate in Physical Therapy. Initially, running helped me set achievable goals like finishing my first half marathon, while also keeping me sane in school. I was logging plenty of miles, but it remained a supplemental aspect in my life. I ran because it was fun and kept me feeling fit. Most importantly, I loved the feeling of grabbing beer and pizza on Monday nights after our weekly 4-mile run with friends. However, after our move to Utah, running suddenly felt like a competition that I was always going to lose. My new friends were simultaneously my biggest sources of inspiration, but also mirrors of impossible comparison. Seeing others excel pulled me back to the similar mindset I experienced with ballet. I wanted to experience the intoxicating sensation of excellence again. And so my “why” evolved.

“I want to get a coach,” I told Nick near the beginning of ski season. “I want to try to run The Rut next year.” I had watched my husband and friends absolutely kill it the previous summer in Big Sky, Montana. Most of our group completed the 28k, ascending 7800ft through spectacular terrain. Nick had decided to race the 50k, which pushed him to his farthest edge. I was completely awestruck by the ruggedness of the course and its participants, but I couldn’t help feeling left out. Maybe if I train really hard this summer, I can finally be considered an actual trail runner. In my head, it was simple. One of our close friends (and elite mountain runner), Giselle Slotboom, had recently started her own coaching business. I would enlist her help starting in March, complete her workouts perfectly, and somehow emerge as a powerhouse on one of the hardest mountain races in the United States. Like I said, simple.

The first few weeks of training were quite the shock. I was sore, tired, and not fueling nearly enough to keep up with this new normal. I was also saddened to learn that I could not run uphill in any sense. Rolling hills, gradual hills, my stairs; it didn’t seem to matter. I hated it. I could start, but my mind always allowed my legs to stop once it caught sight of the top. Where others were motivated to push through walls, mine succumbed to comfort. I had been formally training for a little over 2 months, but I didn’t feel any closer to my goal. I started to wonder if I liked the idea of trail running, rather than the actual act of trail running.

Nick encouraged me to stay consistent. “Stop comparing yourself,” he said after I returned from a run with a particularly frustrated expression. “These people have been running for much longer than you.” He had a point. I had been incorrectly assuming that my friends only excelled at this sport because of their natural talents, rather than appreciating their many hours of struggle, perseverance and joy that comes with moving quickly through mountains. Bill Gates once said, “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” My heart was in this for all the wrong reasons, blinding me to any potential benefits trail running had to offer. I would never make it ten years at this rate if I continued to see running as a way for me to measure my self-worth against others. So, I let that shit go, and my “why” evolved.

Slowly, exciting improvements started to happen. I found myself running longer, able to keep up conversations on the trails, and finally run consistently up a gradual hill on one of my favorite loops. I ate more knowing more food would keep me happy and strong for steep ascents, and I listened to hours of David and Megan Roche’s SWAP podcast to keep up the positivity. My doubts and negative self-talk did not disappear overnight, rather it became a weaker whisper that I could overpower more easily. I found myself grinning and holding my arms out wide like an airplane on long descents. I especially grew to love the additional time spent with Nick on the trails. Scampering behind Nick while watching his feet swiftly move over rocks and dirt transported me to a wonderful flow state.

Around this time, Danielle asked her question in Durango, “Do you actually enjoy trail running?”

“Not always, “I answered.

I don’t always like feeling out of breath on steep climbs, tripping over rocks, or struggling with feelings of doubt, comparison, and ineptitude. But I love feeling the strength in my legs on those same climbs, bounding over those rocks with grace and lightness, and finding peace with my own journey. And I love that this is only one small part of my life. Yes, the miles have increased, and the terrain has gotten harder, but I love trail running for the very reason that it is not an all-encompassing relationship, rather a medium for me to enjoy being outside with the ones I love.

Race day arrives and I feel ready. I line up in Wave 4, which is good, because I now only have to think about myself. My friends have already started in Wave 1. The gun goes off and I start ascending immediately, feeling a familiar burn in my thighs. That’s okay. You know that sensation. I make it to the top of the first climb, maintaining a slow jog up, and find myself catching up to runners from the previous wave. Hell yeah! My legs feel amazing, and the air is still cool. I hit the first aid station right on target feeling incredibly fresh.

The next several miles mimic the elevation profile in an emotional sense. My pace begins to slow as the sun beats down on me climbing up to the Swiftcurrent aid station. I stop every few minutes to catch my breath. I can see the aid station, but it feels so far away. I hear “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees start to grow louder. My legs immediately start power hiking to the beat and a massive smile spreads across my face. I’m dancing! I start to tear up as I see the crowd surrounding the aid station, all shouting words of encouragement. I’m doing it. I summit Lone Mountain a little slower than I was hoping. I’m drained but looking forward to the next 4 miles of descent.

This descent really sucks. I’m hot and nauseous. My pace slows to a crawl, and I don’t remember that I’m supposed to keep eating. I call my Mom.

            “Hannah? Why are you calling? Are you okay?” She asked.

            “Yeah, this is just really hard,” I pant. “I’m almost to the last aid station.”

            “Okay well, just keep going. I’m proud of you!”

My eyes start to well up again. Not because I’m disappointed with how things are going, but because I feel really loved in that moment.

I make it past the final aid station and start the final 1000ft ascent. I feel like a 3-year-old. I want to slam down my pack and throw a tantrum. Just keep moving. I count my steps in groups of 20 and allow myself a 30 second break. I finally crawl out from the mountain bike trails and hike a little faster along the service road. I glance to my left and see Lone Mountain. I can’t believe the distance I just traveled.

My pace quickens as the finish line and surrounding tents come into sight. I spot Nick and my group of friends yelling my name and cheering me all the way in. Woah, it’s over.

My final time was 7:15:00, almost an hour behind my goal pace, but it didn’t matter. There was no self-criticism or disappointment. The only emotion I felt was pride. I offered my best self to the mountains that day and was rewarded tenfold. I may not always like what trail running gives me, but I love what it brings out of me. When crossing the finish line, I was running for no other person than myself, and that felt like freedom. And so, my “why” evolved.

About the Author

Hannah Belles is an avid trail runner in the summer, skier in the winter, and former physical therapist. Originally from New Orleans, LA, she currently lives and works in Salt Lake City, UT where she can stare at the Wasatch Front every morning. When not outside, she enjoys reading novels with short chapters, eating raw cookie dough, and cuddling with her maniac of a dog, Nias.

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