I used to race cross country in high school, and in ways I can’t fully describe when I say these words it feels like an admission of some deep part of my character. Truthfully, the experiences I had while racing during my Junior and Senior years were some of the most formative of my young adulthood. Finding trail running had an immense impact on my life’s trajectory, much in the same way as leaving home for college or moving away from my family in California for the first time did. Looking back, I see a distinct difference in myself when I compare pre- and post-cross country memories. Running allowed me to unlock a sense of self-confidence and an ownership of my power and body that I hadn’t felt before.
My teammates and I frequently talked about this on our long runs winding through trail systems; we were a 7-woman force to be reckoned with, and through running we finally felt the power to make our presence known. Our motto for racing during the season of my Junior year was “make a ruckus”, which seems harmless enough until taken in the context of our conservative Catholic school under whose jersey we raced. In a school atmosphere where one of my classes literally aimed to teach me how to be a good and compliant wife as according to the Bible, the power of embracing our slogan and making a ruckus while on the race course was not lost on me. We raised quite the noise, breaking long standing school records and sending a female runner (me!) to the CIF State cross country meet for the first time. We forced the administration to recognize us, and increase our funding to a less miniscule fraction of our men’s football team… What is not lost on me even today was the way in which cross country practices and races broke open my shell, showed me the depths of my own grit and drive, and allowed me to carve a path that was wholly my own.
While cross country was my catalyst for becoming a trail runner, it is also the reason I became incredibly burnt out with racing. I played with the idea of racing in college, however I knew there was a different future for me outside of the sometimes all consuming competitive atmosphere of college running. Ironically, through running I learned enough about myself to know that I would be unhappy as a college runner. I joined the club triathlon team during Freshman year, but deeply missed my cross country team. I discovered that without a group of close teammates, everyone felt like a competitor to my racing focussed brain. It was challenging to find other women I enjoyed running with either because I intimidated them by being overly competitive, or because they were faster than me and my identity as one of the stronger female runners in my immediate universe felt threatened. I started to use running as a way to feel a sense of control over unhealthy personal relationships and heavy academic workloads; when there were no longer people to race, I began competing with myself. When the COVID-19 lockdowns began I couldn’t run away from my problems any longer, and when I realized how unhealthy my relationship with running had become, I took a couple months off from it entirely for the first time since I started running 5 years previously.
I have been slowly rebuilding my relationship to this sport over the last few years, taking small breaks when I sense that fiery edge of unhealthy competition rising up in me again. Most of the time when I meet new runners through running groups I’ll be asked what I’m training for next, and when I say there’s nothing planned I feel like an imposter, like I’m not a real trail runner if I’m not cutting my teeth in the toughest races of the season. Truthfully, most of this pressure starts internally, however there is a natural culture of competition in our sport (as with any sport) which can function to scare newcomers away from joining running groups or seeking new running partners. As our sport grows, it’s important that we carve out a space for runners who came to this sport with no desire to compete. Each runner deserves a share of the trails and the sense that they belong in a community regardless of their relationship to the competitive side of running.
When I took the opportunity to move to Colorado’s front range for graduate school, I became simultaneously nervous and excited about my new close proximity to sponsored trail runners and strong athletes. I was nervous about finding a running group that felt welcoming for me as I came off a bad injury and adjusted to the elevation (and running in snow for the first time!). I was also worried that the competitive side of me would flare up in an attempt to prove myself to new running groups, and I would take steps backwards in my progress towards enjoying running without attaching my worth to the competition of it. At the same time, I was swooning at the idea that I was sharing the same trails with some of my running heroes (hi Clare Gallagher, Peyton Thomas, Abby Levene, and Megan Roche!), and the possibility of spotting one of them in the wild made me giddy. My first two weeks at elevation kicked my butt and humbled me in a way that allowed me to refocus on why I fell in love with trail running in the first place: it allows me to move my body on my own schedule, of my own volition, and into beautiful places at whatever pace feels good.
I am still on the path of finding a love for myself in this sport that is wholly devoid of competition and performance. Some days I feel like I’m miles closer to reaching it, and other days I question whether I really want to fully untie myself from competing. As I’ve felt more solid in my progress, I’ve begun researching the trail races and events that are out there and have become more excited about how much our sport has grown even just in the last few years. Classic community driven trail races still provide a unique opportunity to bring runners together who train in different places, on different trail systems, at different elevations, and for different reasons. Other trail running events like Running Up for Air have used their platform as a race series to advocate for climate action and engage runners in air quality awareness issues. A great example of a new non-competitive event that brings runners together to brainstorm climate advocacy and action in our local communities is Footprints Running Camp, which I was lucky to attend last summer and the details of which may be a story for another time. As our sport grows, the culture will undoubtedly need to change to give way to the influx of incredible runners who engage in this sport for all different reasons. I’m excited to watch it grow, and to help power the shift from the inside out.