Ripping down the wooded single track trail, leaves and gravel crunching satisfyingly underfoot with each leap, I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so free and had so much unbridled fun. I imagine I looked a bit like Phoebe from that episode of Friends where she runs wildly through Central Park, arms flailing, joy palpable.
This is how I felt at my first trail running race through the redwoods in Oakland. California. Like Phoebe, I ran down the rooted, rutted dirt trail with a mixture of wild abandon and balance, focused intently on the location of each footfall while at the same time immersed in the joy of moving fast through the forest. Looking like a maniac didn’t bother me a bit. It was exhilarating to find such a source of joy that would become an essential component to my health in body, mind, and spirit.
It wasn’t until my 40’s that I’d realize my love for trail running, and that I’d get serious about regularly and heartily tending to my own needs, inside and out. Serious about taking good strong care of myself as a pathway to self-worth, self-possession, and living with joy and purpose. I learned that the more I took care of myself, the more I had to give others, and that the opposite is also true.
Like many women, especially full time working parents, I slid down the long slippery slope of being everything to everyone, except myself. Gifts for distant relatives shipped across the country? Check. Volunteering for one more school or sports thing for the kids? Check. Ditching kickboxing class again to help meet an “emergency deadline” (which resulted from someone else’s poor planning) that just popped up at work? Check. Engaging in hours of unpaid cultural, domestic labor for the good of the family and community? Check. You get the picture.
One choice at a time, I betrayed myself and my own needs in favor of trying to do multiple full time jobs in the time (and for the price) of one. Until one day I realized I had become a dried up shadow of the robust, energetic, creative, fun person I once was. So burned out that I had no idea how to even begin to claw my way out. I ended up in such a bad place that I needed to take a leave from work for the sake of my physical and mental health.
My journey out of burnout and into rich, joy-filled, full-bodied living required me to get clear, (really clear) on the fact that even amid life’s responsibilities of work and family, I NEED a certain amount of sleep, outdoor exercise, balanced nutrition, and time to explore and enjoy life in order to function. This does not make me soft or weak. And these are not fun “extras” that get slotted if there’s a bit of time at the end of my endless to-do list or someone else gives me a hall pass. As most of us know, there’s never time at the end of the to-do list (often filled with demands from others). And no one is going to give us permission to live our own lives (it’s not even their job to do so).
Over nearly two years I learned how to ditch the crushing weight of external expectations and built a healthy foundation based on openness to possibility, restoring my core self, and doing more of what lights me up with the people and things that matter most. I experimented with lots of forms of exercise, and running was an appreciated, though irregular, fixture on my calendar. Little did I know that a few years later, the world would settle into a multi-year global pandemic, and incorporating trail running into my daily routine would become a lifeline.
Fast forward to March 2020, when the Covid lockdowns began. The kids and I were working and schooling from home, with my husband going to work in person with hefty safety protocols in place. We were afraid to even visit our loved ones nearby, or go to the grocery store, or eat an apple that hadn’t been thoroughly sanitized. By May my nervous system was fried and no one in our house was doing all that well with the constant masking, cleaning, vigilance, and isolation.
There’s a natural hillside area near our house that we’d hiked in as a family a few times but I wasn’t sure of how the trails connected or if it was safe to run alone. We have coyotes in our area, but I was more concerned about threats of the human variety that women solo trail runners have learned to deal with.
Side note, when I traveled to Ireland for a weeklong trail running adventure last year, all of the American women had experienced some form of harassment, threats of violence, or worse while out on the trail. The Irish women were horrified, as this was not their experience at all. One woman from the American South even ran with a pistol tucked into her shorts to protect herself after repeated threats from a man in her town who wouldn’t back off. This is a whole different story for another day, and I’m sure you know all too well the vigilant lengths women with the nerve to run outside the lines go to in order to survive out in the world. I’m grateful for living in a neighborhood where this hasn’t been a big issue, and for the self-defense classes I’ve taken that have helped equip me with the confidence and skills needed to exist in relative safety outside the house.
Even with these concerns I knew I needed to create a healthy routine, preferably in nature, to help my body and mind navigate the constant stress of living and raising tweens and teens through a pandemic, so each morning before work I ventured out, and each day explored a little further. Eventually I learned the trails and got familiar with the other folks on them, and pieced together a few routes. After a month it was a solid habit, and one that I looked forward to each day. Keeping my word to myself to continue it (and protect it as a high priority) was an outward expression of self worth, self care, self love, and if I’m being honest at times, basic self preservation / survival. It is not a requirement, not a “nice to have” for me to maintain (relative!) sanity and balance amid the stresses and demands of the world.
It’s still an essential and key element to my helpful daily routine, though now I sub in swimming or Krav Maga a day or two a week instead. I’m meeting a dear friend in Colorado for the TS race in September (my first TS race!), and can’t wait to engage with more TS women there. It feels like a tribe I’d be quite at home in.