Running was going to be a one and done thing for me. Eight years ago I entered a 5K on a whim just to see if I could run the whole thing without stopping. And I’ll admit I was swayed to a particular run because they give you chocolate at the finish line, and shouldn’t every run and workout end with someone handing you chocolate? At that time, I took cardio-based fitness classes most days of the week and wanted to see if my current level of fitness would carry me through. My only run-based training was a 1-mile run on a local paved trail a couple weeks prior to test out the clothing and shoes I planned to wear for the race. That “training” mile was the most I’d run since we’d had to do 12-minute runs in high school gym class. Aside from this one race experiment I’d never had any interest in running. I was one of those people who joked that I wouldn’t even run if someone was chasing me.
On race morning I accomplished my goal of running the entire 3.1 miles without stopping, and enjoyed my chocolate at the finish line. And I was hooked on the race experience – the energy, the cheering, the swag! The running though, was just the necessary downside you had to get through to have the race experience. I signed up for more 5Ks, and then eventually a couple 10Ks whenever they had swag that appealed to me or supported an animal-based charity (rescue dogs to pet at the finish!). I never trained for any of them. I still didn’t enjoy the act of running. I got bored running by myself. And not every race went like the first. I often had to stop and walk stretches. Sometimes the hills were too much. Sometimes the heat and humidity knocked me down. Sometimes I just wasn’t feeling my best. And in those races where I had to walk, I beat myself up over it. Walking meant I’d failed that race. It didn’t count. Yeah, I got the shirt and the medal, and maybe some chocolate, but the inner dialogue in my head was that I failed. Having to walk at any point meant I was getting worse at running instead of better. Who did I think I was thinking I belonged at these events? Maybe I was just embarrassing myself in front of the “real” runners.
And not helping my inner dialogue were some poor experiences with run clubs. It took me a while to realize that “all paces welcome” is not the same as “no drop.” I tried many different groups that encouraged runners of all paces to join them; gathering up my nerve to come out, then getting a pit in my stomach at the start when the leaders announced they’d be “going really slow” at “like 10 minute miles.” I was typically left behind to run by myself, struggling to keep up, often not sure where my next turn was. I was welcome to join them, and they were welcome to drop me in the first quarter mile. Every time, that failure dialogue kicked off in my head: I wasn’t one of them, I wasn’t good enough.
I gave up on finding a running community, and concluded that I was just never going to be “good” at running. I still enjoyed the fun atmosphere and energy (and swag) of events, and continued to enter races, but every time I’d get stuck in the same mental loop: lining up at the start hoping to do well and maybe beat my current PR, being disappointed when I didn’t, then getting mad at myself because I had no right to be disappointed when I hadn’t trained. I’d vow that I would train for the next one, but because I didn’t enjoy the actual act of running, that never happened.
After the isolation of the pandemic years and the cancellation of in-person races, I was craving some connection. I’d done a few virtual races, and yeah you got the swag, but they just weren’t fun without the crowds. Not to mention the fact that I’d become burnt out on virtual everything. I don’t remember how Trail Sisters Philadelphia made their way into my social media feeds, but I stalked them for several months. Interested in their monthly all paces beginner runs, but afraid of a repeat of the embarrassment I’d felt at all of my prior run club experiences. I’d also only run on trails a couple times before, but was keenly aware that being dropped and not knowing where my next turn was in the woods would be a lot scarier than it was on the roads.
Thankfully, curiosity won out over my fears, and on a brisk fall morning I got myself to the trailhead for my first Trail Sisters all paces run. Little did I know that it would change my entire view on running and my place in the running community. It was like no group run I had ever experienced. I realized that “no drop” and “all paces welcome” are two very different experiences. There were eight of us at that run, and we all stuck together. We chatted and laughed. We stopped to admire the scenery and to take photos. When we got to the uphills, we hiked them, then regrouped at the top before picking up to a run again. There was no pressure to keep up, to go at a certain pace. We were all in it together, outside enjoying the company and the trails with no expectations of pace. It was the first time I had ever felt that I truly enjoyed a run, and I couldn’t wait for the next one.
In the following months, as I eagerly joined the Trail Sister for more all paces runs, I started learning more about trail running from chatting with the women in the group, many of whom had many miles of trails under their belts, including marathons and ultra races. It completely changed my view on running and how I defined a “successful” run to learn that a lot of hiking happens in trail running and racing, and it’s not considered a failure when you do. I was amazed to learn that it’s not just beginners who hike portions of trail runs – it’s an actual strategy in some cases! I almost couldn’t believe it when I learned that runners who win races often power hike portions of them! Burning the extra energy to try to run up a long, steep grade sometimes simply isn’t worth the minor pay-off in speed in the long run. And then there’s the fact that sometimes sections of trail just aren’t runnable for your (or maybe anyone’s!) current skill and comfort levels. And other trail runners aren’t judging you for that. They’re just happy you’re out there with them enjoying the trails. My mindset slowly started to shift, and I began to focus more on the sights and sounds of the trails and the joy that could bring. And if I had to hike for a bit, I hiked, and it wasn’t a failure. I was still out in the woods, appreciating my surroundings. Running was actually becoming something I enjoyed outside of races, independent of the crowds and the swag and without the pressure to keep a certain pace and never walk. And sections of uphill hiking often have the payoff of a fun, runnable downhill. Rocky, rooty, twisty downhills have become my favorite part of trail running!
I’ll admit there are still runs where I get down on myself. Unfortunately, there’s not a switch you can flip to turn off that voice in your head and become instantly confident and content with yourself every time you’re on the trails. But I’m learning to be kinder to myself. I remind myself to look around and take in the view and breath in the fresh air. And on group runs I make a conscious effort not to apologize for my pace or constantly describe myself as slow. My pace is my pace and it doesn’t need a descriptor. And I always remind myself when I’m transitioning from run to hike and back again throughout my run, that the variety of paces doesn’t mean the run isn’t a success. I’m still on a trail run, with all the joy that can bring, and every mile counts. Now, instead of running just being an occasional event when I’ve signed up for a race and put the pressure of an arbitrary goal on myself, I’ll lace up my trail shoes and head out just for the fun of it. Don’t get me wrong though, I still love my swag. Ooh, that race gives out socks? Sign me up!