April 12th & 13th 2024

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My Trail Running Shoes

Ashli Gurnett is a Montana native who found trail running to be the perfect medicine to sift through her postpartum experience. She lives minutes away from trails that take her through the best pine trees around. She is in love with Montana’s Big Sky, reading, writing, playing piano, her two children (Graham and Sloane), her husband and the friends that remind her being a woman is damn powerful.

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As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in the mental health world and as a mother who runs, I have come to believe that mothers are the nervous system of a family. They set the pulse and the stage for the functioning and wellbeing of the familial unit. It is a tremendous responsibility. It is a beautiful mission. 

Running for many mothers, including myself, is a time to escape the responsibility time and time again. Running is also a time to rediscover the beautiful mission of motherhood time and time again. To see the journey of motherhood as a sacred mission, we must all care for our nervous systems. Self-care is paramount. When I work with mothers in therapy, I first explain to them the states of their nervous system as described by the Polyvagal Theory. Knowing the states of the nervous system allows us to identify the current nervous system state, and more importantly what state is ideal to exist in as mothers.  

Think of our nervous system like the ocean. When we are in a ventral vagal state within our nervous system, we are on the beach. From the perspective of the beach, we can see the ocean and the big, blue sky. We may feel the following: safe, connected, able to learn, and at ease. Now, let us imagine that we get triggered by something and we fall into a sympathetic state (fight or flight) within our nervous system. From the ocean analogy we are working with, being in the sympathetic space of fight or flight is like being under water and panicking. We see the light of the beach and the dark depths below us, and we are trying to flee and fight our way up. Now, using that same analogy, let’s imagine our nervous system decides it cannot fight or flee and the only option is to let ourselves sink. This is when we fall into a dorsal vagal state. From this space we may feel numb, indifferent, lethargic, hopeless, helpless, and wanting to disappear. The space from here to the beach feels insurmountable. Often in this state, we forget to look around. If we did, we would discover that many more mothers are here with us and that, together, we can swim up to the ventral vagal state of the beach.

Here is the secret I let clients in on: there is energy in fight or flight and that energy is what can take you up towards safety. Anxiety is merely excess energy. Fight is merely excess energy. To care for our nervous systems, we must use this energy to swim up rather than spin out. How do we do that? With the help of Mother Nature. Afterall, she is the ultimate Mother. 

My trail running shoes hold a story that only Mother Nature and I know. Although, if you were to speak to Her, she would declare that mothers need nurturing more than anyone else in the woods of life. She would recite to you the story that every mother has divulged to her as they run through Her woods. She would utter to you that these whispered stories from fellow mothers are full of contradictions. Mother Earth would tell you that the left foot of every mother running on the trails will attempt to pull her back to responsibility. She would tell you that the right foot of every mother will encourage her to make the trek back to Self. 

And so, my run goes.

The left foot sings to Mother Nature:  I am free. The mountains are calling me. This is good for me. I need this. I miss myself. I miss my body belonging to me. This aloneness if freedom. This fresh air is the breath of life. This is peace. I need silence. I need these mountains. I could run through these trees forever. I need to make time for me. Find my grounding. It is not selfish to care for myself. 

My right foot sings to Mother Nature: I hope my kids are being good to my husband right now. I shouldn’t be here. I should be helping my husband right now. My kids need this body to be present. My kids need to feel my heart all over them. My newborn is the sweetest smell, and my son is a dinosaur embodied. Silence terrifies me now. Where are the kids? I have two minutes for me today. Hurry. Go home. Don’t be away too long. There is no time for me. There is no time.

When the run is over, and my trail shoes slow to carry my weary feet, Mother Nature finally sings back to my nervous system: You are safe. You can do this. Be at ease. 

As mothers, we are the nervous system of our family. We must care for this nervous system. To care for it is to move out of fight or flight and towards safety. Sometimes, safety is only found once we have moved (or in this case, run) towards it. As the Polyvagal Theory says, we have to swim towards the beach time and time again. 

Mothers must make the trail run time and time again. 

Let your trail running shoes take you to the mountains where Mother Nature will remind you that you are safe. You can do this. Be at ease.

About the Author

Ashli Gurnett is a Montana native who found trail running to be the perfect medicine to sift through her postpartum experience. She lives minutes away from trails that take her through the best pine trees around. She is in love with Montana’s Big Sky, reading, writing, playing piano, her two children (Graham and Sloane), her husband and the friends that remind her being a woman is damn powerful.

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  1. I needed this today, thank you. My 9 month old is going through separation anxiety at bedtime and it has been brutal. Totally drowning in the ocean the last 3 nights in a row. Tonight I’ll try to look for the beach.

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