We were standing at the start line, chatting away the final minutes before the “ready, set” command. Several of my running buddies said they weren’t really trail runners. I smiled and nodded. And part of me wanted to slap them.
Do you run on trails? Then you’re a trail a runner. And don’t give me this baloney about what you do wouldn’t necessarily count as running. Girlfriend I have been there, said that, believed that and frankly am currently writing the book about that. I understand the decision to balk at calling yourself a trail runner. Or a runner. Or an athlete.
But to celebrate Global Running Day, I’m going to go ahead and embrace all three identities for myself. Finally. At long last. And I have trail running to thank for that.
I’ve done trail running here and there. I’ve even done a trail marathon, although it was more 26.2 miles of tears, fears and doubts and barely making the cutoff. More recently, I’ve used trail running as recovery after a long-distance race. But it wasn’t until the last year when I decided I wanted to be on trails more and more. I wanted to feel the freedom of the run without the pressure of my average pace. I wanted to be away from the chatter that cluttered my own head and have it be just me, some green, the birds and a mud pit or two.
Tuesday nights the company Heart Rate Up puts on a trail race series in Western New York and a confluence of circumstances allowed me the ability to show up at Sprague Brook for the first of the Dirt Devil races. Of course I had no intention of “racing” the 3.5-mile technical course. In my mind it was more of a group run for which some people would be rewarded with prizes. This, I decided, would be my attitude.
I picked out a colorful, and somewhat mismatched, running ensemble, complete with knee-high compression socks (which I hoped would ward off bug bites and scratches). I wore my hair in pigtails and a broad smile across my face. I started my GPS watch only so I could keep relative track of my mileage, and perhaps find my way back if I got lost on the course.
I had spent a few years chasing PRs. And as fantastic as goal-setting can be, my focus was off. I centered my worthiness on results, which I rarely obtained. That discounted the process and disrespected the work I had done. All because of one or two race days. As one friend bitch-slapped into reality by questioning why I was so hard on myself, I began to question my own definition of what makes someone a runner and an athlete. In the process I created a new way of engaging with this amazing sport which helps me make sense of my world and has given me a space to grow that I otherwise would have missed.
I reframed my running as joy. I started to take myself less seriously. I started to sink into what was really important to me. Turns out, what I love about running is freedom and community and challenges. It’s a way to see things, including myself, in a different light.
Trail running puts me in the moment. I can’t think about pace or last week or who’s ahead of me or behind me. When I start to do that, my feet begin to stumble and I’m in danger of taking a tumble. A near-miss becomes a warning shot from the universe — are you in this moment? Because if you’re not, if you’re not paying attention to the trail, if you’re failing to notice your breathing or how you’re picking up your feet, you’re going to wipe out.
The smile on my face is genuine. It’s pure joy. It’s leaving behind preconceived notions of how I should look or how fast I should be running. I’m here. I’m strong. I’m running. Joy. That is all that matters to me in this moment. That is what makes me so grateful for finding my way to trail running.