When the path ahead isn’t clear

When the path ahead isn’t clear

Sunday afternoon. I’d just tripped over some barbed wire and I was pissed. Who was I kidding? I’d been pissy for the last two kilometres. My legs were heavy, my shoulders tight, my breathing shallow. The bugs were bothering me. My shorts were bothering me. The roots on the trails were bothering me. And to top it all off, I didn’t know where the hell this trail would take me.

But wait… I love exploring new places. Route finding and adventuring is my jam. So why was I so damn grumpy about not having a map or blazed trails? 

I bumbled along and then it hit me: my mood had nothing to do with the actual path I was on. I was anxious because the feeling of being lost and turned around and ‘not sure where to go next’ had nothing to do with the run and everything to do with the stresses playing out off the trails.

A few months ago I left my job to go back to freelance writing. I’ve been doing ok, but I’ve been playing it safe. I haven’t yet permitted myself to follow a newish path. I look at the direction I want to go, or think I want to go, and I’m not doing work that aligns with that trajectory. But then I start second-guessing whether I actually want to follow that path or if I’m just looking at the proverbial greener grass. 

I truly believe we have only one wild and precious life. (Thanks, Mary Oliver) But then I get caught up in the thinking that forging new paths is for people with more financial stability, more experience, more tenacity, more energy, more courage…

Ah, there it is. Those “mores” are all excuses for the real issue: fear, but not fear of trying, but fear of failing (whatever that is). Couple that all sorts of feelings of not being good enough or worthy of success (that old yawnfest, ‘Why try when it’s not going to work out anyway?’) and it’s a wonder I made it to the trails at all rather than just stayed at home on the couch.

“I have learned that there is no failure in running, or in life, as long as you keep moving. It’s not about speed and gold medals. It’s about refusing to be stopped. You might find that one particular direction proves difficult, but there are many directions on a compass. Infinite, in fact. As long as you keep searching, you’ll find your winning way,” writes Amby Burfoot in his 2007 “The Runner’s Guide to the Meaning of Life: What 35 Years of Running Has Taught Me about Winning, Losing, Happiness, Humility, and the Human Heart.”

You don’t build a running practise by sitting on the couch (or at your desk) thinking about it. You just do it. Sure, you might read books or take a clinic, but the real learning is in the doing. Some runs are good, others not so much. But it’s all experience — you know, the “best teacher.” You don’t wait until the conditions are perfect, or you have built up your cardio capacity to run 15km at ease: you start where you begin and learn along the way. 

When I let go of needing to know where the trail was going to end up, there was great freedom in the experience of being in the woods. (And a LOT of fun.) It was still hard work, but that’s where the confidence-building lives.

As for work? I don’t need to have my path all mapped out before I begin. I just need to put one foot in front of the other. And refuse to stop moving.

Running in the time of COVID-19

Running in the time of COVID-19

“A life lived in fear is a life half lived.”

Baz Luhrmann

On March11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19, a novel coronavirus with origins in Wuhan, China, a global pandemic. Since then, nothing has been the same. Around the world schools closed, non-essential businesses shuttered and everyone was told to stay indoors. People were no longer allowed to gather in groups. Words like “socially distant” and “social isolation” became part of our vernacular. Fear over what would happen next was palpable.

From where I sit, almost five months later, we’re now entering Phase 3 of reopening Ontario. I’m back to working in my office and my kids are scheduled to return to school in September, albeit in a very different environment: my son will be attending college online, while my daughter will be wearing a mask and following a whole new series of protocols. Social distancing is the norm and life is definitely not back to normal. It’s clear that COVID-19 has been devastating to a host of industries: tourism and the arts come to mind, really anything that depends on visitors. And that includes running races.

2020 was shaping up to be a stellar race year, including my first road marathon in Halifax, two trail marathons, a 25km night run, a 30km at Bon Echo Provincial Park, a place I hold close to my heart, and my first 50km. One by one, each race was cancelled. And this was happening globally. Even the Boston Marathon was cancelled: the first time in its 124-year history.

Runners take on gruelling training blocks to prepare for goal races such as Boston. So when these “goals” disappear overnight, many are left wondering, “What now?” Social media screamed with runners devastated at their loss and how their training “went to waste.” There was much uncertainty over how long the pandemic would last (there will is) and planning for the future became impossible. Many runners lost motivation.

I’m a solid middle-of-the-pack runner, and I put my focus into competing against myself rather than anyone else. Races are a great way to test fitness and focus my training, but they’re also just a lot of fun, especially trail races. (S’mores and quesidillas for an aid station, yes please!)

But still I wondered, what now?

Here are four things that kept me running in this strange uncertain time:

1.) Reconnect with your why: The pandemic helped me realize that the benefits of running was much more than race swag and bling (though those are pretty fun): running was (and is) a way for me to process the emotion and stress of the rest of my life, it’s a way for me to learn about strength, resilience and goal setting, and lessons learned while I’m training help give me perspective that serves just about anywhere. Running is a part of my self-care routine: when I’m training I make sure I eat better and sleep better. It keeps my mind in check and my heart open. And it’s a way for me to explore the world in intimate and immediate ways. Maybe running is a way to help you lose weight. Maybe it helps you keep up with your kids. Whatever your personal why, connecting with that helps with motivation, whether there’s a pandemic or not.

2.) Run virtually: Race directors, who have a big enough (and often under appreciated) job during “normal” times were faced with “what now” after in-person races were cancelled. Some deferred races until next year. (And who even knows what next year will look like.) Many found ways to “pivot” their races to a virtual format: run a socially distance race on a “course” of your choosing, register your time and get your merch/bib/bling. I admit that virtual racing isn’t the same as racing IRL, but it is a way to support RDs and ensure there will be races in 2021. It’s also great for community building: finding a way to run #AloneTogether.

3.) Set a big goal for yourself: Running can be as equal a mental challenge as it is a physical one, and setting a big goal – one that’ll ask you to dig deep yet can be achieved – is a powerful way to fuel motivation. My first “goal” race was Going the Social Distance, hosted by Happy Trails Racing: you pick your monthly goal, in 50km increments and get out there and run. At the end, you get a sticker (things runners will do for merch) and an incredible sense of achievement. Over 3,000 runners worldwide participated. Then there was the Midwest States 100: run 100km (or 100 miles) in 10 days or less. I finished in 28th out of 273 people with a total time of 9:23:22. I have no illusions that I “ran 100km race” but dedicating myself to that goal rather than worry about things I couldn’t change helped keep fear a bay. Perhaps the biggest virtual event during the time of COVID-19 is the wildly popular Great Virtual Races Across Tennessee, hosted by Gary Cantrell, aka Lazarus Lake, race director of the infamous Barkley Marathons. In April, Laz announced a virtual race where participants would run virtually across Tennessee – 1021.68 km – between May 1 and August 31, 2020. Finishers get a T-shirt and either a belt buckle or medal. He expected 200 runners: over 19,000 from 78 countries are registered. I’m one of them: 700km down, 300 km to go. Stay tuned for my report from the finish line.

4.) Ground yourself in gratitude for what you do have and put your time and energy into the things that fuel you: OK, this is good advice for living a good life, not just running. Early in the pandemic when all the trails were closed, I realized that restrictions on shopping (even for groceries) were far less a loss than not having access to nature. Recognizing and grieving those closures made me appreciate the experience even more once trails reopened. Since then I have made time every weekend to spend time in nature and explored new trails.

We are living in a momentous time in history. There is a lot of talk about a “second wave” and uncertainty about how (and when) this pandemic will end. But it will end. In the meantime, life under a pandemic is marathon, not a sprint, and finding ways to keep you moving when the world seems to have come to a standstill will serve you long past the time of social isolation.

why i run (part one)

why i run (part one)

“Running is basically an absurd pastime on which to be exhausting ourselves. But if you can find meaning in the kind of running you have to do to stay on this team, chances are you’ll be able to find meaning in another absurd pastime: life.”

~ Bill Bowerman, Pre’s run coach

I wasn’t an athletic kid. I figure skated quasi-competitively four to five times a week, but I didn’t do much in the way of team sports. Except for the track team in grade 7: I remember signing up for the 10,000 metre race, not realizing that was 10 km. I was second from last. But I loved long jump and high jump: that feeling of flying (and then falling)… that feeling of propelling myself further and faster entirely by my own power. But running was something other people did.

Fast forward to my mid-20s and the movie Without Limits about long-distance runner and track star Steve Prefontaine. The kid who was told he was too small to be much of an athlete later became holder of every American distance running record from 2,000 to 10,000 meters. He was talented, sure, but he was also driven to win, or more pointedly, not to be defeated. There is a line in the movie credited to his coach Bill Bowerman: “The real purpose of running isn’t to win a race. It’s to test the limit of the human heart.” And Pre had guts.

That cracked me wide open.

My boss at the time was an Ironman athlete (triathlon consisting of a 2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim, 112-mile (180.25 km) bike, and a 26.22-mile (42.20 km) run) and when he learned of my burgeoning interest in running, somehow he got me to sign up for the local 5km race. I don’t remember much about the race itself except thinking it was hard, until I crossed that finish line. And then I thought: if I could bottle this feeling, this euphoria, this accomplishment, imagine what else I could do?

I kept running and racing on and off over the years, but never trained seriously or consistently. Getting married, having kids, launching my freelance career, moving to a farm, then getting divorced took over my identity: I was a wife, mother, writer, farmer then single mother, but never a runner.

Then fast forward to December 2018 when I saw a meme: “A year from now you will have wish you started today.” I thought to myself, “What if I dedicate myself to training? What could that look like? How far could I go? How far could I run?”

Since I started this journey 18 months ago I have run over 3,000 km and I’m just getting warmed up. I have run in dozens of races, set and met time goals for myself, and I’m now training for my first ultra: a 50km trail race in October. (If it’s not cancelled due to COVID-19.)

I’ve become fascinated by the study of sport and endurance psychology, the science (and practice) of mind over matter. I’ve found community in runners and profound healing in nature.

But perhaps the biggest growth has been in what I’ve learned about myself, including my perception of my limits: every time I lace up my shoes, I defy the voices that scorn “who are you to think you can achieve these big goals?”

I’m a 46-year-old writer, single mother, and most definitely a runner.