Growing up, I was not an athletic kid. I dreaded P.E., and I was always picked last for kickball. My mom was determined to find an athletic endeavor that I didn’t mind so that I could get some exercise and get out of the house during the summers. I was the little girl standing way out in the outfield during softball games, hoping and praying that each batter couldn’t hit very far because I had a snowball’s chance in hell of actually catching the ball or throwing it far enough to reach a teammate infield. I went to tennis classes, basketball camps, and dance lessons. I was gawky, half-blind, and uncoordinated with a tendency towards twisting my ankle.
Eventually I joined the swim team, which did not involve catching anything, throwing a ball, or running, and I happily splashed away the summers at our neighborhood pool. I was good enough at swimming to occasionally get picked to swim one leg of a four person relay, and I rarely came in dead last. The one time I received an award at the end-of-season banquet, it was for most improved. For me, that was the definition of athletic success.
When I was growing up, we had to endure physical fitness testing once a year, which meant “running” circles around a track until I’d dragged my panting, sweaty self a full mile. Running was torturous. I loathed and despised every step. I always got a stitch in my side, and I never saw the point of the endeavor. What were we running towards or from?
I was never taught any running techniques in gym class or how to deal with the agonizing side cramp. Running was apparently something kids knew how to do naturally like breathing or eating, and I was clearly missing the runners gene.
Or so I thought until my husband, Joshua, tricked me into trail running for the first time. I enjoyed hiking, but one soggy, cold winter day last year, we didn’t have time for a hike in the Gorge, and even if we did, it was slicked in a thick coat of ice. I felt like I really needed some exercise that day, and I have to admit I became pretty distraught at the idea of spending the day cooped up in the house. At Joshua’s suggestion, we headed to Forest Park, a gigantic wooded park near our house, where he tried to convince me that running was just fast hiking. He challenged me to run to a tree a little ways away. I did. Then he dared me to run to the next tree, and I did that too. We continued running and walking between the trees until, to my surprise, we’d covered 5 miles.
I’d listened to him talk about running shoes, training runs, and Chi running techniques for over a year at this point, and apparently some of that knowledge sunk in. I’d come to understand that running was a skill, not a natural born talent. It came more easily to some people than others, but anyone could get better at it if they tried. As we dashed between the trees, Joshua coached me, and I started paying attention to my breath, keeping my core engaged, and thinking about which part of my foot was hitting the ground. I puzzled over what it meant to be “a needle in cotton.” I found myself in kind of a Zen zone, where I was completely present and in the moment, paying attention to my body as it ran from tree to tree through the woods with someone I loved and trusted. Unlike those pointless, endless loops around the track in grade school, this felt good. I was still sweaty and panting, and I had some aches and pains, but I felt a real sense of accomplishment when we we got back to the car. I had run! And I hadn’t hated it!
Since those first runs in Forest Park, I’ve graduated from run/walking to running, increased my mileage, and even finished a few races. But until recently, I still didn’t consider myself a real runner. It became an ongoing joke. Joshua teased me as I collected my first race medal, “You ran a race, but you’re not a real runner?” “Nope.” “You just bought your 3rd pair of running shoes, but you’re not a runner?” “Uh-uh.” “You voluntarily ran three times this week and just finished a 7 mile trail run in the rain, but you’re not a runner?” “Who me? No, I am not a runner.”
In my mind, a runner was still someone who joyfully whizzed around the track or sprinted along sidewalks. That wasn’t me. A trail runner was an athlete who covered unimaginable distances by foot, conquering the rugged terrain, exhaustion, personal demons, and physical pain. I just slogged up and down hills for a couple of miles.
Recently, reflecting back on my year long running experiment, I thought about how I have faced muddy switchbacks, fatigue, self-doubt, and IT band pain. I thought about how a year ago, the idea of personally running 6.2 miles of trails was just as unimaginable as going 50 miles through the mountains, and now I could do it. In fact, I do it regularly on an ordinary Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon. I have already accomplished what I thought was impossible. So maybe I am a trail runner after all.