Taking A Different Path

For the majority of my adult life, I’ve defined myself as a runner in a way that is central to my identity. Running has driven my wardrobe, my diet, my social life. This path has served me well and is the foundation for many of my closest friendships. There’s real value in belonging to a community of likeminded individuals, and there’s real value in having a framework to maintain your physical, mental and emotional health. Running provides all of this to me, and I’m grateful.

When I began running, I exclusively ran alone. The lone wolf mentality suited me at the time, and being slower and bigger than a lot of “real” runners, I preferred to keep to myself. Years into my running career I connected with an amazing group of women. As online friends became in-person friends, my passion for this sport and the community grew exponentially. Training and racing is so much more enjoyable with a support network of cheerleaders.

Fast forward to March 2020, when everyone’s priorities changed. As much as we loved our community, being physically around other people could quite literally kill them, so we adapted and did our part by isolating.

I returned to running by myself, whether on the treadmill or solo runs in my neighborhood. I signed up for a virtual half marathon and maintained that distance with several other virtual races. These pseudo-events were fun! I trained and tapered the same as I would for an in-person race, and celebrated afterwards by Postmates-ing an indulgent meal. As much as I missed my running community, virtual races gave me a deadline to train for and a tangible, shiny medal to celebrate the achievement.

While the mechanics are the same, running alone is a distinctly different activity from running with others. Especially within a close-knit community, running with others creates a sense of accountability and recalibrates your sense of normal. Of course we’re not hanging out on Friday night because everyone needs to run sixteen miles on Saturday morning! And horror stories of chafing or porta-potty close calls become just garden variety small talk.  

But I was back to running alone, which required its own recalibration. I still liked the way running made me feel and still felt connected to runner friends via group texts and Instagram, but extra time alone gave me more time to reflect on how often really I wanted to be there, and how often I didn’t. Bit by bit, I began to shift away from running. There was no dramatic breakup or a definitive line in the sand. I simply started choosing other forms of exercise, and then kept making that choice more often.

During phases of my life, the structure of a training plan has been a blessing that pulled me out of bed and forced me out the door, but for countless reasons this year was different. It’s been hard to predict when I’ll feel strong and able to run 10 miles or when it will take all my strength simply to shower. In The Before Times, I completed dozens of races by following training plans. I learned to build in some flexibility for life stressors, but always on the level of “tough day at work so maybe just run two miles today!” rather than “functioning in a global pandemic is literally not possible. Have you eaten? Could you drink a glass of water?”  Turns out Excel spreadsheets can’t adequately capture existential dread.

We made every effort to protect the physical health of ourselves and our communities, but a year in survival mode took its toll. The anxiety, the loneliness, the mental calculus required every time we wanted to leave the house, the lack of leadership, and the 1-2 punch of sadness and anger in learning how people you thought you knew weren’t willing to do the bare minimum to help others. It all added up in ways I haven’t fully processed yet.

One thing I knew was that running for running’s sake on a daily basis was not in the cards, but spending a year under a quilt wasn’t a viable option either. I shifted my goal to 30 minutes of movement a day without worrying about what type of movement it was. On sad or low energy days, gentle yoga helped stretch my muscles and refill my cup. When I had more adrenaline or energy to burn off, I’d lace up and run or take an online dance class.

I’ve never been great at living in the moment, but letting go of a strict running plan allowed me to show up however felt right at that specific time and meet myself where I am.

This winter, I felt especially called toward yoga. I started with a challenge to practice every day in January. Chasing a new goal was freeing. This goal wasn’t motivated by strength or distance or speed – simply just showing up regularly. After January, I continued practicing many times a week and sometimes even multiple times in the same day. I felt connected with livestream classes from the safety of my living room, and I liked the way yoga made me feel mentally and physically. My flexibility and balance improved, and I enjoyed carrying the lessons or Mary Oliver poems with me long after class ended.

More recently I’ve gravitated toward hiking. Easy access to trails is one of my favorite parts about living in Oregon, but for much of the pandemic I avoided them. We knew that outside activities were less risky than inside, but narrow trails didn’t allow for sufficient space to pass other hikers in a way where I felt safe. Since getting vaccinated, I’ve returned to the trails in full force and have been increasing my mileage while reveling in the beauty of this state.

As in-person races return, many in the running community are rushing to rejoin the events they’ve missed so much, and I’m truly happy for them. I’ve written time and again of my love of crossing the finish line and my appreciation of the structure required to get to the start, but I’m not there yet. An in-person race happens at a specific location at a specific time on a specific date. All the stars must align to perform at that very moment, which makes it magical, but also unpredictable.

In a past life I prided myself on my ability to set a plan and stick to it, but I’m learning the value in having a general sense of direction without obsessing over the details. My goal was never really to run a marathon (or another, or this time do it faster) – my goal was always to be healthy, but somewhere along the way I started missing the forest for the trees.

So now I’m literally going back to the forest.

Wildwood Trail in Forest Park was where I developed my love of hiking. This 30 mile trail offers gorgeous greenery and views of the mountains, all within Portland city limits. Years ago, I began hiking Wildwood regularly to process a heartbreak and rediscover who I am. I’ve repeatedly turned to this specific trail when I need to blow off steam, clear my head, or make major life decisions. It’s beautiful and challenging, and traffic-wise hits the sweet spot of having the trail to myself most of the time, but encountering another hiker a few times an hour – just often enough to know that if I twisted my ankle, it wouldn’t be toooo long before someone could stop to help.

So it’s fitting that after an especially challenging year and wobbling back into a challenging future, Wildwood has called me yet again.

Committing to an in-person marathon months in advance is far too stressful, so an added appeal of hiking is its open-endedness. I’ve set a goal to hike all 30 miles of Wildwood trail in one straight shot this summer. This gives me a goal to work toward, a loose structure of increasing mileage, and a connection to a community of hikers, but there’s no specific race day. The trail is always open, so I can hike it any time I like with no pressure.

Among the many lessons of this year, I’m learning to let go of the definition of Runner – not forgo it entirely, but loosen my grip. While I was injured and unable to run, I grieved the loss of this part of myself, but now I’m learning that running is just one piece of the puzzle.

Giving myself permission not to run also means that when I truly do feel like running, I’m showing up for myself from an authentic place. It’s not a punishment. It’s not an obligation. It’s an intentional choice I make when running will serve me best.

Running will always have a place in my heart, but where yoga and hiking and dance used to serve as supplemental cross-training, now they’re each taking their turn in the starring role. Mostly what I love is walking through life without pain and sleeping well at night, and it turns out there are lots of ways to achieve that.

It’s all movement.

It’s all valid.

It all counts.

It all helps.

Throughout all this, I’m also learning to redefine who I am on this side of the pandemic. I love being an active and connected member of the community, but I haven’t missed being busy every waking moment. I haven’t missed stressfully rushing from one commitment to the next, being too frantic to eat but drinking a sixth cup of coffee to stay awake. That life was never sustainable. I ran myself ragged, and being forced to slow down was a bitter blessing. I’m learning to appreciate the quiet and the stillness. I’m learning the beauty in saying no.

Having a strict plan with a clear definition takes a lot of the guesswork out of life, but it also takes out a lot of the humanity. No amount of planning or discipline can heal your heart, but showing yourself grace sure helps. Perhaps the biggest lesson from this year was learning that I need to leave space to be a messy, undefined human and go wherever this trail leads me.

2 thoughts on “Taking A Different Path

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