I am a trail runner. You wouldn’t think it to look at me though. I’m not fast, my form is non-existent, my breathing sounds like a cross between a stampeding rhino and a hippo in labour, and most of the time I have to push just to finish. But I can run for a few metres, and do so on a trail, which automatically makes me a trail runner.
If I’d had any sense, I never would have taken up this sport. It is HARD. But when I started almost 18 months ago, I was completely clueless, blissfully ignorant, and heavily overweight. I had also stopped drinking in an effort to shift some poundage, and needed something other than lifting a glass to fill my time. I entered my first trail run without a notion of what I was getting myself into, with no clue that many experienced road runners would rather fake an injury than run trail. I didn’t know that it was hard, I didn’t know about injuries, I didn’t know about your lungs feeling like they were on fire, your legs feeling like lead and molasses at the same time, I didn’t know about grass and sand and dirt and mud and water crossings and single track and switchbacks. And most of all, I didn’t know about HILLS! But what I did know was that at 108kg, with very little cardiovascular fitness, something needed to change. And slowly, one finish line at a time, something did change. Not just me on the outside (since starting trail running I’ve lost 28kg), but me on the inside as well – as the more I hit the trails, the more a number of realisations started to hit me right back. Five, to be exact.
- Live in the moment
On any given trail run, my thought process usually goes a little something like this.
“WHY AM I HERE?!!!”
“Everything hurts. Like, everything.”
“Surely I must have done at least a kilometre by now. ONLY 600 METRES??? WHAT IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT IS HOLY???”
“Ok so I’ve done 2km and the race is 8km long. So I only have to do what I’ve already done another three times and I’ll be finished!”
“Five kilometres left? I can’t, I seriously can’t.”
“I’m dying. I am actually dying right now.”
“The hills are so NOT alive with the fucking sound of fucking music.”
“Why am I doing this stupid race in the first place?!! I hate my life and everything in it!!!!!”
Anxiety, stress, pain, exhaustion, irritation, and sometimes anger. Pretty much part and parcel of my trail running experience. When I’m in a race and I’m thinking about how few kilometres I’ve done, how many there are still to go, the insane elevation I have to look forward to, how hot/cold/rainy it’s going to be soon, I become overwhelmed with negativity. And thankfully, after many, MANY runs, I finally realised why. Because I was too preoccupied with the past, and too focused on the future, to be able to fully embrace the present. As soon as I sloughed off the worries about having covered so few kilometres, and having so many more to struggle through, I was immediately able to find comfort and pleasure in the present. In appreciating my surroundings, in becoming fitter and stronger, in enjoying the beauty of nature, and in getting to my goal one single step at a time. And the minute I began to live in the moment, the more fulfilling each of those moments became. The finish line is still a challenge to get to, make no mistake, but the getting there is now infinitely more rewarding.
- The bigger the struggle, the sweeter the success
Ask any trail runner what they hate most about trail running, and they’ll reply “Hills!” (At least I hope they will, otherwise I’ll look like an idiot.) That’s what my answer would be anyway – particularly as I’m still incapable of running up hills, so I have to walk them every step of the way. Ridiculous elevation, usually 1,500 degree heat, huffing, puffing, burning, dying. Hills. Like seriously, what the F man???
By contrast, my absolute 100% favourite part of trail running is going downhill – particularly after a nasty, backbreaking uphill. The sweet release, the air in your lungs, the sensation of flying, the claws of Satan finally retracting from your screaming quads – there’s nothing quite as freeing, or as blissful. But one day as I was revelling in the awesomeness that is the downhill run, I asked myself, would it be quite as stupendous if I hadn’t just come off a blistering uphill? If trail runs, and life, were all downhills, wouldn’t bliss eventually become the norm, and one day even the mundane? Aren’t the downhills, the successes, the pleasures we experience made all the greater by the struggles we go through to achieve them? And don’t we need the struggles to make us resilient – to build our fitness and strength on the trails, and our power and confidence in life? Forcing myself up a strenuous uphill isn’t fun, but it damn sure makes me a better runner – just as successfully working through challenges makes me a better person. So while I may not like the hills, I’ve learned to appreciate them for the learning experience they are. And man, do those downhills feel good afterwards.
- Happiness is in the quiet moments
It’s easy to find happiness in the big, bold moments – in celebrating a birthday or an anniversary, in buying a new home, in being promoted, in driving a new car. But I’ve found that the purest form of happiness lies in the spaces between – the calm, quiet, often overlooked moments that whisper, rather than shout. Like when you’re drinking the perfect cup of coffee. When your favourite song suddenly comes on the radio. When you finally get the hang of winged eyeliner. Or when it’s just you and the trail, your feet crunching against the dirt, the sun rising over the vineyards, the wind at your back, the cool, crisp air your companion, and you realise that maybe, just maybe, this being alive thing isn’t so bad after all.
- Always be grateful for what you have
I am an extremely slow runner. I wish this was false modesty, but it’s the truth. If I’m ever in a race against a tortoise, I advise you to put your money on the tortoise, because it’ll be a safe bet. When I started trail running at 108kg, I was literally the slowest runner at every single race – crossing the finish line last, coming in with the sweeper, sometimes so far behind everyone that the organisers had packed up and left. I hated it, and I was mortified. I found it beyond embarrassing that I was so slow, and so bad at running that I was dead, stone, absolute last every single time. I didn’t want to come first (hahahahahahahahaha chances!) but just coming in somewhere in the middle would be enough. Please, just for once!!!
And then during one race, something strange happened. For some bizarre reason unknown to man, at the beginning of the race, I found myself in the middle of the pack, able to keep pace with the other runners for a bit (ok, two minutes). And I absolutely hated it. I hated being caught in a huge bunch of people, I hated the noise, I hated having to move aside every two seconds for faster runners, and I hated the frenetic claustrophobia of it all. That’s when it struck me. That all those times I had been right at the back, I hadn’t been losing – I’d been winning. I’d won freedom from the chaos at the front, I’d won the chance to complete my race at my pace in blissful peace and quiet, I’d won the opportunity to work on my technique, and I’d won valuable advice and insight from the sweepers as we finished together. Lightbulb. Always, always give thanks and be grateful for where you are at any given time – because chances are, it’s exactly where you’re supposed to be. I’ll get to the middle of the pack when I’m good and ready, but until then, as long as I’m grateful for what I have and where I am, I’ll be winning at running and at life.
Speaking of the sweepers…
- Don’t fight the slide
Without a doubt, this is the most valuable piece of advice I’ve ever been given, and it came to me via the sweeper on the second trail run I ever did. Don’t fight the slide. At the time, it made absolutely no sense, and given that it was said to me as I was busy careening 400 metres down a muddy hill on my backside, I think my reply went along the lines of “WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCKING FUCK??”
After I had recovered from my minor aneurysm and he had recovered from his laughing fit, he explained. Don’t fight the slide. If you feel yourself falling, don’t correct yourself, just go with the flow. The same way you’re supposed to steer into the turn if your car skids. If you let the slide take you, the worst that can happen is mud, dirt, and some bumps and bruises. But if you fight against it, that’s when you run the risk of real damage – sprains, breaks, snaps and potentially months at home in casts and rehab and traction. It’s the same with life I’ve found. If you go with the flow, go with ease, go with positivity, you’ll get to where you need to be far more quickly, far more safely, and usually with a laugh as well. But if you flail and flounder, caught in a storm of negativity and unease, you may just fall down and never be able to get back up again. That’s why since that day, I don’t fight the slide anymore. I ease into it, I fall down, I get up, I wash my muddy clothes, and I come back for more. Because that’s how you fight, and that’s how you win. Every single time.
The school of life. Now open at a trail run near you.