It was about halfway through my last loop of the Ragnar Relay this weekend (the green loop–the ‘easiest’ loop) that I asked myself, “…and why am I doing this?…”
(If you are unfamiliar with the Ragnar Trail Relay, is it a 24 hour race in which you have eight people on your team; each member on your team runs a green/’easy’ loop–4 miles, a yellow/’intermediate’ loop–3.6 miles, and a red/’advanced’ loop–6.7 miles. It’s also in Snowmass, at elevation, you camp, and it’s trail running, which means you are running up and down, on switchbacks, throughout the bushes, over roots and rocks, etc.)
Well, not just why myself was doing this, but also the other 2,500+ people who showed up for the relay race. It’s hot. There’s dust caked on my ankles and I’m blowing it out of strange orifices in my body. I can’t breathe. My lungs feel like they may explode from the climb in elevation. I haven’t slept. I’m dehydrated because it’s difficult to finding a balance between drinking enough water to be hydrated and not having a full bladder bouncing around. My legs hurt from climbing up what feels like 25% inclines. I’m probably going to sunburn, and then peel, and I probably won’t be able to walk next week. I’m hearing really strange sounds coming from the bushes next to me and I don’t have any cell phone service to call if something bad happens. REALLY weird things are happening to my body in places I never knew existed. And then to top it all off, there’s a pregnant lady passing me and I’m looking at my distance meter every 30 seconds, expecting it to say, “YOU ARE ALMOST DONE!”, only for the reader to have gained .05 miles.
Long story short–last year, I decided to run Ragnar the day before. I told myself, “I’m active, in shape, I can totally go and run 14 miles at elevation” so my only concern was getting lost (when I arrived two hours before my start time, I even laughed at the people I saw struggling in the first half mile–I shouldn’t have been so humble). I took off on my first leg, and totally got lost (it ended up being a 2 mile mistake), so this year, I decided I would join a training program so that I could learn the proper technique, the proper etiquette, and the proper navigation for trail running. While Ragnar was the ultimate goal, the real reason I did it was to learn more about myself and to learn more about my environment, and the most important lessons I learned were packaged up in the weeks leading up to the race.
Of course, my physical state became something I paid much more attention to. My running group met twice a week (Wednesdays and Saturdays), and I found myself really paying attention to what I was eating, how much I was drinking, and when I was going to bed (like, I learned I should definitely cut out coffee on those Wednesday runs because the discomfort in my stomach for the 6-9 miles we ran was just not worth it). (Maybe it had to do with the Tokyo Joes opening on Parker Road and the ease of mobile ordering), I ate way less Chick Fil A and way more terakyi bowls.
In addition, thanks to the masterful scheduling of my running coach, I was introduced to places I never even knew existed before. I’ve lived in Colorado my entire life and I learned that there are so many hidden oasis’s right in our backyard (my favorite run was Elk Meadows in Evergreen–I felt like a fairy, flying through a rainforest)–how lucky we are to have so many hidden gems just down the street.
Like many people will say, once you switch to trail running, you never want to go back. While trails are difficult and present different challenges, they are much more exciting (and also challenging) than running on the road or the treadmill (plus, you get to be outside). Each trail run presented a different obstacle. Since many of the runs, for me, were unfamiliar, I never knew quite what to expect–will there be shade? how steep is in the incline? when does the downhill start? will this rocky patch be loose?
I worked on my mental stamina. The first seven weeks for me were all about building mental toughness. I’ve always been competitive, always been successful, always been athletic, so I was disappointed in myself when my body would tire quickly, my breathing got heavy, my legs hurt, and my mile splits were slow. It was a constant battle in my head between finding excuses to stop (“Oh, I need to blow my nose”, “Oh, I need to fix my hair”, “Oh, I need to adjust my strap”, “Oh, there’s a cool rock in the road that might be gold I need to inspect”) to telling myself those WERE excuses and not real reasons to quit.
I learned so much about the running community. Like any extracurricular activity, the first step in gaining allegiance is learning to speak the lingo. Initially, I just thought running was a relatively lightweight activity–you strap on a pair of shoes and just run. It turns out, however, there is MUCH more technology and science involved, and runners love to talk about new methods they’re trying, new equipment they’ve just demoed, how their fruit chews changed their energy levels, etc. All of this is about seeing how slight deviations change the experience–what happens if I eat my energy block fifty minutes into my run instead of thirty? How does the zero drop in my shoe change my running pattern? Do I prefer to run with or without sunglasses? Ultimately, the point of all of this is to learn more about ourselves and how our bodies work–the more we experiment, the more we learn how small deviations in a routine, in a pattern, in equipment, impact our bodies, and we can carry that knowledge forth (like, I really have to run with Chapstick on my lips–they do some weird exfoliating thing when I run so I have to make sure I keep my tube handy).
But, the BEST part of the whole experience were the people. First of all, there are just some incredible athletes that show up to these types of events, and I so admired what they are able to make their bodies do. It is always such a pleasure to witness people accomplishing their goals, whether those goals were to beat a time, to just complete the race, or, like me, to just not get lost on the course. Whether it was on the Ragnar tail itself, the people in my training group, or seeing a full parking lot on our training runs, it is so encouraging to see so many people taking initiatives to be outside, to be active, and to respect the environment–it teaches you to have awareness of not only yourself, but also to your surroundings and to be considerate of others–if you are going to listen to your music, keep your volume down low as to not invade the meditative run of someone else, make sure that you stay on the path as to not erode the foliage on the side, throw away your trash, and always be aware of the weather/lightning and potential wild animals. When I consider ALL of the problems of our world (there are so many), and I wonder how we even begin to solve those problems, I wonder if this is where we can start–to teach people to simply be aware of themselves and their impacts on their environments.
So, if I go back to my original question, “why AM I doing this?”, this is why. The real answer we put ourselves through these kinds of seemingly miserable experiences is because it makes us better, stronger, more resilient people. We learn more about ourselves, we learn more about other people, and we learn more about the world. We learn that we can push our human limits way further than we ever expected–it makes us feel invincible. It’s amazing to stand on the top of the ridge, look down on basecamp, and think to yourself, “my own legs brought me this far” (….and then remember they will have to bring you back down because there certainly is no place for a helicopter to land on that ridge to save you).
Special shout out to my running group who pushed me past my limits, encouraged me to keep running, were so worried about me when I got lost that one time, and then sacrificed their own runs to make sure that I never got lost again, and who always made my Wednesdays/Saturdays something I would look forward to!
(and, second special shout out to First Descents/Tops for taking the featured picture on this post–you will notice that this runner is most definitely not me, and that is because the only picture of me is pre-puke, and that is not something anyone should see…the picture or the puke…)