Exposure Therapy

Yes, that’s me, perched on an uncomfortably narrow rock 13,000 feet above sea level. You can’t see my face but I’m intensely focused on the placement of my hands and feet, carefully trying not to glance away from anything but the rock beneath my fingertips because… ummm… a sheer, deadly cliff casually existed on either side of me. Holy eff.

If I have a true, unwavering fear of anything, it’s unprotected drop-offs. The technical term for this is “exposure.” I’m not necessarily afraid of heights, per se. I just really don’t love the concept of taking one bad step and falling to your death.

Yet somehow, I found myself on the ridgeline between the South and North Arapaho peaks last weekend, clinging desperately to rocks jutting out into nothingness, ascending slabs with minimal foot and handholds, and yeah, crawling across a rock that defined “unprotected drop-offs.” Yet somehow, I didn’t completely lose my shit. And I made it back to the car in one piece but with an entirely new perspective on what it means to push my limits. An important note: This insane adventure would absolutely not have happened without my utterly fearless guide Mario, who kept me from calling it quits more than once and most importantly, kept safe and smiling (most of the time!).

So how did I end up in the precarious position I did on Sunday? Let’s rewind a bit, especially because I haven’t touched this blog in a year.

I’ve been a runner for more than half my life, about 17 years to be exact. In that time, I’ve covered a quarter mile in 60 seconds, hurdled my uncoordinated self over barriers with water pits, covered 26.2 miles alongside the immaculate California coastline and through every borough in New York City, logged miles in Japan and New Zealand and Italy and Ireland, and run alongside (and shared post-workout donut holes with) Olympic medalists. The sport has introduced me to more incredible and inspirational people than I can count. It’s kept me sane and helped me navigate each and every high and low life has thrown my way. And as cliche as it sounds, running has allowed me to go beyond what I thought were my physical and mental limits.

At its core, running is just putting one foot in front of the other, right? When I think about it like that, it doesn’t make sense that running has made such an immense impact on my life. I’d need a novel to really articulate that appropriately. But running has very much defined who I am today. To be honest, I didn’t think I had much else to learn about running. Or that running could teach me more about myself than it already has.

Insert –> trail running.

A (somewhat) quick review of how this lifelong road runner found herself navigating rocks and roots more often than not this year:

In January, I found myself at rock bottom in regards to my personal life. The thought of spending this year rediscovering myself proved to be one of the few silver linings that kept me moving forward and helped me emerge from the darkest place I’d ever been in. I was also in the middle of preparing for my 11th marathon. Those miles were a godsend. During those runs, I quite literally cried midrun to relieve the emotional stress. I used the time to either process my thoughts or zone out and focus on nothing but my breathing and the sound of my footfalls on the gravel. I also intentionally tried to stop for few moments to catch my breath, acknowledge the beauty around me, and find gratitude wherever I could. At the time, I mostly felt grateful for my ability to run and the fact that it seemed to keep me afloat.

After the marathon, I inadvertently discovered springtime in Colorado is nothing short of perfection. Think blooming wildflowers, grasslands transformed into nearly Ireland-level green, and crisp, cool temperatures. Oh, and there are literally hundreds of miles of trails within a 30-minute drive of my doorstep, all of which are breathtaking and challenging in their own way.

Though I’d lived in Colorado for about a year at this point, I hadn’t ventured very far beyond my local route and a handful of spots in the Front Range. Covid also became a thing, so solo outside adventures quickly became one of the few safe activities to do. Because racing was off the table, I set an unofficial goal of trying a new route each week.

I started conservatively, exploring more routes near me with the goal of adjusting to being comfortable venturing out on my own. I realized I needed a vest to carry water, fuel, and other supplies. I upgraded my AllTrails subscription so I could navigate despite my being directionally challenged. And I bought a fresh pair of trail shoes because my road shoes weren’t cutting it on the technical terrain. Another early key revelation? One trail mile *does not* equal one road mile, so I had to adjust anticipated time spent on feet and fuel/water needs accordingly. This would prove especially true as I added elevation gain and altitude to the mix.

As spring transitioned to summer, I gradually began trying routes a touch farther and higher up in the mountains. Another fun fact: If it’s blazing hot down in the Front Range, drive an hour into the mountains and it’s gloriously cooler. In fact, snow is still on the ground most of the summer. I hate running in the heat, so this discovery was a godsend.

I also began to truly appreciate the seemingly limitless epic terrain that existed in my still-new-to-me home. It was not hard to find a different route to explore each week, and somehow, each spot was more incredible than the last. I let myself slow down and hike at times so I could soak in my surroundings. (This change in mindset is significant in that I’ve always thought faster is better.) And let’s be real, high altitude terrain with ample elevation gain makes running start to finish pretty much impossible. But most importantly, I was having SO. MUCH. FUN.

With each effort, my confidence in the mountains grew. And it occurred to me that, for the first time in a very long time, I felt like a newbie in a sport I thought I’d mastered. Trail running is practically an entirely different activity. It’s challenging in its own twisted way and, to put it bluntly, I have *a lot* of room to learn and grow and improve. For the first time in my life as a runner, I found myself bringing up the rear during the RMR group runs that restarted late this summer. That feeling was unsettling at first, but it made it all the more satisfying to start noticing incremental improvements with each passing week. (Green Mountain still kicks my ass, but it no longer leaves me nauseated. Heck. Yes.)

The very best part of it all so far? I started forming new friendships with a run crew that was more than willing to bring me into their fold and patiently teach me all the things. The summer was enlightening–you can read about the humbling experience I had on the High Lonesome route here–but unsurprisingly, there is so much more to learn. Like… how do I properly fuel for a 30-mile run with 7,500 feet of climbing without ending up curled up in the fetal position on the side of the trail? Or not feel entirely intimidated by exposed ridgelines? Or, let’s be real, can someone teach me how to use the water filter I bought?

Speaking of ridgelines…when Mario suggested we attempt to hike both of the Arapahoes–that meant trying my hand at Class 3 and Class 4 terrain for the first time–I found myself saying, “Yes,” without much hesitation. I knew without a doubt the route would freak me out and put me clear outside of my comfort zone. I also warned him there was a considerable chance I’d bail after eyeballing the route in person. But I wanted to try nonetheless.

We summited the south peak with ease, which made me smile because that fact in and of itself proved I’ve gotten stronger this year. Then we started the traverse to the north peak. I very nearly called it after he lead me up the first difficult climb. It felt as sketchy as I anticipated, and I wasn’t convinced I wanted to continue. But after successfully navigating a ridiculous downclimb and some expert route-finding from Mario, we continued on.

After some tricky, exposed but doable scrambling, we found ourselves facing the notorious Class 4 slab. Again, I very nearly called it, desperate to return to the safety of our car. There was no way I was getting my body up over that rock. It seemed impossible. But then, almost miraculously, a pair of women followed by a small group of hikers demonstrated the technique flawlessly. Once they’d finished, I felt confident enough to try it myself. And up I went! I don’t think I’ve ever surprised myself more. Then came the narrow rock portion described above, which was, by far, the most terrifying part. A highlight of the trek was celebrating the small victory with Mario and the folks that had crushed the slab before us by whooohoo-ing from across the ridge. (They had already put quite a bit of distance on us, of course.)

We continued on until we had less than a quarter mile to the summit. But after more downclimbing, we still had a considerable ascent to cover. And we had been out on the ridge alone for almost four hours. And I was fried in every way possible. And I knew we still had the return trek to complete. So I made the decision to call it early and head back. Full disclosure, I cried with relief. Mario, being the incredibly supportive person that he is, was on board without hesitation.

The relief I felt once we’d returned to the south summit was unreal. Even though I didn’t officially finish both peaks, I’d completed the most difficult parts. I had absolutely accomplished what I’d set out to do. In fact, I had exceeded what I thought I was capable of physically and mentally at this point in my new life as a trail runner/hiker.

I was deliriously happy.

We celebrated with beers and pizza, of course.

Between the sunrise runs atop spectacular peaks and the postrun IPAs after another successful Green, that feeling has become more common lately. Thanks to the incredible support of my newfound friends, I’ve embraced my newbie status. This year has been a transformative one, in the best way possible. And that’s despite all the hellfire this year has thrown at all of us.

Delirious happiness. Immense gratitude. I can’t stop smiling. And I know there is so much more to come. So many more mountains to summit. So many more trails to explore and (dare I say ultra?) distances to cover. So much more to learn.

I can’t freaking wait.

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