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.

Craving Simplicity

I often start my runs without a set distance in mind. I’ll pick a range, say eight to 10 miles, and make a game-time decision before the turnaround point. I’m also a creature of habit, treading the same handful of routes without experiencing an ounce of boredom.

A week or so ago, I set out for my weekly long run. It had recently snowed and the trail was an obstacle course of melting snow and mud. Despite it being midday, the overcast sky had a purple, dusk-like feel, which blended into the blanketed white grassland. I had the trail to myself, save for a prairie dog scurrying across the path here and there. And because I’m a firm believer in running without music, my breaths and the crunching snow beneath my feet were the soundtrack.

At first, I figured I’d bail at the four-mile mark—eight miles were more than enough in the tough terrain. But within steps of pulling the u-ey, it hit me. Despite my slowed pace, this run felt borderline euphoric. Here I was, leaving a path of footprints through a stunning snowy landscape, lost in my thoughts yet finely tuned into my body. I suck at formal meditation, but this felt like my own form of meditation. So I pressed on for another mile with a renewed sense of purpose, yearning to prolong this sensation for a few more minutes. Hello, ten miles and an unexpected runner’s high.

These days, since I still don’t have a formal race on the calendar, running has served as a mental escape, a quiet break from all things digital. I started my first job as an RN just over a month ago (which I absolutely LOVE!), so running in the fresh air with the birds chirping balances out full days spent indoors with call bells buzzing haphazardly. And the hour or so spent on the gravel unglues me from my phone (thank goodness).

I can’t say I spend the time thinking about anything in particular nor am I working through the minutiae of my last shift. If anything, I’m constantly assessing how I feel — Does my breathing feel relaxed or strained with the altitude? Do my legs feel springy and fit or is yesterday’s 12-hour shift still weighing them down? Why do I feel warm but my thumbs still feel like ice cubes?

Throughout my life as a runner, my runs have served many purposes. They’ve erased stressed and maintained my sanity. They’ve inspired me to push myself to new heights and allowed me to connect with others. These days, they feel like a routine cleansing of my mind. It feels good to focus on how it feels to just move and breathe. It’s almost as if, after three years of the sheer insanity that was changing careers, my mind is craving simplicity.

 

Going (Way) Off The Beaten Path

IMG_6076Running. For the past four years, nearly every aspect of my life revolved around running. My job at Runner’s World magazine meant 40+ hours a week of writing, reading, tweeting, and talking about running. My friends? All runners. When I wasn’t at work, chances were good that I was running or recovering from a run.

Was a life consumed by running a bad thing? Heck no. Most of it was amazing.

But here’s the catch. That lifestyle—one that might seem idealistic for most, one that I once dreamt of living—slowly began to unravel. In part, I realized that in some ways, aspects of the gig at RW (and the publishing world, in general) simply didn’t fit my personality. To fall back on a cliche, many days it felt like I was trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. (I’ll save you the gritty details.) It wasn’t helping that the industry has been crashing harder than marathoners at mile 20. (Again, I’ll save you a few thousand words worth of venting on that subject.)

After more than a year of trying to fit said square peg into the round hole, I began considering other options. I wanted to do something meaningful, something worthwhile, something that makes an impact on others, something stable and that allows me to live anywhere, and maybe most importantly, something different.

Late last year, my thoughts began to shift away from all things running to thinking long and hard about going back to school to become a Registered Nurse. (Side note: My boyfriend is an incredible RN at a local ER. Needless to say, he’s pretty darn inspiring.) I knew that meant taking on a year’s worth of prerequisite classes followed by another year-and-a-half of nursing school, not to mention more student loans and putting full-time work on hold for three years.

Yikes.

But deep down, that wildly different path felt like the right one. Terrifying? Uhh, yeah! Exciting? Absolutely.

The decision was underscored by the fact that my position at RW was unexpectedly eliminated in January. Yes, the news stung, mostly because I knew I would miss seeing (and running with) the crew that had become my second family every day. But it didn’t take long for me to realize the drastic change of pace would be a blessing in disguise.

After two months, I’ve settled into a wholly different kind of normal. And with a new goal of becoming an RN clearly in focus—even though its finish line is nearly three years away—I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. My days are spent taking classes (to my surprise, I’m actually enjoying learning, in the formal sense, again!), working a part-time gig, and doing some freelance work.

I’m still running. I doubt that part of me will ever change. It keeps me sane. But these days, I’m doing it 100% on my own terms. No pressure. I run when I want, the distance determined by my mood and/or motivation level for any given day. I don’t beat myself up if I haven’t logged what I’d usually consider an “acceptable” amount of miles each week. I’ve also started weight-lifting again. Yes, this girl can finally do more than two push ups for once.

I also haven’t toed a starting line since the New York City Marathon in November. And I don’t have any plans to run a race, much less put effort into earnestly training for one, any time soon. Having absolutely nothing on my calendar has been freeing, especially after running competitively for years and then making the brilliant decision to cram 10 marathons into three years. I’m patiently waiting for the inspiration to sign up for a race to come along. I don’t care how long it takes.

(Oh, and did I mention how stoked I was to get the May issue of RW in the mail and read it cover to cover with fresh eyes?)

So where does all this leave me? Well, now that I’m not writing on the reg, I want to officially brush off the layers of dust that have accumulated on this blog over the past two years and start writing here again. I can’t say what I’ll write about or how often I’ll post. But I’m craving a return to this outlet, nonetheless.

Anybody game to follow me on this new journey (way) off the beaten path?

 

Does Free-Bleeding During a Marathon Really Help Women?

Before you read this post, I want to start by saying that I don’t actually have strong feelings about Kiran Gandhi’s free-bleeding London Marathon. I really don’t. More power to her for doing what she wants with her body and shedding some light on important issues. That said, I wanted to voice the opinion of how Gandhi may’ve missed the mark on this one. Most women I’ve spoken to about this have reacted with “Ewww…why?” but the majority of news outlets have framed the story differently. I don’t disagree with the coverage, but I don’t fully agree either. Here’s my perspective. I am totally open to other opinions. Did I miss the mark?  

On the morning of my goal race, the Marine Corps Marathon, I got my period. Crap, I thought. By no means an ideal situation. But I lined up and ran my race. I wasn’t about to put four months of early-morning long runs to waste because of my period.

I ended up running a PR, and it was awesome. That’s not to say I wasn’t doubled over with stomach pain afterward. That part wasn’t so awesome. I was still pumped that I’d run my fastest marathon ever given the circumstances.

So when I read about Kiran Gandhi, a 26-year-old who ran the London Marathon free-bleeding, I was a little confused. On her blog, she says she got her period the night before race day, and she was afraid that running with a tampon could be uncomfortable. During her months of training for this marathon, had she never run wearing a tampon or pad? That seemed nearly impossible.

But it was more than that. She writes that she viewed this as an opportunity to raise awareness for women in developing countries who don’t have access to sanitary products or live in countries where having your period is considered tabboo. I do applaud Gandhi for bringing to light those issues. They need to be addressed. But you can still be an excellent example of a woman who can finish her first marathon while on her period without literally bleeding down your leg.

Gandhi goes on to say that women shouldn’t have to hide their periods, saying the fact that women can’t talk about their periods openly—regardless of where they live—is a problem that needs fixing. Gandhi seems to think her act was a way to “transcend oppression” and to “run a marathon in whatever way you want. On the marathon course, sexism can be beaten. Where the stigma of a woman’s period is irrelevant, and we can re-write the rules as we choose.

“As I ran, I thought to myself about how women and men have both been effectively socialized to pretend periods don’t exist,” she added in her blog. “By establishing a norm of period-shaming, [male-preferring] societies effectively prevent the ability to bond over an experience that 50 percent of us in the human population share monthly.”

Since when did wearing a tampon become a symbol of oppression?

The fact that she brought up the issue in such a blunt manner only perpetuates the stigma of getting your period—yes, it’s gross, yes, it’s uncomfortable. But most women just deal with it. And why wouldn’t we? Isn’t that the point? Having to manage a totally natural, albeit annoying, bodily function and still be able to tackle the marathon proves we, as women, are pretty badass, right? Isn’t that the message we want to send to countries who ostracize women during their periods?

During my marathon, I did my best to channel other women I knew who had raced—and raced well—while on their periods. Paula Radcliffe broke the world marathon record while enduring period cramps. In college, I witnessed one of my teammates, who always seemed to get her period during big meet weekends, overcome debilitating cramps to go and win her races.

Not to mention other runners don’t want to look at it. It’s unhygienic and in some ways, disrespectful to the other runners. We’d rather not watch someone vomit during a race, but it happens. That’s not controllable. Containing your period is.

Just because it’s a thing only women get doesn’t mean we should share it with the world. In this case, hiding it is absolutely OK. This is why we have bathroom stalls. Sure, I might feel embarrassed to have it leak onto my pants, but who wouldn’t? I’m proud and amazed that my body has the ability to do what it does. If dealing with my period once a month allows me to one day have babies, that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. And I’m beyond grateful that I live in a world where tampons and menstrual cups and super-absorbent pads exist. Those things enable me to run.

I feel like there are much more important topics to address in regards to sexism. (Equal pay, anyone?) Managing my period isn’t one of them.

(Also, the fact that I’m totally OK writing about this private matter in public proves we’ve at least made some progress toward advancing women and women runners.)