It is inevitable in the sport of trail and ultra running that we are asked, “Why?” Often times the quipped reply comes out as, “Why not?” Or “Because I can.” But in truth, it doesn’t always have much to do with the run itself, but the storied past that leads up to it, and the brave choice to get up and step forward again and again. In order to understand the ‘why’ of any “extreme” athlete, we have to focus on their stories.
I will never forget one poignant moment late in the summer of 2015. I was a few miles into a solo run in the foothills North of Salt Lake City. I’m not the strongest runner on my best days, but I had gotten clearance to start running again after six weeks in bed following emergency surgery, and I was already camping in the pain cave. I had spent that six weeks bouncing between grateful to be alive and wishing I hadn’t survived, until I slipped heavily into emotional numbness. I was in that place in the run where I was going through the phases. You know the phases: ‘I hate running. Why the heck am I doing this to myself? This hurts, why does it hurt? I really suck at this! I am never running again. I quit. Today.’ The next thought plopped down in my mind like a wizened old man.
I get to choose this struggle.
Suddenly, I got it. I hadn’t had a choice the year before when my ankle had shattered in a rock climbing accident. I hadn’t had a choice when serious health issues had popped up and I’d needed surgery to save my life. It was such a luxury to get to choose my struggle. I chose this run. And I have chosen each run since. The perspective earned on every run, and every crew job and aid station has gotten me through so much more life since then. After my first major injury, I was devastated that I might disappear from my trail family and be forgotten. I wasn’t. The Trail and Ultra Running team was at my bedside before my doctor was. I crewed friends – on crutches. I volunteered at aid stations and finish lines. The connections made in this fantastic running community have been key to my quality of mental health and life. I share this small portion of my own story because it has taught me that I’m not the only one. Stories are everywhere if we are willing to stand as witnesses to them.
When I first stepped into the trail and ultra running world, it wasn’t for the sport. It was the people – the community that drew me in, and I think I can safely say that I’m not alone in that. I adore trail and ultra runners. With time spent manning aid stations, crewing friends and strangers, and running alongside so many, I have begun to know their stories. This sport of ours is raw. Some would say it’s brutal. It pushes us to our limits and strips us down to our barest, most real selves. I’ve tended blistered soles, helped grown men and women eat, held their hands as they shook and cried, and laughed through my own tears as they crossed finish lines. Personal histories tend to spill out like hidden waterfalls over long shared miles. Strangers become confidants. Our battles and victories belong to each other. The only thing that has amazed me more than the strength and fortitude that it takes for each runner to finish the race, is the strength and fortitude it took them to get to the starting line. Be it injury, addiction, abuse, heartbreak, or mental illness, it’s often the things that we have overcome that have led us to the run. We know we aren’t training for split times, we are training for life.
It is striking how often these stories find me, in suddenly candid conversations. Striking how so many contain admissions of longtime struggles with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and a host of other mental disorders. I believe that I get to witness them because I’m not shy about my own daily battles. I’m not ashamed of my brain chemistry, and I openly discuss my long quest to both repair it and to love myself through it. I’ve unwittingly become a safe space. This humble position has given me a heart-wrenchingly beautiful view of this running community. It has woken me up to a huge percentage of trail and ultra runners for whom the sport is not merely sport, it is meditation, therapy, empowerment, connection and belonging that in our fast-paced and increasingly digital world, we are starving for.
When we share the chosen struggle, we’re more likely to stand together through the unchosen ones.
The conversation about personal stories, vulnerability, and mental health is opening quickly, and the message in our sport is clear- trail and ultra running is about far more than physical fitness. It is about self-care, mental wellness, and caring for each other. It’s about a powerful community- a community full of humble warriors and quiet heroes, whose love affair with the long run has become a sanity-saving exercise in perspective.