Trail Running Made Me Feel Like a Beginner in a Sport That I Felt Like I’d Mastered

Photo: Getty/Blend Images/Michael DeYoung
I felt as though I was barely moving. I wanted to stop. I most definitely wanted to cry. The original invitation to participate in an all-ladies run camp in Ibiza sounded like a dream: Run through beautiful landscapes, learn how to properly recover, connect with other like-minded women. Check, check, check—I was down for all of it. Fast forward a month later, and there I was, alone, and running to the soundtrack of my breath in the steep, rocky Spanish mountains.

It wasn’t as though I wasn’t prepared. Roughly five days a week at home, I start my day on foot. I’m a seven-time marathoner, including last year’s Boston, which was all sorts of apocalyptic with 20-to-30 mile-per-hour headwinds and a windchill in the 20s. Those 26.2 miles were arguably the hardest that I've ever earned, and they instilled in me that I can accomplish anything that I set my mind to.

Yet, mentally on a 64-degree day with the sun shining down, I felt as though I was back on Heartbreak Hill. With inclines topping anything I’d ever tackled on a treadmill at Equinox, I had fallen behind the leaders of our group, but managed to stay ahead of the back of the pack. Even though I'd been on trail runs before, it was nothing like the task at hand. The views surrounding me were stunning, but I felt my chest getting tighter with each stride. Every single time I had a small downhill and reprieve, another hill would stand in my path.

Turns out what was going on was that I was feeling overloaded, and not just by the terrain. “Often trail running is more demanding mechanically to start with, as there are many more changes in physical environment which place more demand on the muscles, joints, and connective tissue,” says Mike Watts, senior manager of athlete performance and physiology at Under Armour. Watts goes on to explain that every activity involves a different cognitive load—or memory resources. While I was good at running on pavement, I hadn’t experienced a lot of the mental processing that goes hand-in-hand with braving mountains.

“Due to the constant changes in surface and environment, more concentration is required which places more demand on the central nervous system, in addition to the physical trials at hand. It’s a different proposition altogether,” he says. So, when I laced up my, that we were testing that

I was taxed, for sure, but every time I almost got super worked up, I knew it wouldn’t get me to the finish line (and post-run massage to follow). With every step forward in my Hovr Infinites ($120), the shoe that the group was testing that day, I wondered how I could be so frustrated with my chosen sport. With every step, I was rethinking everything I knew about running. My form. My stride. My feet. My knee drive. My follow through.

In the last mile, it hit me: it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to be messy, but show up anyway. This is one run, and one blip of time. It's one chance to learn something about myself that I may never have learned were I not on this mountain. I started to feel more confident, my pace quickening a bit. I started to think about the new challenges that lie ahead for me: So you’re already a decent marathoner, I thought, and maybe this is the next frontier.

With a half-mile left to go, I saw the leaders of the pack in front of me, coming back my way after making a wrong turn. We ran together, toward the endpoint with cheers and cold water awaiting us down the path. For most of those seven miles of trail, I ran a race against my mind, but I finished together with four women on a similar mission to my own.

“Most of what makes us happy or satisfied with any new opportunity is a function of our expectations,” says Don Vaughn, PhD, a neuroscience postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. When I explained to Dr. Vaughn that I felt—even temporarily—that I had failed, he told me not to be so hard on myself. “You expect yourself to be really good, and when the reality hits that different sports or different versions of the same sport require different mental strategies, it can be very demotivating.” If things don’t go as I hope and I feel as though something’s wrong with me, remember that I’m doing my best. “Nothing’s wrong with you. It’s new territory," he says. "Remember: The best thing you can do is manage your expectations.”

BTW: Here are the running shoes that you might want to add to your collection and this is how to get back into running if you've taken a break for a bit.

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