Trail Running, and why I keep doing it, even though I sort of hate it.


It’s that time of year again. The lights are twinkling on the Riverwalk. Around the country calendars are filling, credit cards are swiping and ovens are baking. Yes, it’s that time of year.

Training season. I feel it in my fingers…more though, I feel it in my toes.

I have learned a lot from marathons. People say, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” referring to the important things in life that require wisdom and endurance. That long, slow muscular burn of pushing forward through pain and monotony with eyes toward the far off goal. Marathons are supposed to be metaphors for life.

Last year, in a stroke of masochistic brilliance, Lewis and I signed up for the Big Bend Ultra Run 50K. Fifty kilometers across the Chihuahuan high desert. I’m never doing that again.

This is about the moment I vowed never to do this again.
This is me explaining to Lewis and our friend, Colin, how I’ve vowed never to do this again.

But apparently I’m still crazy enough to hazard the 25K, as though I was having a good time at the 25K mark in last year’s race.  I wasn’t. But this year I have a plan. I’m going to train on terrain that is tougher than the race course. (Cue dramatic music)

Which is how we found ourselves, the Saturday after Thanksgiving 8 miles into a 9 mile trail run at Government Canyon State Natural Area, with daylight light waning around us, and me…whining.

The reader should here note that Lewis was made for trail running. His ligaments are like something manufactured by Nickelodeon, and he’s built like a white-tail deer, also a good trail running species. Lewis didn’t complain once during the 50K.

To begin my first truly challenging day of technical trail training, we headed off on a broad, fairly solid trail, Joe Johnston Route, and started loping deeper into the park, passing hikers of various shapes and sizes, feeling confident and sure-footed. Nature! Fresh air! Glorious!

I’m about to start waxing poetic in my head when I heard it.

“Pllleeeeease, Daddddy!!! I’m sooooo tiiiiirrred! Pick me uuuupppp!”

Not far up the trail, we passed a father and his three daughters. Eldest daughter was happily tromping along, swinging her arms and bossing middle daughter who was skipping to keep up. About ten feet behind them was dad, with youngest daughter hanging from his arm, dragging her feet across the gravel. Wailing.

“Puh-lea-ea-ea-ease, pleeeease pleeease, Daddyyyyyy. I’m so ti-i-i-irrrred! Pleeeease, please can we stop?”

Dad had employed his masculine superpower of selective hearing and was staring blankly ahead at the trail while the 50 pound shrieking deadweight dangling from his right arm caused him to jerk sideways every few steps and limp a little. Clearly having the time of his life.

I knew I had just seen a premonition.

Soon we turned left onto Caroline’s Loop. For two and a half miles we alternated between swishy grass, steep rockslides, and a few yards here and there of basic mixed-media trail. No segment was longer than a tenth of a mile though, which meant that any hope of getting into a stride was gone.

I’m a big believer in zen running. I can run marathons for exactly the same reason that, as a child, I could play with my shoes for an hour. I’m just really good at doing the same thing for a long time.

But trail running is not doing the same thing for a long time. Part of its attraction to some—more active minds, I guess— is that it is engaging and challenging. It requires strategy, like Battleship and chess.

I cry when I play chess.

Caroline’s Loop ended and we had a choice. Unfortunately it ended on a lovely soft downhill, and I was feeling confident and determined to stick to the plan we’d laid out back at the beginning. Back at the car. Back at the pavement. So instead of prudently turning back onto Joe Johnston Route, as Lewis lobbied to do, we turned onto Little Windmill, and charged deeper into the thickness.

The reason I keep trying to trail run is because of images I have in my mind of the lithe and wile Native Americans dashing through the forest. Or a graceful doe darting through the trees.

Instead I am 90% certain that with each footfall, I felt my brain tissue come into contact with some part of my skull. Because of uneven topography and the general wobbliness of it all, whatever muscle control is usually devoted to stabilizing, say, my cervical vertebrae, was devoted to keeping my ankles from rolling out from under me.

On the pavement I’m so quiet, people often comment on it as I whisk past them. “Oh! You came out of nowhere!” one woman shouted.

On the trail, I’m like a dinosaur crashing through the Jurassic flora. I’m pretty sure my footprints will be studied by the archaeologists of future eons. Not that leaving tracks is all bad. We got lost at one point, and Lewis literally did have to go find a set of my tracks to figure out where we’d been.

The final push was down a long trail called Sendero Balcones. These were the final miles, and suddenly, as we began the same infuriating stop-start irregular gait of earlier stretches of trail, I felt my inner self begin to tug on my right hand.

“Bekah! I’m tired!” the little curly-headed fiend whined.

I ignored her. Press on. You’re strong. You’re fueled.

The trail moves into a climb, and I’m sending a shower of rocks behind me as I scrape my way up the hill.

“Beekaaaaah,” Inner Me stamps her little foot and yanks my hand, “Puh-leeease can we stoooop? Puh-lease? I’m tiiiiirrrrred.”

Shut up, kid. I’m a graceful doe!

All is well for about a quarter mile until the spine crunching descent down a limestone shelf. With each step the ground wobbles and the following maneuver looks more and more like I’m dodging bullets than moving in a forward direction.

Inner Me looks up with watery, pitiful eyes, draws a deep breath and lets out a psyche shattering wail.

The last mile I’m dragging Inner Me along by her sweaty little hand while she hangs from my arm like an octopus. My head hurts, my toenails feel like they are ripped from their beds, and my hips are on fire from the lateral motions.

As we reached the flat, wide final path back to the parking lot, we slowed to a walk and I completed my first full thought of the entire run.

Road racing is not a metaphor for life. Trail running is.

In a road race, it’s me and the goal. The focus is on form and speed and progress toward the goal. It’s neat and orderly and for miles at a time I can process thoughts through to their completion. But the reason that this is such a treat, why the zen of running is so precious, is that the rest of life is nothing like that. The rest of life is interruptions, stops, restarts, changes, uncertainty, adjustment, and stumbling. The rest of life is a trail run.

Just when one terrain starts to even out, we round the bend and a new challenge awaits. We have to be ready to leap forward from wobbly place to wobbly place without the footing we think we need. Life, at best, is a series of zen moments interrupted by all that is beautiful and hazardous in the world. People, passions, opportunities, mistakes.

I want to be good at that kind of messy life, just like I want to be able to nimbly skip across the most treacherous terrain of West Texas and the Hill Country.

So if nothing else, I am going to keep learning to trail run in hope that as my ankles, hips, and feet get more agile, that I will gain from trails a new kind of mental toughness, with the added ability to change gears more gracefully.

Either that, or Inner Me is in for a rough eight weeks.