Tag Archives: trail running

The Disease, the Parasite, of Doubt

(and how I beat it, this time)

It has been a l-o-n-g hiatus from running for me because of an injury with complications. After a tough, teary-eyed session with my physical therapist last week, however, I think l’ve turned a corner. You may think it’s hokey, but that emotional release during treatment might have been just what my body needed to finally let go of the injury and truly begin to heal. Today, I ran my first mile in over two months. It was slow, deliberately so, and I walked another 1.8 miles after that, but it felt sooooo good to be moving in a way that is much a part of who and what I am.

The next steps are going to require a lot of patience. I am anxious to start running and training, as I have some big plans for next year. First, I plan to run a difficult trail marathon in May. A month later, I will run a tough forty-miler in the same gorge as the marathon, a new race that already has a reputation for being a killer event. After that, I have a solo fifty-miler planned in the fall. For someone who doesn’t race much, this is a packed schedule.

Following some good advice from a recent podcast, I’ve chosen the trail marathon to be my A race. That leaves me a tad over four months of training, so long as my ankle recovers properly. For now, I will just keep rehabbing and rebuilding my base, focusing on heart rate recovery and bringing my body back into balance.

One important take-away I’ve learned from working with my therapist is that my notions of what is and isn’t right for my body are correct, and I should stop doubting myself. I was beginning to see myself as a failure because I wasn’t getting “back out there” fast enough. I wasn’t taping up and gritting through pain to complete a heavy session, and it seemed like everything I’d been reading was saying I should. Or, at least, that I should have been out there much earlier than what my body seemed to be telling me.

This sort of thing had me asking myself, “Am I really able to be this kind of athlete?” I couldn’t help but feel that I had no right to set such expectations for myself. Maybe I am not a true ultra trail runner. Maybe I’m not good for anything beyond mediocre. Perhaps I’ve just been kidding myself, thinking I had the ability within me to do amazing stuff.


Even as I write, those lines above make me feel sick and knotted inside, like I’ve allowed a parasite or disease to enter my body. I’ve felt this disease before. It’s the same one that tried to convince me I’d never succeed at college, or learn a language, or be worthy of wonderful relationships. It’s the sickly look from others who judged me even before I had a chance to try, like the high school English teacher who once said to me, “I know you,” in a way that meant, “I know what a good-for-nothing you are; you won’t succeed and you can’t be trusted.”

Well, I am not going to let that disease take hold. I am not going to let that parasite in.

I believe that is why I cried last week. I struggled with that same doubt, and I made it through, this time.

There will be more times like it, I’m sure, but for now, I am looking forward, believing I can do some amazing things.

I give myself permission to go for it.


I Don’t Fit the Box

Running, I am slow. After moving to a new region, I find I am slower still. New surroundings, more road, still adjusting.

I miss my home.

To be sure, there are wonderful things about this move.

I have my family, including two dogs, for whom this move was made. I have neighbors who all seem to be terrific people. I once again have a yard to putter around in. The area around my home is also very pretty.


There is no wild.

My spaces are limited; tamed trails trapped by property and roadways, with nothing to fear except humans, whom I rarely encountered before. Oddly, I fear them more than wild dogs, rock slides, and boar (can you blame me?).

Without the element of wild, there’s a beauty missing.

I don’t feel I belong here. I am trying but I do not yet feel connected.

The same goes for my professional life.

There, in my former home, I was connected. It was hard work: intellectually, emotionally, and sometimes even physically challenging. 

My life’s history had meaning there. People saw it and connected.

Here, people see the history and don’t connect. They can’t fit me into the right boxes.

Overqualified here, title not quite right there. Certified, yes, but not exactly in this state’s way or with that exact stamp.

Interviews happen with comments like “Impressive,” and “Well, you certainly have a lot of experience.” These, I have come to realize, are code for “You don’t fit.”

Perhaps the only box I fit is the one labeled “Other”?

Maybe so. Maybe so.

The loss I feel…

The loss, I feel…

…is theirs.

(as you may have guessed, I’ve moved. Same country, new continent. It has not yet been a month.)

Pushing the Boundaries, MY Boundaries

I am not a celebrated runner. Heck, I don’t even race much. Ever since I was a kid, however, running through the woods behind my elementary school and hopping rocks and running paths in parks around suburban Philadelphia, I’ve been a trail runner. Even when years of debilitating migraines kept me from running, my joy was always to be out in the woods or on a prairie path, walking. After turning my life around by changing my lifestyle, In my late thirties I found I was able to run again. What a joy of rediscovery that was, and what an empowering experience to know that my physical ailments did not have to rule my life.

When I started running again, I didn’t have many trails to run. I was living in a foreign country, in the city of Hiroshima, Japan. While in Japan, I was keenly aware of my position as an outsider, a female, and a mother. There were behaviors that I perceived to be the norm for those roles, and running was not one of them. At the time, in that city, women just did not exercise outdoors. Especially women my age, and certainly not foreigners. I was intimidated by custom and my perception of social expectations. I did manage to find some paths to plod, running along the river or in the Shukkeien Garden near my home. When it came to being in real wilderness, however, I never ran, and never went alone. Always, I was with family.

After that came our move to China, and that is where my running became a more serious endeavor. There was a lot of treadmill running at the start, as the city where we lived, Chongqing, is pretty polluted. Still, in a place surrounded by mountains and mist, how could I not explore? I started by running the city, exploring side streets, then running through a sports park where people would watch me through the fences, as you had to pay 2 yuan to get in. Next came Pipa Shan, a small peak right in the middle of the city, filled with old men playing their erhus or playing chess while their birds sang in cages, and grandmothers walking with their grand babies or carrying their washing or whatever they shopped for on their backs. There were the trails in the park behind the university I attended, where I met a family who showed me how to catch, fry and eat cicadas, and another small mountain as well, a supposed botanical park, on the top of which was a small makeshift village. I would run through that and people would laugh and smile and point, commenting loudly about the white woman running down the dirt street. They were always polite and I loved stopping to chat now and again.

Gradually, as my running expanded, my experiences with people and myself expanded as well. In each new place I visited, each new country I lived, I started with something small, a circle or straight distance that was well-defined, safe, and predictable. Even on vacation, I’d start that way. Walk the city and decide, “okay, tomorrow I’ll just run here,” but then the next day, push the distance even further. Read the maps and envision. Settle the butterflies and decide to go just a few blocks more.

I think back on these times and am filled with wonder at the places my running has taken me. There are other countries and other paths, from cities to mountains to beaches. The wonder is not so much about where I ran, however, as it is that I managed to do it at all. You see, I was not a very outgoing or confident person. I was really quite shy, unsure of myself, and downright afraid of doing something new on my own. I still am in some ways, but I am nowhere near where I used to be. Running changed that for me.

I reminisce because a few weeks ago, a woman posted a question on a Facebook running forum I subscribe to. How do people get over there fear to run trails alone? She wanted to desperately, but couldn’t figure out how to conquer her fear. People posted helpful advice, the most common of which was, “just run.” That’s all fine and dandy, but when you are as timid as I was, and possibly living in a new place, “just run” is advice that doesn’t cut it. The fear paralyzes a person. It paralyzed me. It took a lot of effort and soul searching and thinking about what to do before I could break through the wall that kept me bound.

As I read that woman’s post, I thought about how to answer. What could I tell her about my experience? For me, learning to run alone is about a gradual expansion of boundaries, from running what is close and familiar to taking a new turn one day and sticking with it for a few weeks, then taking another and adding that to the mix. Little by little, the familiar ground widens, and every little trial on that ground helps boost my confidence that I can overcome similar situations in new territory.

When I thought about my answer to her, I realized that this advice did not only reflect my experience on the trail, but it reflected an experience I was having with myself. Each bout of butterflies in my stomach and the subsequent joy that came from setting those butterflies free made me more sure of myself, more confident in my own judgment. I could do this, because I’d proven mile by mile – sometimes just half-mile by half-mile – that I had faced my fear and succeeded before. Surely a half-mile more wouldn’t be so bad. Little by little, the half-mile becomes 2, then 5, then 10. And I discover there is more in me of courage and strength than I realized.

I know there are others who would look at my runs and think they were nothing compared to the amazing adventures and distances they’ve explored. I know there are others who would see the pace of my self-expansion as way too slow for them. For me, however, it’s perfect. Whether it’s my own hometown or one of the many places I’ve been to around the world, taking the time to expand my physical boundaries has helped me to broaden the limits even within myself.

I say to you, woman, go at your pace, add inches or miles, but move forward. You will find so much more than distance.


WHAT A beautiful fall day. I was going to run today in the forest near my home, but a change of plans (happens frequently when one moves to and tries to settle in to a different country) meant a walk through the woods with my dogs instead. The change of plans happened for a reason, I now know, and I’ll explain that later.

I used to be jealous of all of you who get to run in beautiful places and forest trails that go on for miles. For various reasons, I was often limited to the trails in the city parks that dot the landscape in and around my old town in Michigan, USA. I appreciated them, but not enough! I realized that by connecting them with short road sections, I could easily put in 20 miles of terrific running, with short, steep hills, wildlife, and natural beauty.

I live now in Russia, just outside the beltway around Moscow. It is flat – flatter than Michigan! – and, well, populated. Here, very, very few people run, especially women. The only place I have seen women running is at one sports park I sometimes run to and in the little international enclave in which I live. Light joggers, mostly. A fellow, newly-arrived American and I are trying to create a group to run/walk in the morning once a week, but so far, there isn’t any interest.

It has been tough, a little. I don’t have a car. A sweaty female in running shorts on the Metro or the bus attracts a lot of stares. Heck, a female on the road running at all attracts a lot of stares. I’m used to the road stares – I have experienced that before in other places I’ve lived – but the Metro and the bus leave me a bit uncomfortable. For that reason, most of my runs take place in parks that I can, well, run to. They are nice, but they are small, often paved, or the trails are in no way technical. SIGH – I miss my old town!

There is one big potential though: in my backyard, there exists a huge national forest. To enter it, I have to knock on the guard’s door to pass through the gate. I have to have a pass if I want to return the same way. The terrain isn’t hilly or too technical yet, but I have only explored perhaps a 10 mile area so far. I need to move further in.

At first, I was nervous to even try because it is easy to get lost (very!) and there have been incidents of wild dog attacks. I was warned about groups of wanderers making camp there, and certainly, I have come across abandoned encampments during a couple runs. For a time, these warnings had me thinking that my one salvation, this forest called Krasnogorsky, was going to be off limits. Without language skills, without a map (haven’t found one yet), and on my own, the idea of running far in that forest seemed pretty daunting. I was, honestly, quite depressed.

I don’t know when it was exactly – perhaps one evening as I faced the forest from across the lake, soaking in the seemingly endless horizon of beautiful shades of pine and oak green, birch white, and deep shadows – but I just determined to not let the warnings and fears control my need to be free and run. The warnings were from people who are not trail runners, or even runners at all. They don’t know what I have learned so far. It seems to me that many people limit themselves with expressions of fear and danger in order to avoid putting forth energy to move outside their normal lives. I don’t want to be like that. That person, for me, was put to rest a long time ago.

As I’ve been exploring, I find it interesting that my real nervousness does not come from the forest, but from running in the city. I have to run along a few industrial roads to get to some parks. I face a good number of men while I am alone on a trail or pathway, aware that for some cultures, a woman acting outside the normal constructs of femininity is fair game for abuse, as she must obviously be a bit brazen to begin with. These places make me more nervous than being alone in the forest, though I have to admit, I have met some real gentlemen as well, including the man who insisted on fixing my bike pedal when I lost the nut and the pedal fell off. He did not speak a word of English and I could understand only a minute amount of his Russian. His help enabled me to get back home, though, safely.

So, once again, I am learning that my fears are not necessarily justified. Each day, in fact, sees an expansion of the sphere in which I exist. The forest is beautiful and, I hope, one day I’ll be able to run 20 miles there. Meeting people on the street really helps one to get to know the area, even though it also a bit scary at times. Often, it is simply my old self wanting to find ways to hold me back. I won’t let it.

The rewards to my determination are perhaps small to some people, but significant to me. I now believe I can train well enough, so I have signed up for the The Wall Ultramarathon in England next June, a 69 mile race along Hadrian’s Wall. I think the terrain here around Moscow will be perfect for that. I won’t do the marathon, but I will run the 10k portion of the Moscow Peace Marathon on September 21 (road race).

And, even better, though I haven’t found much interest in a running group, I just got a call from a woman who responded to a note I put up on a bulletin board, asking if anyone would be interested in running trails with me. She is a runner from Sweden, I believe. Because my plans had gotten changed, she and I are able to start tomorrow.

My first ever running partner. Yes, I’d say I’m beginning to find my way.

Lessons from Adventuring in a Foreign Forest – Run Report

This summer has been an exhausting whirlwind of move preparation, international visitors, and selling our home. My last days in the U.S. ended with a car crash due to exhaustion (I did not hit anyone, thankfully, and I was fine too), sending my dogs off on their week-long journey to get to our new home, a wedding, and finally, a few days at the beach. I barely had time to process the fact that I was moving to a new country, a new culture and a new language. It didn’t really hit me until I was on the plane and there was no turning back.

One thing I did continue to think about, however, was the area we were moving to. It is in a region outside Moscow, near a national forest named after the provincial town, Krasnogorsk. With all the work I was doing, I had little time to run far, and so I spent a good deal of time looking forward and visualizing what the forest would be like. We were to be living in a gated community and I would have limited access to a car, so I was envisioning and holding the image of the forest as my key to freedom while living in our new compound – uh – home.    

          photo-1         image       photo

Then, the other day, the shoe dropped. I was told by a Muscovite that this particular forest was dangerous. There are encampments of homeless people and packs of wild dogs. He himself had been attacked there once. He suggested that I run in those woods only if I have a partner, for safety.

As I know very few runners who run the way or do or who even like trails, I figured I was screwed. Fat chance I’d be able to get anyone to come with me, I thought. The guards already thought I was crazy when I went for a short run there last week, just after arriving. Now I knew why.

I can’t tell you how sad and disappointed I was. I have been trying to visualize my training for an 80-100k race next year (narrowed the choices but have not completely decided on which one), and images of running each morning from my home through Krasnogorsky were quite vivid. Moreover, it is the only forest area easily accessible without a car. Moscow has many beautiful parks, but they are not wild, and they require a bus, metro, and additional running to get to. How was I going to make this work?

I was pretty deflated for about a day, but deep inside, I knew I was not going to let the threat of dogs or people keep me from the run. Moreover, the forest is huge, and it was likely that the safer area was on the eastern side, where my neighborhood lay. I shouldn’t allow fear to keep me from exploring just a little. I woke this moning with the intention of running just a half hour within the woods, then continuing in the neighborhood. I would stick to main trails, stay as straight as possible, bring my gps watch, and take pictures at any juncture I came across.

Things went well the first 15-20 minutes. The woods were pretty and the terrain a little hillier and more technical on the south part than on the north part, which I had explored last week. I was on high alert for dogs, but did not come across anything except a pig. At least, it looked a bit like a pig and squealed like a pig, but I’m not sure if wild pigs are supposed to be up there. Perhaps it was something else.

When my time was up, I turned back to head home. Despite my attention, I must have missed a turn and found myself quite lost.   A myriad of pathways criss-crossed each other in all directions, and even with the photos, there were too many that looked alike.   I doubled back but could not find the path I needed to take. It was then that I discovered that my awesome (sarcasm intended) gps watch had stopped tracking for some reason, and did not know where I was. So much for European quality – ha!

I had to be back by 10 am.


Fortunately, I had my new phone with me. The iPhone map feature is not all that great, but after a little creative work on the address, I got a general sense of where I wanted to be and began to head towards it. I was wrong at first and so found myself heading in the direction of a different town than mine, but eventually, I realized my mistake and set my steps in a direction to a place on the map that looked more like where I wanted to be. It worked, and 1.5 hours later, I made it back. The guard was worried, he said (or at least, I think that’s what he said), and was happy to see me. I even got home on time.

When I think about it, it wasn’t all that far out or dangerous. I did see encampments – empty ones. I did hear dogs, but not near me. I did see the pig, but he wasn’t the large boar I’ve seen in pictures. He was about half the size. And I’ve encountered them before. I did have pepper spray, and I did have my phone.

Being lost in the forest of a foreign country, however, where one does not yet know the language with the potential for attack by dogs or (worse) people – wow! Were my senses every on high alert! Finding home felt like a major triumph.

I will most definitely go back there, but next time, I will rely on lessons learned and, instead of just technology, I will use a compass and mark my coordinates. I will bring something to mark my turns (there are large “Vs” painted in red, but they mean to point out any number of exits from the woods, not just my particular location), and always, always, always, carry a weapon of some kind. If I can find a partner, that would be even better.

Here’s to adventure and freedom. Despite the risks, these things are so worth it. 

Why I run ultra

(this post is in response to a question asked by a fellow member of the Facebook forum, Trail and Ultra Running)

I love trail running, I always have. I love dancing over rocks and dips, scrambling over trees and fences, flying down hills or through tall grass, only to be stopped dead in my tracks by a fantastic view or by the momentary connection with a deer or fox in my path. To observe a funny squirrel (do you know how different they can be?) or a boar shuffling through the brush. To experience the grace and solemnity of a heron poised along the water’s edge. Gosh, running and experiencing those things brings such joy to my soul. Pounding pavement to me is just exercise. The breeze from a green forest against my skin gives me life.

Problem is, to really appreciate trails, one ought to be prepared to go long. Small, four- to five-mile jaunts are nice, but the more one runs, the more one finds these distances are not enough. A runner finds herself wanting to be able to endure and commune for as long as possible. I am made to endure. I have always wanted to. I have the body for it, the constitution, and the will. There was just this one issue that kept me from achieving that point: a genetic propensity to migraines.

Migraines are not just headaches. My episodes were frequent and excruciating, as in zap-me-with-a-tazer-and-knock-me-out-before-I-hurt-myself kind of pain. I tried medications, but every time, my body grew resistant to them, and the preventive medicines did nothing except depress me, limit my energy, and cause me to gain weight. I hated them. A once avid hiker, mountain-biker, and runner, in the span of a few years I became a suffering individual who could barely spend time in the sun without sparking a migraine. It was not a life.

A while ago, I decided it all had to stop. With my doctor for support, I threw away all medicine. I changed my diet, and slowly began to exercise. It was a long process. By 2006, I was running once again. First three or four miles, then six, then ten. In 2009, I ran my first half-marathon. I was walloped by a major attack afterward, but even so, I knew I wanted to do it again. By that time, I had come so far; I knew I would be able to find a way to go further.

I kept running, kept experimenting with ways to endure. Unfortunately, I was not listening enough to what my body and heart were saying and focusing too much on what road runners and racers say. “Push harder, pick up the pace, force your body forward.” I tried this over and over and wondered why it didn’t work. I’d bonk, trigger a migraine, and disappoint myself every time. It wasn’t the right way for me and I knew it. But what other way could there be?

Last year, after finishing a trail half-marathon, I had the opportunity to watch my first-ever ultra race. I was astounded not only by the distances these runners were covering, but by the runners themselves. So many different types of people – older, younger, heavier, slimmer. I loved the determination I saw on their faces. I loved the way they moved – it looked right. I was in awe of what they could do.

As I watched the runners and cheered them through the finish line, a new friend began to describe for me the difference in training for such distances. “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he told me, and then he described how an ultra trail runner must learn to listen to his body and his brain, understand how to hydrate and eat while on the move, and run slow and with focus when necessary in order to endure. Listening to him while watching those runners made me think, “This could be what I was looking for.” What he described to me is what my own heart had been trying to tell me all along. This was the first time I had ever heard that maybe, just maybe, my heart was right.

That was in September of last year. For two months, I read, I listened, and I gathered as much information as I could. On November 1, I started to train for my first 50k ultra. I ran with a heart rate monitor, searching for that sweet spot of a range in which the alpha waves of my brain would kick in, the flow of blood and breath would be in sync, and the body would be in harmony with its environment. The moment I found it, I was transcendent. Really. At that point, one early morning at 4 am, on my way to a trail, I found it. In that state, I felt as if I could endure forever.

The bulk of my training focused on reaching that state. I ran further and further, only once or twice sparking a mild migraine. Graduate school and sleepless nights were the main instigators of pain now. Running in the forest became my medicine. I did find that heart rate exercise could even stop a headache from time to time. It was a revelation, to say the least. I had always heard exercise could help, but because I had always thought I was either supposed to push or do so little “mild” exercise, it never helped. Working out at the right zone for my body did.

It was a learning process for me, with injuries and life issues threatening to stop me from my training. I didn’t though. I learned a lot about myself. Winning a race was never a goal in my mind – in fact, the prospect of competition is a real turn off for me – but I was surprised by how much training became my goal, and the race merely a joyous culmination of the effort. That is the part I am reflecting on now, and I am in the process of setting a “goal” of a race so that I can once again begin to focus.

I ran my first 50k a few weeks ago. I did well. Of course I hated some parts of it, but for the overwhelming majority of the course, I was in heaven. Knowing that this time, the kind of pushing I was doing was right and steady and in harmony with who I was gave me the energy and determination to finish. I paused to thank the beautiful scenes around me; I paused to thank my fellow runners and volunteers who were there to encourage and assist. Toward the end, facing just one more hill of nasty muck and mud before hitting the lengthy stream crossing, I dipped my hand in the slosh, pulled some up with my fingertips, and smeared it across my face. It wasn’t a conquering gesture, it was a communal one. I could endure, and Nature gave me the chance to see it. She deserved to be there on my cheeks as I crossed that line.

Does all this explain to you why I run ultras? I am not sure it does. I will say, as I look back, I have had very few – perhaps one or two – migraines since January. If controlling migraines were the sole reason for running ultras, that would be enough. But that is nothing now – a mere sidebar and benefit to a practice that has become an essential part of my life. I run far – it’s what I do.

Post Race Freedom Run

It is a beautiful day here in my state (finally), and I am back after racing and traveling for a week. I had hoped to take my break out run in one of the state recreation areas but, for lots of reasons, that just wasn’t possible. Instead, I decided to pay my local trail a visit and thank the Nature there for getting me through my first 50k.

I had gained about 5 lbs or so while tapering, but I must have lost it and then some during the race and while traveling, because I couldn’t keep my hr monitor strap on. I turned everything off. No distance tracking, no heart rate. This was a freedom run anyway. My only limit was time.

The trail is about 3 road miles (ugh) from my house. It isn’t big, but I love the woods there, and the paths lead up and down a steep slope along the river. I ran up and down, hopping roots, rocks, and downed trees. Not worrying about injury, I took the downhill parts with speed, thoroughly enjoying the jumps from ledge to ledge to ledge, just playing in the burgeoning green and sunshine. At the top, there’s a bit of a gravel road that leads to a wide open grassy hill that I just LOVE to fly down. I did that hill twice. : )

A week off from running nature after a big 50k, 9 hour jet lag, and a host of other things, I’d say it was a pretty good run. I’ll jog with my pups tonight (they are itching to run too) and dream of what adventure I will take tomorrow.

Gosh, it felt good.