Experiment #23: Becoming a Runner

 I am not a runner

My first 25k trail race in April 

I could write a long narrative about how since I was a child it has been abundantly clear to me that I am not a runner. But just trust me -- I am not good at running. I did track in Middle School and High School - mid-pack fodder at best. I ran for fitness in college, I wasn't anything other than average. At least a hundred times in my life, I've had someone comment on my body type and either imply or explicitly state that "I don't have a runner's build". No one has ever looked at me and suggested I pick up running. 

I am not a runner, I am not a runner, I am not a runner.

 When someone brought up running, this loop of I am not a runner would play on cue. I was aggressively anti-running, always trying to tell runners to "join the obviously better world of cycling" and to stop torturing themselves. 

As many of you know, I am a cyclist and becoming a cyclist has been a long, multi-year, ever-changing and growing journey. In the multitude of ways, cycling has changed how I view myself and the world. Because of cycling, I challenge the confines of the boxes I've been put in. 

So let's start over, how did I break this 20+ year mental stuck-on-repeat and visceral hatred of running?

A perfect storm hit. One, I needed time off from endurance gravel. Two, it was a long winter in Michigan and I didn't want to ride my bike in cold rain/snow but wanted, very badly, to be outside. Three, fate set up me to talk to several ultra-distance runners at length. They didn't complain of persistent knee issues or even talk of running like a burden. They spoke of running like I talked about cycling - it let them go places, to see the world, and all they needed was a pair of shoes. Huh. 

snowy trail runs were immensely enjoyable in Spring

The final piece to move into place was reading Born to Run (this is supeeeerrr basic for 'what inspired me to run' but whatever!) Christopher McDougall kicks off the book describing his crippling foot injuries that the doctor told him he shouldn't run anymore (wait, this is supposed to convince me to run?). But I was on a walk, listening to Christopher McDougall describe wanting to run just to get to places faster, to see and do more... My chest rose and I started to pick up my feet and ... run. For the rest of the trail, I listened and ran. Effortlessly. Like it was fun. For the first time ever. 

Cautiously, I feared it was just that audiobook that inspired me to move faster, but I finished that book and ... kept running. I started to look forward to my morning trail runs despite the ceaseless snow, rain, and general bad weather of this April. Every run brought something different -- a muskrat diving into the river, a light dusting of snow, a hyperawareness of the season's changing, etc.

For the first time in my life, running felt natural. I started to run longer distances and my mile times were ... fast. Faster than ever. From the recesses of my mind, a light flickered -- What if I could run ... more? I had never done more than a half marathon. Timely, David sent me a link to a trail 25k in Traverse City and said (approximately) "why don't you just go for it?" 

Me: "There's no way I can do this" 

Me (a whisper from the back of the mind): "why don't I?" 

So I "trained", meaning I went from being a total non-runner to my first 15k, 20k, and 25k all in one go in about 3 weeks. I asked for advice from friends who were runners and knew far more than I did; the general consensus was go slow, walk often, and don't overtrain. Helpful, but, I had no idea what I was doing. 

A training run at 6 AM while on a work trip in SF

Going into the first trail race, I was nervous, I knew I was extremely undertrained, and I knew that this was, perhaps, one of the worst ideas I had ever had. I am not a runner. My longest training run going in had been 9 miles. 

Here's the best positive advertisement for trail running I can give -- the community is as warm and welcoming as the cycling community. At my first race, I think a total of 5 people gave me their numbers - people at the start line I talked to, people in the 100k race (!), and people I ran with during the day. Once they found out I was new in Traverse City and new to running, they wanted to throw down a welcome mat and help me find my footing in any way they could. 

My first race was a blur of talking to different women for a few miles at a time, finding a pace I felt like I could keep forever (psych!), hurting enormously on the back half of the 15.5 miles, tailing a man who kept asking me if I wanted to pass and I said that I couldn't imagine it... only to pop out and out sprint him in the 300 m to the finish line (classic Lo!).

 When I finished, sprinting across the line to cheering and a 4th in age group finish, that endless track of "I am not a runner" skipped a beat. I sure felt like a runner in that moment, a real one. I could barely walk, but ... for the first time in a long time, I was filled with a hunger ... to do more

I've been told blackened toenails = "welcome to ultra running" 

So I began training in earnest. 2022 was going to be my year of mountain biking and trail running. I put two big goals on the calendar - Shenandoah 100 and the Hungerford Trail Marathon in September. Immediately, I overtrained and within 2-3 weeks, worked myself in a hole of exhaustion that had me begging for help finding a coach who would understand balancing ultra distance mountain biking (specifically!) and trail running. 

 Again, the bike community saved me, this time in the form of a few outliers that also did this crazy combination or something very similar (Nick Stanko and Chris Ragsdale). They helped me to immediately identify that yes, I was overtraining (duh) and coached me to derive a formula that would work for my simple brain -- 3 bikes a week, 3 runs. 2 hard workouts, hard could either be long or fast but not both and I couldn't do 2 hard bike and 2 hard run... it was either or.  

One of the more fascinating aspects of training is that you don't really see yourself making much progress and there's a lot of internal questioning like "I'm still getting dropped on every group ride" and "my mile times literally are just getting worse". Plus, with running, when you're adding for distance, you're literally just adding a mile or half a mile at a time to your run (seriously, what's the difference between 13.5 and 14.2 miles? A lot actually, that's a 5% increase.) 

post-beach-run walk with mom

But I kept doggedly at it, throughout May just focusing on executing on the plan (plan?). My long runs (now over 12 miles each weekend) left me exhausted in a way cycling never has -- post-run, I wouldn't be starving and I would seem like a normal person, going about my day. Except I'd randomly fall asleep for a 2 hour nap in the afternoon (Chris let me in on a secret -- napping is a sign of success!). 

Another shocking moment for me was when a neighbor saw me in my garage, came over to say hi, and said "I always see you in the mornings going for a run -- you just look like such a runner." Surrounded by bikes in my garage, I literally choked and out of instinct bumbled out "I'm not a runner, really, I'm a cyclist". Bless her, she said "well, you sure look like a runner to me." 

Coming into my 27k Rock Canyon trail run race this past weekend (June 11th), I was nervous. I knew I was likely a better runner now than I was in April, but I still felt like I had no idea what I was doing, was just kind of brute forcing my way through running, and waiting for this all to blow up in my face. My only goals were to finish, ideally at around 10 minute miles and not be so dead afterward. 

Again, I started off, running at what felt comfortable to me and ended up in the back 1/3 of the race. I made friends, I talked to people, and then I started to pass people (I try to aim for negative splits... as I do with cycling). Unfortunately, I went off course with a few other women, turning this 16.7 mile race ultimately into a 20.5 mile race for myself (!). 

It's super demoralizing to go off course -- but I immediately changed from race mode to "this is going to be my longest ever run... let's do this and do it strong". I fortunately had enough water and food to make it back to the aid station at 4.5 miles to go, no problem. In the last 5 miles, I did 10 minute miles, cranking away and feeling the effects of stretching myself. 

still smiling despite missing this cue to go right ... 

But again, I crossed the line and was overcome with this sense of pure accomplishment. "I am not a runner, get out of my head" -- I just ran 20 miles largely self-supported on almost entirely trail in the upper peninsula of Michigan, still somehow finishing 2nd in my age group despite adding 20% distance to the race. 

So yeah, here we are -- I am a runner. And I am a cyclist. I've never felt so strong in my life -- not only in defying a life-long mental block but physically strong too. For the first time, I get why people say "Lo, you're one of the strongest people I know" -- whereas cycling I could write off as "blah blah natural talent blah blah" but running... this is fortitude. if I can become a runner, I can do anything. But even more, if I can become a runner, you can become a runner. 

I also want to use my soapbox to highlight something that I have heard the women in every race say to me while we are talking -- they always bring up their weight, unprompted, and talk about how they "don't look like a runner" (!). These women have finished 100 mile events or go on to kick my butt that day, and they are worried that I think they looked like a runner? Also, since I have started running, I have gained 15 pounds, almost all in my upper legs, not become this ultra svelte lean runner. I have realized this is a myth - it's just not true, there's no "runner's body" at least from what I have seen in trail running.

2nd in age group, but more importantly, first 20 mile run!

So let's all never, ever say again that runners are skinny. Great trail runners are strong, and our bodies take different forms to support than strength. 

May the force be with all of you

(but please respect your limits too -- challenge and push, don't break) 

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