“There is no illusion greater than fear.”
When I first broke my ankle, my brother, Alex, called to comfort me as I lamented missing the marathon I had trained so hard to run. At one point, he took a serious tone and suggested that I shouldn’t run trails again; in his eyes, it wasn’t worth the risk of future injury. That simply wasn’t an option. I attempted to explain to him the call of the trail, that nothing could compel me to relinquish this part of myself.
Six months later, I was doing everything in my power to avoid setting foot on a trail. After I graduated from physical therapy and started running again, my PT (the incredible Chad of 3D Physical Therapy) told me that I could start back on the trails after I was up to 5 road miles. That was October of 2015. 5 miles came and went with not a trail in sight. At first, the reasons were legitimate. The uneven ground hurt my ankle, and I was terrified of doing anything that might compromise my recovery. A Tacoma Runners Saturday 5k at Point Defiance offered my first opportunity to test a “trail” (more like gravel fire road) but even that caused discomfort on the ankle.
Soon, my mantra became, “I will get back to trails after my first marathon.” That lasted until I ran my first marathon, when the tune changed to, “I will get back to trails after I become a Maniac.” That would be in May.
When, on March 24th, I accepted Durb’s invitation to register for the BFC, I knew that I could no longer postpone my return to the trail. It was time to confront my fear and get back on the horse.
On March 26th, I participated in my first caucus. This would take up most of the morning, so I planned to get in my scheduled 17-mile run that afternoon. Given the nature of a caucus, which entails talking with your neighbors, I ended up talking with Andy. He had moved in down the block last year, and I had briefly met him in passing once. We were talking about running, and I mentioned that I needed to get in 17 miles that day. He replied, “Oh, I’m running 17 miles on the DuPont trails today. You should come.”
I threw every excuse at him, trying to weasel out of it: I’m too slow for you; I need to ease into trails; I’m not ready for 17 miles on trails. Andy just looked at me with this expression that I will never forget. It was a straightforward, no-nonsense look that matched the next thing he said, “No, just come run.”
Saying no was clearly not an option.
Andy and his dog Sam pulled up a couple hours later, and we then picked up two other runners, Gary and Sophie. I knew of them from the Sunday runs but hadn’t really talked much with them before. So here I was, reeling in anxiety about my first trail run and accompanied by three people I didn’t know. I would have been more comfortable if it was just me and Sam, the dog. Not only was I nervous about trail running, but I am also painfully shy around new people, which results in unbearable social awkwardness. I was bound to break another bone. I was bound to make a fool of myself. I was bound to alienate these nice people with my inability to have normal social interactions.
This run was bound to be a complete and total train wreck.
We made our way over to the trails around DuPont. DuPont, as in the chemical company. This was a company town that has since been expanded and modernized, and there are trails on the outskirts, which wind past a superfund site. Andy and Gary (both incredibly fast runners) planned to get in 17-18 miles while Sophie and I ran 12. Gary handed us each a map, gave an overview of the route, and we were off.
The trail was relatively flat, well maintained, and non-technical. We started at an easy pace, and I felt a smile slip across my face. My anxiety relaxed, and my love for running the trails worked its way through me, easing the doubts and fear. It was incredible. Sophie was an amazing trail companion. She called to my attention beautiful sights along the way, like a natural spring bubbling from the ground and the nesting places of migrating sea birds winging through the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. She took detours to show me the view of the Sound and taught me the names of native plants, inviting me to sample the Oregon grapes that looked like yellow buttercups. As we crossed a creek and zig-zagged up a fern-lined switchback, a thrill ran through me. This was where I belonged.
The trails weren’t technical, but trails they were, and there I was. It was a mental barrier that I needed to surmount, and I had succeeded. I am eternally grateful to Andy for refusing to take no for an answer. He didn’t even know me but pushed me as if he was my closest friend who knew what was best for me. I’m confident that if he hadn’t done so, it would have taken me much longer to get myself together. Diving into a 12-mile trail run, and making it out in one piece, was the confidence boost I so desperately needed. Furthermore, the experience forced me to go outside of my social comfort zone and interact with new people. This resulted in great conversation with a welcoming group of runners. For this, too, I am thankful; it has enabled me to challenge myself to engage with others and come out of my shell a bit. I realized that I can get past my awkwardness and feel comfortable interacting with new people if only I make the effort.
While I was at it, I decided the next day to return to the scene of the initial incident: the trails of Point Defiance. Since I didn’t get in all 17 miles on Saturday, I figured I would go to the 9am Sunday run to make up the mileage. This was the final mental barrier to cross. As the group snaked its way down the hill behind Fort Nisqually, my anxiety spiked. This was the same route we took that fateful day, and my foot pace slowed as my heart rate rose. I lifted my feet unnecessarily high, refrained from conversing, and sharpened my focus on each rock and root. After we passed the spot that I believed to be the spot and saw what I believed to be the root, my body and mind both relaxed and I eased into the run chanting in my head, “I’m back, I’m back, I’m back.”
When we finished, I thanked Jim, who leads the group, and explained how nervous I had been. He told me that he had started down the trail where I broke my ankle, and then, realizing that it might upset me, he turned down another path. I was so taken with his kindness and consideration. Of course, I thought we had gone down that trail, but I was over the hurdle now either way. The thoughtfulness of his gesture only further reaffirmed the beauty of the local running community.
While we may each run our own race, there is always a group of runners who have played a key role in getting you out there on the course in the first place. A few weeks later, I ran a 12K on Tiger Mountain. It was both brutal and awesome. I powered up the craziest incline I had seen, passing people as I went, laughing when my watch told me it took 21 minutes to go one vertical mile. On the descents, I became reckless and ran with the abandon I had known as a ten year old. It was glorious. Now, there’s no looking back. I know my brother made the safe suggestion by telling me to stay off the trails, but my heart wins.