Maybe I’m tempting fate. Or is it simply a calculated risk? Should I listen to the alarm bells going off in my head, permeating through my body in shivers and shakes? What if? What if? What if?
As an athlete, I’m continually seeking to expand my limits when it comes to my physical and mental game. However, after a recent scramble up a mountain with some exposed, precipitous drop-offs right along the trail, I had no qualms with saying, “Nope, not for me!”, waiting for my running companions to do their thing, then turning back.
As much as I wish I were a bonafide mountain goat with the balance, speed, and agility of Kilian Jornet, that’s simply not where I’m at. As I’ve been contemplating the year ahead and some upcoming goals in the FKT/ultra running realm, my self-assuredness definitely took a hit as I mostly crab-walked back down from the steep ridge. I felt positively non-athletic. It was also a stark reminder that for as well as running has been going for the past few months, I’m a different athlete now than I was before setting out on the Appalachian Trail last summer.
As I drove my way back to Oregon following the 2,193 mile odyssey, it was the least I could do to get out and walk a little bit each day. I went for the easiest of hikes in Arches National Park. Well, less of a hike, and more like a short walk from the parking lot to a nearby rock formation. I was wobbly and off balance without the use of a hiking pole, which I had relied on for most of the AT after developing shin splints. Climbing uphill to check out one of the famous arched rock formations up close wasn’t too bad, but going back on the slightest downhill with some uneven footing to navigate, every step had to be well thought out and calculated. The act of simply lowering myself down step by step on a teeny descent was enough to make my quadriceps quiver. It was like learning to simply walk and function again. In seeking my limits on the AT, it was like I had left all of my physicality on the trail. Kind of like how in my cross country days, my teammates and I made it our aim to finish the race feeling like we had “left it all on the course.”
Since then, certain things have come back easily. In my fourth week back to running, I ran two miles on the track in 12:48 (6:24/mile). A month later, I ran 5K on the road in 19:57 (6:25/mile). Far from my best, but coming off of a journey where traveling at 3mph was fast on a good day, those runs were flying! It’s been twelve weeks now since my return to running, with an average of 54 miles per week and long runs up to twenty, and even thirty miles. I started working with a running coach who knows firsthand what it’s like to complete the AT in record time and return to long distance running… want to take a guess at who? I’ve been running mostly trails and incorporating a lot of elevation gain into my routes. My speed work has moved away from the roads and consists mostly of hills, for now.
On paper, everything is fantastic. The workload is perfect and I’m starting to feel like I’m really in the swing of training again. It feels good to run with purpose and enjoy the process. With the particularly wet winter season we’re having in Oregon, it seems that every other day I’m looking out the window and grumbling about the horrendous weather, then later grinning and laughing at how ridiculous the situation is as I splash through puddles in Forest Park, splattering mud all over my legs.
Then there’s the aftermath of the AT. My hips creak and groan every time I need to step over blown down trees across the trail. My feet say “hello” to me every morning and I no longer walk anywhere without some kind of cushion underfoot. My first few steps after driving or sitting down for a while always start with a shuffle before turning into a walk. My leg muscles tighten up immediately after each run, and stretching is an intense affair. I can’t curl my one big toe properly, as the joint is inflamed and seems kind of stuck. These are the things that I believe will take the most time to return to “normal”.
Keeping that perspective, it’s a little easier to lay off of myself for not feeling 100% confident in my footing and ability while navigating technical terrain. It’s also a good reminder that no matter where we are in our running journey, the best place to work from is where we’re at. Going from wobbling, knock-kneed steps in Arches National Park to putting in a solid block of winter training on trails didn’t happen overnight, though it’s surprising how quickly everything has come together. The balance, agility, confidence, and essentially feeling like a fully functioning athlete again, will have to be a practice in patience over time. I think it’s safe to say I’ll stick to slightly wider trails with at least a few trees to catch my falls as I figure it out.
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Photo by Steven Mortinson