Get to know me well enough, and you’ll learn before long that I’m a wee bit obsessed with George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy novel series A Song of Ice and Fire. In this fictional world, seasons last for years and end unpredictably. Once, winter lasted an entire generation. It was a period known as the Long Night.
In the same vein, I would say the entire past year has a been a long, hard winter. The seemingly endless, darker days of January feel more drawn out than ever. I’ve found my daily energy expenditure very limited, then feel a sense of guilt or dread for not “doing enough”. I typically feel like I’m at my best when my day is floating along from one scheduled block of time to the next. Lately, just checking one or two tasks off the list feels like cause for celebration. I’m trying really hard to be okay with that. Jennifer Pharr Davis recently posted something that resonated with me in the context of trying to keep it together in this tough time:
Most of the time my record hike was an ugly, painful, hobble. I used hiking poles as crutches, I gobbled down Ibuprofen, I hurt, I cried, I wanted to quit, and I ate too much junk food. And here I am 10 years later trying to run two small businesses (Blue Ridge Hiking Company and JPD LLC), and trying to help two small children with virtual school, and feeling the exact same way I did when I was putting in 47 mile days!
So I am writing this to remind myself that it is okay to slow down, it is okay to produce less, and not go as far as you want on a daily basis. Because sometimes doing less is the only way to keep going long term.
I’m also sharing this because it’s been a really tough winter – for everyone. (Is January ever going to end?) I think most of America is struggling with mild to moderate depression. And, while I am optimistic that things are going to get better this spring, please remember that in times like these – trail records and pandemics – it’s normal to fall short and feel overwhelmed. We might ugly crawl our way out of this thing, but if you keep going and take it one slow… heavy… step… at… a… time, we will get there!
On the running front, I’ve been in a winter base building phase to prepare for the year ahead. A few weeks ago I alluded to working with a new running coach; that would be Karl Meltzer, aka “Speedgoat”, who set a record of 45 days and change on the AT in 2016, and has won more 100 mile races than anyone in history. I didn’t know Karl personally before setting off on my AT record attempt this summer, but I did see his choice words online about my “go big or go home” approach in my first day. Maybe some would take offense to the open criticism, but honestly it gave me a chuckle because I knew my near-70 mile first day would raise some eyebrows. He did have kind words to say about my thru-hike when it was all said and done, mostly about how I continued on despite all the pain/suffering and resolved to finish even once it was clear the record was out of reach. He had a relatively similar experience in 2008 and went on to break the record on his third attempt in 2016. I reached out to him because he knows firsthand what it’s like to recover from the AT then turn around and race 100 miles, which I’m aiming to do for the first time this summer. He’s not one to mince words or sugarcoat anything, which although that runs contrary to my own “nice” demeanor, it’s a trait I appreciate in others and especially in a coach.
Back to winter training (with Coach K!)–it involves hills for breakfast, hills for lunch, and hills for dinner. Hills ’til the cows come home. So many hills that my old go-to rolling courses like the Fairmount Loop and Wildwood Trail now seem flat. Probably 98% of my runs have been on trail, whereas previously I did more of a combo of road and trail. The varying nature of trails in their ups, downs, twists, and turns, has resulted in a wide variety in pace throughout my runs. Unlike road running where I’d find a steady pace and settle in, on the trail it’s been all about flowing with the terrain. I’ve rarely bothered looking at my watch, other than using it to know when to turn around. The only real gauge I’ve been using throughout is asking myself, “How do I feel?”
After seven steady weeks of running up and down mountains everywhere from the Columbia Gorge to the Coastal Range, I felt myself becoming antsy for some sort kind of proof that I was progressing. One thing I could somewhat measure was my weekly uphill interval pace on Saltzman Road in Forest Park. I did the first of these in December with my friend Shasta. We started each interval together, and toward the end of the workout I ran out of steam while she remained steady. I did my best to focus in and follow her lead. Needless to say, it was a huge help having a friend to share the load. The next week I ran the same workout on my own, and did okay though on average I was a bit slower. The week after that, slower still. I felt the cumulative fatigue of the weekly mileage and elevation gain catching up to me. The fourth week, I barely started the workout before psyching myself out and bailing altogether.
The next week, I felt a noticeable change. I felt lighter on my runs, like I was floating along rather than trudging. I felt more energized, and longer runs weren’t knocking me out like they were before. I felt stronger! I realized it had been a while since my quads felt sore following my weekly prescribed 3,000ft continuous descent. Finally, finally it was beginning to feel like all the hard work was paying off. I eagerly dove into the Saltzman hill intervals that week, expecting to see a big improvement considering how great I felt. Nothing. Same ball park as all the others. I wrote in my log how I felt ready for a breakthrough and wasn’t sure why it wasn’t happening. I was doing everything “right”. Did I simply need to try harder?
This past week I set out for hill repeats once more, this time joined by my running buddy Danielle. It was the first time I’d been joined by anyone for intervals since Shasta had the month prior. If both experiences taught me anything, it’s that doing hard things is markedly less hard with a friend by your side. I soared uphill ferociously and was delightfully surprised with each glance at my watch. Danielle and I regrouped for each rest interval and cheered each other on throughout. It was like finding the missing piece to the puzzle. After seven weeks I had finally been rewarded with tangible evidence of improvement, but more importantly, I was reminded of something far more powerful and immeasurable in the process.
In relating back to the heaviness of this figurative Long Night we’re in, I’ve found some solace in confiding in those close to me and remembering that I’m not alone, however often it feels that way. My default tends to be to “deal with it” and generally internalize the hard stuff as to not burden anyone else. Inadvertently that can send the message of “I’m fine, how are you not fine?” and in the end everyone feels crummy. Something I’m working on is just keeping it real and lending a listening ear when I can. To reiterate from my little trail epiphany… doing hard things is markedly less hard with a friend by your side.
Thanks for reading. If you connected with this or felt inspired in some way, please consider buying me a coffee.☕️ Thank you to those that have already done so!