Nuun is a product that I’ve used and loved for years. As I’ve gotten more and more comfortable with my running, I have also decided to put myself out there by applying to serve as an ambassador for my favorite products. I mean, why not? I recommend these products on a regular basis, so why not get even more involved in the running community by serving as an ambassador for my favorite brands? I was over the moon excited when Nuun selected me to serve on Team Nuun. Me?! As a Team Nuun member, I had the opportunity to apply to run a Ragnar Trail Relay in Atlanta, Georgia at the Georgia International Horse Park. I honestly never thought I’d be picked. Before I applied, I checked with my husband. I started the conversation like this, “Hey, I probably won’t be picked, but I’d like to apply to run for Team Nuun at a Ragnar Trail Relay in Atlanta, Georgia. What do you think?” His response was, “Sure. You know you’ll be picked, right?” I’m not sure how he knew, without a doubt, that I’d be picked when I, myself, thought that it was a long shot, but he was right. I was picked. This meant I’d be doing two 200 mile relay races within two weeks of each other out of town. Oops. Sort of bad timing. My poor husband would be stuck as Mr. Mom for two of the five weekends in April. Sorry, David. I owe him big time. Now that I knew I was going to Georgia, I contacted my friend Dyana who now lives in Sevierville, Tennessee. Her new home is about four hours from Atlanta. We hatched a plan for her to drive to Atlanta the day I arrived for a lunch date and a few hours of hanging out before I needed to check in with my team. My friend is caring for her mother with Parkinson’s Disease and, while she is thoroughly enjoying her time with her mother in the beautiful Smoky Mountains, she was happy to get away and take a short trip to Atlanta. Dyana is a friend like no other. I miss her dearly and it was so great to see her. Next it was time to meet my team at a restaurant for our team dinner. I met 14 other people all at once and it’s amazing how easily we were able to talk to each other within moments of meeting one another. This is yet again a testament to how powerful the bond is within the running community. Runners are connected through their love of the run and this never ceases to amaze me. After dinner we went to the campsite and I turned in early. It was a bit chilly for me in the tent, and that coupled with the boisterous group in the tent behind us, prevented me from getting a great night’s sleep, but I’d say I got a good night’s sleep. Friday morning I woke early and went on a short run around Ragnar Village. The village was quiet, as runners were just beginning to emerge from their tents and get ready for their run time start. Our teams wouldn’t start running until 4:30 p.m., so my day was spent cheering on other runners and getting to know my team. Friday evening and all of Saturday are quite a blur. Basically it entailed waiting at the starting line for the previous runners to pass the baton, cheering teammates on, keeping each other company, resting in the tent, and stuffing our faces. We were afforded little to no amounts of sleep, leaving us weary and light headed, but we had new friends and community by our sides. We enjoyed each other and worked together to do something epic. An overnight relay race is completely a team effort. The amount of support I received from my teammates is what kept me going. Really, an overnight relay race is a microcosm of the larger running community. Runners support other runners by cheering them on and letting them know that struggling is normal and expected. I am a big believer in making memories through physical activity. An overnight relay race is all about togetherness through activity. I find that overnight relay races offer a sense of community that no other race offers. Additionally, I guess I kind of like to temporarily deprive myself of sleep, hygiene, and some of my sanity.
The trail makes me feel so free. Primal even. I get very dirty, I ignore my split times, and I concentrate on escaping deeper into the woods.
Because I’ve never raced on trails, I’ve never thought to train on trails. Why go off road if I’m only participating in road races? This was my thought process, until recently.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am completely in love with distance running. Through running I found a strength inside of me that I didn’t know I had. My goal each year is to get a little bit better, but more importantly, my main goal is to just keep running. I don’t want to ever quit running. I want this feeling for as long as I can have it. Trail running has allowed me to look at running with fresh eyes. I’m experiencing the excitement I felt when I first discovered running. I have embarked on a whole new world of running. I can certainly see how adding trail running to the mix would prevent runner burnout. I never thought I’d be able to appreciate running more than I already did, but I can safely say that trail running has increased my love of the sport of running.
One of the very first things that appealed to me about trail running was the increased connection with nature. Road running allows for a certain type of communing with nature, certainly. There’s just something about being outside, free of a vehicle, and feeling the body move for hours at a time. This is what I find so stimulating about long runs. I feel like Henry David Thoreau out there on a long run, even if the majority of my run is through suburban streets. But, I have to say, running through trails is just pure magic. It makes me feel primal. On the trails I have completely escaped the concrete jungle and I’m truly in nature.
I find that trail running is very different than road running. It’s almost as if it is an entirely different sport. I find that instead of closely monitoring my pace like I do on a road run, I run to the tune of my own body. On the trail, there’s no more pace, instead I think about effort level and the terrain. Additionally, I can’t map the distance out before I get there since I can’t exactly google map an off road trail, so that only adds to the intrigue. When I set out on a trail run, I run according to the feeling of my body and the terrain. Whatever distance I end up with is what I end up with. Whatever average pace I maintain, is what I end up with. I do not tailor my run to anything other than the way my body is feeling and the terrain.
Trail running is proving to be an excellent way for me to cross train and recover. With road running I tend to run in a straight line. With trail running, I must routinely side step and change my stride length to avoid roots and other obstacles. My pace varies because of fluctuating terrain, and all of this requires patience. Patience is a wonderful quality in a runner. For, isn’t that the quality that makes a distance runner successful? You cannot be impatient on the trails. I have found that you just can’t. Furthermore, you have no desire to be impatient. I find that I concentrate on the terrain, and this close attention completely engages my mind in my activity.
I find that trail running is helping me develop better running habits. I have to pick up my feet quickly and raise my knees high to clear tree branches and roots. Quick feet and high knees are good for running form. I am also finding that navigating the trail requires balance, coordination, strength, agility, and power. I can feel that I am working different muscles because of the elevation and uneven surface. I am working my stabilizing, lateral muscles and this makes for a tougher workout. All of this work will surely improve my road running.
Am I a road runner? A trail runner? Let’s just say I’m a runner. I’m not willing to give either up, and luckily I don’t have to. I can enjoy my long runs through my suburban neighborhood and take to the trails whenever I please. I am absolutely fascinated by both road and trail running. Recently I have encountered runners that are either trail runners or road runners exclusively, with no wavering. Some trail runners claim that they are more laid back and that road runners are more uptight and commercial. From my limited knowledge, I can see a little truth in these beliefs, but personally, I think that all runners are just a little bit off. I mean that in a good way; I mean, I’m right there in that group too, remember?
Runners are just a little bit different. We’re extraordinary. We are our own breed.
What I have to come to realize with distance running is that it all boils down to perception of fatigue. Short distance sprinters rely on their physical capacity. Conversely, in distance running, the reason a runner doesn’t finish faster has everything to do with their internal monologue and perceived level of fatigue. It is a mental advantage that separates distance runners, not a physical advantage.
So all of this has got me thinking about the disparity that exists between what I feel when I am running and what is actually happening. It’s not the actual fatigue that’s making me feel horrible, it’s my brain’s response to the fatigue. My running goal each year is the same: to get a little faster. In an effort to make this happen, I do track/speed work each week. This is the time where I work on my speed over shorter distances. From all of this speed work, I have learned that my problem isn’t lack of speed. I know I can run a 6:30 mile. The problem is the lack of endurance, or at the very least the perceived lack of endurance, necessary to run 26.2 miles at a 6:30 pace without hitting a wall and needing to stop. Is this wall real? Or is it an imagined wall? I mean, I know it isn’t real in the physical sense, but you know what I mean.
On my long run this past weekend I asked myself, When is it that I struggle? Is it at certain times of the year? Month? Is it when I have a lot on my mind? Is it when I don’t have anything on my mind? Is it when I’m battling injury? Is it when I’ve been overtraining? Undertraining? Is it when I pay too much attention to how my body is feeling? Is it when I’m too concerned with monitoring my pace? Is it when the weather is too cold or too hot?
I often know that what I’m feeling doesn’t accurately compare to what is physically happening to me. In other words, my highly unreliable brain tells me that I’m going to run out of steam if I don’t ease up on my pace. Why on earth would I listen to this negative voice? Why can’t I muster up enough mental strength to quiet those negative thoughts? I believe it has to do with how hard my brain is working my body. It’s all about my perception of effort and how hard my brain is working. As my body gets tired, my brain has a harder time working my body. The feeling of fatigue ends up trumping those thoughts in my brain that were propelling me forward.
I’m an amateur, but I’ve read enough from elite runners to know that this desire to stop for inexplicable reasons plagues the elite runners too. The simple fact is that running is hard. It is just plain hard. It’s hard to convince myself to wake up early for a run, it’s hard to kick myself out the door to start my run, it’s hard to keep running at a certain pace, it’s hard to keep running as opposed to walking, it’s hard to avoid shortening my course, and it’s hard to stick to my running plan. It’s just so very hard. This is also why it’s so very rewarding. It’s extremely rewarding to do something that is very hard to do. When we do hard things we get to say, “I do hard things.” How satisfying is that? It’s extremely satisfying.
One thing I know for certain is that once I cross the finish line of a race I am immediately feeling better. I am feeling better because I accomplished what I set out to do; I crossed the finish line. But often I end up kicking myself because I know, in my runner heart of hearts, that I could have pushed harder. I mean, look at me on that finish line! Am I doubled over in pain, vomiting and shaking violently? No, I’m smiling, receiving my medal, bottled water, and banana and making a mad dart to the beer tent. So why is it so hard for my brain to convince my body to keep pushing? I’m not exactly sure, but since I know that my performance is directly linked to how hard my brain is working my body, I shall try to keep my brain working hard on working my body.
Easier said than done, right?