A few weeks ago, as the end of the cold and flu season was drawing near, I was prematurely celebrating a winter without illness. Then karma kicked in, and I got sick. So much for being one of the few left standing. Over the next week, I did my best to listen to my body when I felt I needed rest. But the truth is, I—probably like many of you—get antsy when I skip workouts, so I developed self-serving rules to determine whether and when to run.
I like to think of myself as a sensible gal, but when we’re talking the “running me,” well, I can lack . . . moderation. Still, I’m well aware of the dangers of running sick: full-blown fever resonating in every joint—no brainer: stay in bed. But the lines get blurred when it’s head congestion, maybe with some ear-ringing, and my fever was so 12-hours ago. Thinking I was over the hump, I tossed my gear into a tote bag and headed to the last Winter Wild race. The race didn’t kill me, and the next day I ran over 20 miles. Bad idea. My adventures earned me three days off of training. What ensued was plenty of time alone to question why I run and under what circumstances I would pull the plug on a race.
Back in November, I was listening to Emelie Forsberg recount her first 100-mile race experience on her weekly “Smiles and Miles” segment on Talk Ultra’s podcast. Emelie said she struggled throughout the Diagonale des Fous, her mind constantly playing games with her, to the extent that at the aid station at kilometer 100, she went in with the intent to quit. Friends at the aid station discouraged her, and she continued on with newfound determination, but it wasn’t long before those feelings of self-doubt resurfaced. So she constantly had to check in with herself—Am I injured? Am I sick? Do I have pain anywhere? And when she answered truthfully, “no, no, no,” it was apparent that continuing the race came down to a game of the mind—as much as her mind was telling her to quit, Emelie could not think of a reason why. She was tired and needed sleep, but as she said, “it [was] hard, but it doesn’t kill me.” And on she went to the finish.
That little bit of running inspiration has helped me get through some long, tough winter runs. Some days, it’s at mile three that I’m asking myself, “Am I injured? Am I sick? Do I have pain?” The answers are familiar and resounding, “no’s,” and I find myself sighing in reluctant acquiescence, and then laughing because, really, what else would I rather be doing? Sometimes the mind games don’t kick in until mile 20—when I’m so close, maybe just five more miles to go, but the little guy with the pitchfork has just hopped on to my shoulder and is saying, “You’ve worked so hard today already. You’ve earned a rest; think of that almond croissant at the Vintage Bakery—it’ll be closed by the time you run five more miles.” Or maybe he tries some devilish psychology with you—I mean, 20 miles trudging through the snow in single-digit temps, that’s gotta be a 25-mile equivalent, right?
And so I’m left with no choice but to vanquish him by applying the Emelie Principle: Am I injured? Am I sick? Do I have pain? And I think of why I’m out here. Sometimes we get so caught up in the training, the discipline, the numbers, and the splits that we forget how we got here in the first place. I love the mountains—I came here by way of formative childhood experiences in the outdoors; I came here seeking solitude and opportunities to soak in nature’s splendor. Often on a trail run, I’m stopped dead in my tracks—something catches my eye—the expansive view, the delicate feathers of the rime ice, the greening bark of striped maple as spring draws near. I’m incredibly grateful for this freedom to run uninhibited in the hills, for the opportunity to be overwhelmed by the mountains, the crags, the evening light. As Edward Abbey wrote, “There are some places so beautiful they can make a grown man break down and weep.”
This is why we run in the mountains. This is why I run.
Upping the ante
But what about the times when we’re sick? When the answer to one of Emelie’s questions is, “yes?” As runners, we’ve been taught to listen to our bodies—to pay close attention to our breath, our heart rate, that nagging strain on a particular joint. Yet at the same time—we’re runners! We’ve trained to push through pain; we’re disciplined about getting out there whatever the weather, whatever our mood. We’ve got training plans and mileage goals and races penned into our calendars six months in advance! We sacrifice time with friends and family. We sacrifice sleep. We forgo cheese so we can train and reach our goals. We even make twisted jokes about overcoming our weaknesses. My favorite was recently relayed to me third hand, “if you’re not seeing stars, you’re not training hard enough!” And while we laugh at this ridiculous notion, deep down, it resonates a bit, doesn’t it?
This is the runner’s psyche. We’re a stubborn bunch, and I, personally, am aware of my inability to question whether I should be training and am conscious of my utter incompetence at taking care of myself.
A race only ups the ante. Inevitably, we’re going to get sick before a race. Maybe it’s the latest flu epidemic sweeping through your office or the plane ride that was to bring you to the start line. For me, it was the week when it seemed all my friends’ kids were sick, and in their infinite sweetness would offer me snacks with the same fingers that were just unclogging what the tissues couldn’t. I’m not squeamish, nor am I one to use antibacterial anything, but the compulsive, goal-oriented runner in me wanted to spray the kids down and climb into my personal climate-controlled Tyvek suit.
Three days later, I was laid out with a fever, with race day only four days away and fast approaching. Now, it wasn’t a big race and I’m certainly not an elite athlete. I’m not even competitive—or so I thought. Lying in bed for days, I thought about whether or not I’d race. I ran the pros of racing through my head—it was the series final, so there was that draw. And I’d met some awesome people and was enjoying the camaraderie, so there was that rare running social aspect to the race. And dawn on the mountain was sure to be spectacular. But wait, what am I thinking! I’m sick. Every joint hurts. My legs feel like lead. The congestion is the least of my worries. No problem, I told myself, you can take it slow. Think of all the reasons you love to run at dawn in the mountains, I counseled myself. And the inevitable back-and-forth with myself began:
“You’re supposed to listen to your body.”
“Yes, but how do I know what is sick sick, and what’s just residual sick?” “Oh, just get out there; remember, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”
“Right, but remember when I turned a cold into pneumonia? That was kinda deathly, wasn’t it?”
“Hmm, good point, but the worst is behind you.”
“Okay, but what if I come in fourth?”
“You don’t really put stock into that ‘second place is first loser’ stuff, do you?”
In the end, I showed up at the start line, knowing I might need to adjust my goals. I was feeling better, albeit weak. But I think what brought me to the mountain in the pre-dawn darkness was fear. In making my list of cons, I realized I was scared of doing poorly. I was scared of the possibility of having to walk, of placing last, of having to drop out, and of not having enough humility to stop pushing if I was feeling feverish and light-headed. And these fears, I realized, are neither who I am, nor are they the reasons why I run.
As the alarm went off on race morning, my eyes landed on a quotation pinned to my bedside table: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” John Muir extoled. I thought of the previous races I had done in the series. “Check out the sunrise,” I had exclaimed to no one in particular as we climbed the fuchsia corduroy at Sunday River. “Awesome view of Doublehead,” I had managed to gasp between gulps for air at Black Mountain. “Enjoy this gorgeous morning,” I had sung out to the guy at the lift shack at Ragged.
I pulled on my tights and went to the mountain that morning for all the right reasons, for all the reasons that bring me to trails day after day after day. Yes, I felt weak, and no, I would not be setting any personal records, but I knew that despite whatever pace I made it to the top in, the experience of being out at dawn in the mountains with friends would last much, much longer than any congestion. Weeks later, my head is still out there, running free on the mountain summits, and I’m down here, thankful for the experiences and the people I met along the way.