Lessons Learned Running in the Woods

“We’re heartbroken to inform you that the in-person 2020 race has been cancelled.”

I started running consistently in March, mostly to get out of the house, if I’m being completely honest. But then, it just became something I did. I was a runner.

I’m still trying to let that one sink in: I am a runner. While I’ve completed full and half marathons in the past, I never considered myself a runner. It was simply a training cycle that I completed (or half-assed), finished the race, and then never ran again until the next one…four years later.

Picture after finishing the Chicago Marathon
Chicago Marathon, 2011 ; My first race that I ever ran, but definitely did not train properly for, in order to complete it. It did NOT help me to love running.
Picture after finishing the madison marathon
Madison Marathon, 2015 ; My second marathon, four years later. This time I did actually train and PR’d my Chicago time by quite a bit as a result. I still didn’t enjoy running following this training cycle.

I’m not exaggerating. It was four years to forget how absolutely awful the experience was in order to want to repeat it again. While the second race went MUCH better than the first (…weird how training does that) it still was another four years before I got the itch to run again. So, if you’re following along, this thought came about at the end of 2019.

I told myself no more marathons. Running each did NOT help me to enjoy running, and I didn’t think a third would change that. So I began the search for something new. I found trail running.

In typical “me” fashion, with the all-in approach, I bought a pair of used trail shoes on Poshmark for cheap. Found a trail I’d never been on before and, on January 5, 2020, I got lost for the first time. What was supposed to be a quick 2-3 miles, just to feel out the shoes turned into 5.32 miles because I was too stubborn to turn around. I was sore for over a week. But I was hooked.

First trail run stats and map of the course
The stats on my first-ever trail run before my switch to using Strava to track.

The feeling of moving through the woods, the sounds of nature, and even the cold air all felt incredible. It’s hard to describe what that first run felt like, but if I had to sum it up in a single word it would be freedom. I felt free. I felt strong and capable…until I went to walk down the stairs the following day 😉

After that, I ran on and off for the first couple months of the year. Dabbling in the trails, tentatively thinking about a race in July and another, longer distance in November. Then, it was March. The world as we know it changed and so began the pivots, changes, and curveballs that have been the only constant throughout 2020.

Working out at home became the norm and let’s suffice to say my living room is not the ideal workout space. So, I kept running. I started running more. Entering an official training phase for that first race in July, hoping that it would be held. It was not.

A total of three races I had on my calendar were either cancelled or moved to virtual options. Leaving me having trained, and peaked, for three in-person events that I never completed. The first two cancellations left me searching UltraSignUp for a new race, but after this last one, via an email late last night, I stopped to reflect.

Over the course of 2020, I have:

  • Averaged 3 runs and 17 miles per week.
  • Completed 68 total runs.
  • Ran a total of 484 miles.
  • Ran my furthest trail run distance of 22.04 miles.

It’s never been about the race. The race is simply the celebration at the end of all the work. This is what it’s about. These miles, this time on the trails, this newfound sport. I’ve fallen in love with running. I’ve become a runner. (Still weird to type that, but I’m going with it.)

Okay, okay. We’re done with the walk down memory lane. But I thought it was important for you to see that history. I’ve HATED running. Seriously, LOATHED it before now. I’ve viewed it as a way to burn the most calories in the shortest time. I only did it because it was “the fastest way to lose weight.” (This is not true.) I tried to keep up with the pace that I should be running at, not MY pace; leaving me stuck in the gray zone and feeling crushed but never making progress. I viewed running as a way to change my body, not celebrate what it can do.

In 2020, this all changed. Alright, now I’m done. So what did I learn during my time spent in the woods? Here are seven lessons from running in the woods that don’t have anything to do with running at all.

Stop taking yourself so seriously.

Training is structured, absolutely. It should be and often needs to be. We rely on research, knowledge, and past experience in order to follow a structured plan that is guaranteed to get you to your goal. While the training is serious, you don’t have to be. Have fun with it!

You are the main character in your life. And you’re also the writer. You create the story that is your life. The world is a serious place, especially with all that has happened during 2020. Take time to find joy, find laughs, and happiness. It can be the smallest thing – a song, a funny meme, a goofy selfie, whatever!

Your pace does not dictate if you are a runner.

Okay, this is one I struggled with and why I think trail running held such an appeal to me. We all have a pace in our head. Whether from the timed mile test in grade school, or average paces of road runners, we like have a goal pace. This pace is likely not your pace.

IG post link about how to start running
Click the image to read my IG Post about picking YOUR pace.

On the trails these are thrown out the window. Everyone is different. There is no “average” there is no guidelines or benchmarks. It’s dependant on the elevation gain/loss of the trail you choose to run, your comfort level, how your body is feeling, how runnable the trail you chose is…it’s about you.

While the trail proves this, it extends to road miles, as well as other physical activity. Comparison steals your joy. The instant you begin to compare yourself with anyone other than yourself, joy is lost. (And we both want and need that joy!)

Nature is the best. Seriously.

I’ve always loved nature and being outdoors. But it’s truly a necessity. You don’t have to run. Just get outside. Feel the sun, fresh air, and breath. Go for a slow walk. Bundle up if it’s cold. Just spend time outside. Better yet, leave the phone at home (or on do not disturb if you need it for safety). Enjoy the sights and sounds of the outdoors.

Image of a trail coming out of the woods into a clearing
The view from the top of a particularly steep climb: Bicentennial Trail in Hixon Forest La Crosse, WI.

You can feel discomfort and still keep moving forward.

Over the course of my nearly 500 miles of running, it was NOT all comfortable. There were times when my knees ached, lungs were burning, upper back was sore… I could go on and on. But discomfort doesn’t mean you have to stop. Serious pain is a different story, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about that nagging, annoying discomfort that is unpleasant.

It’s bound to happen. Either physically or mentally, we’re going to, or already have, experienced discomfort. Instead of stopping and turning around, often we simply have to lean into that discomfort. Brace ourselves, know that we are strong, and push through it. If you know that discomfort is coming, even better! Feel it when it happens, but don’t let it turn you around. Move forward.

Often, training is mental, more than it is physical.

I’ve talked about this one before. Sometimes, training is simply about putting in the reps. Your body is capable, but when you’re training to do something you’ve never done before – like run a long distance or lift a PR (personal record) attempt – you have to train your mind.

One of my favorite quotes is: “Whether you tell yourself you can or you can’t, you’re right.”

Training the mind is often more important than training the body. Putting in the reps and the miles, is proving to yourself that you ARE capable of completing the distance or lifting the weight.

There are no shortcuts.

On those days that you do want to let discomfort win, the excuses start to creep in, or motivation is running low, you just have to do the work. Let discipline take the place of motivation and simply do it. There’s no shortcut to putting your head down and pushing through. Like with the discomfort, the only way is often to go right through it; there is no option to go around.

The ONE thing that we can control is ourselves.

This is a lesson we can all take from 2020. “Control the controllables” has been a mantra from the first pivot of the year. While much of the events have been out of our personal control, we can still control ourselves.

Selfie from the trails

We can control how we react and our emotions. We can control our workouts and training. We can control our nutrition and hydration. We can control our environment and how much news, social media, and tv we consume. We can control our sleep habits and environment. We can control our mindset.

It’s these little things that you can control. That you can take ownership over when there seems to be so many things out of your control happening around you. You can control yourself.

There you have it. Seven lessons learned from running in the woods…that really have nothing to do with running in the woods. I’ll leave you with these final thoughts:

Whatever your goal, take the rest of 2020 and absolutely crush it. Don’t wait until 2021. Just start today. Lean into that discomfort and push through it. You can do the hard things. You are capable. You are strong. You just have to put in the reps to get there.

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