I am better than a result

I am better than a result. I have inherent worth. There is no such thing as good enough because I am innately good.

Despite the challenges of my injuries, I am certain that my best physical and mental days are ahead – that being the best athlete I can ever be is only possible because of the challenges I face now.

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These are the mantras I repeat, daily. My days are not always perfect, and there are times I question if I’m moving in the ‘right’ direction or forward at all. I face some sort of doubt and fear, every day. It’s an active choice to acknowledge them, confront them and lean into them.

Especially as I return to running, I am still holding onto many doubts surrounding my body, its capabilities and abilities to sustain the activities I want to do.

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Photo: Running in the Dolomites

This past week I faced some huge fears. I planned to complete a route I had always dreamed of completing – the HardRock 100-mile course. A group of good friends planned the adventure, aiming to complete the course in 3 days, averaging about 30 miles per day, with 10,000 feet of positive elevation gain, traversing the San Juan Mountains in Southern Colorado. I knew this undertaking would test me physically, but more so mentally. I was excited, yet anxious. Fearful of the technical terrain and its impact on my (still) recovering injuries.

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As I look back on the hours spent in the mountains, I’m in awe of our bodies and their resilience. I’m also in awe of the human spirit, how energy can ebb and flow. Entering this softrock endeavor, I was certain I would be the weakest one. But, each person in the group had their low moments and high moments, including myself. We supported each other – encouraging and supporting during the low moments, and doing the same when energy and motivation returned.

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Photo: SoftRock Day #2, on top of Handies Peak

I learned that energy is not constant, and no matter how well-trained an athlete is, there is also doubt and insecurities to face. It was empowering to see every single person confront these fears head on. One practice that helped me to confront my fears/insecurities and to keep pushing forward, was to say – out loud – three things I am grateful for, and one reason why I am great. My good friend, Lucy Bartholomew, had the idea. The only rule – we couldn’t repeat the same three things twice and we had to come up with a new reason we were great each day as well. It was a humbling practice and gave me strength to look for the positive, instead of focusing on my doubts of completing the route.

Filling my head with positive thoughts, even when I hurt, lacked energy, or was lagging behind on a downhill, wouldn’t allow room for negative thoughts or doubts in my head. It’s a daily practice I’m going to incorporate into my routine.

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Photo: Ice Lake

Upon writing this piece, I thought I was going to focus on the feelings of each day, and the pride of finishing such an epic course, just shy of a year from my accident. But now, I’m hoping to use it as a benchmark in my mental training, to remember it’s possible to accomplish the impossible if you’re willing to try and challenge doubt. Positivity and gratitude can alter your course, if you allow a little light to shine through.

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Photo: Silverton, CO after finishing the Hardrock 100 mile course.

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Lift The Label: My Experience with Opioids

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Photo: Mike Thurk

This post is sponsored by the Colorado Department of Human Services, Office of Behavioral Health’s Lift The Label campaign.

Pain and I have an interesting relationship. As an athlete – and runner – I’m pretty comfortable with it. In fact, a main goal of training is to get comfortable in the uncomfortable. The only way to do this is to experience pain, to invite pain into my training, to wrestle with the physical sensation of wanting to quit, wanting to stop moving, but continuing, despite the physical cues insisting otherwise. Then, do it again.

Pain is my training tool, and I think many other athletes can relate to this well. I’m describing a hard workout, a race or an ‘off day’ in training. They are painful. These hard days are instrumental in getting stronger mentally, but also physically. Some of the best-trained athletes are those that have the highest tolerance to pain, at their peak in a training season (Endure by Alex Hutchinson). I know that’s the case for me.

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So what is my relationship to pain, besides familiar? Is it healthy? Extreme, maybe? I experience pain on a daily basis and use it as a barometer to effort level, progress and the onset of an injury. Although my relationship with pain is a bit extreme compared to most, I think it is my familiarity with pain that allowed me to avoid other potentially dangerous conditions.

After my near fatal fall in Tromso, Norway, I sustained multiple, serious injuries. I was admitted to the hospital for nearly two weeks, had a total of five surgeries with twelve broken bones, and a very lengthy recovery process. Even as someone very familiar with pain, this pain was new, more intense, and at times, unbearable.

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I remember the first nights in the hospital, being unable to sleep due to an unrelenting pain. In order to receive some comfort and relief, the nurses gave me morphine and other prescription opioids so I could relax, sleep, and my body could try to repair itself. At this point in my recovery, I needed the relief so I could start to heal, so I could rest and not focus on the unyielding sensation of pain. But, as I made the transition to home, after my last round of surgeries and new prescriptions of painkillers, when was it appropriate to stop taking them? A sensation that I referred to as useful, as a mark of progress, had now turned into a sensation linked to fear. I was now afraid to feel pain. I didn’t want to feel it. I wanted to numb it. I wanted to be able to sleep, to relax, to feel normal. If I was in pain, I couldn’t sleep, I could hardly focus. I couldn’t live that way.

But the more I read about the effects of my painkillers – opioids – on healing my bones and ligaments, the more I questioned my use of them. I was instructed by my physicians to take the painkillers, insisting they would help me as my body healed from my accident. Opioids are prescribed extremely regularly – in fact, the prescribing rate for opioids in Colorado is 59.8 opioid prescriptions per 100 people. Yet, I was unconvinced. So I stopped. I didn’t refill my prescriptions and I became re-acquainted with my body, and how it was truly feeling.

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My story with opioids isn’t how everyone’s story goes, unfortunately. In the U.S., 2.1 million people suffer from opioid addiction and 115 people die every day from opioid overdose. Prescription opioids are incredibly normal – they’re prescribed to everyone, regularly. Grandmothers, teachers, children, you or me – we could all receive an opioid prescription from a doctor, so they can seem harmless to take. The truth is, opioid use is not so straightforward. It’s terrifying to think it can take as little as 7 days of opioid use for a person’s brain to become dependent on them.

Some people may be able to choose not to take them, like in my circumstance; some may take them and be fine.  Others may one day find themselves a part of the 2.1 million statistic. Prescriptions are often cited as the way many people first come into contact with opioids – 80% of people who use heroin first misused opioids from a prescription, and 40% of those overdose deaths I mentioned come from prescription opioids.

In addition to my familiarity with pain and its use as a training tool, I also have a master’s in neuroscience. So, my knowledge of the brain, addiction and its response to chemicals made my skepticism of opioid use even higher. Often, opioid use has the stigma of being seen as a moral failing, something a person chooses to do. This is just not true, it’s not how the brain works. Can you stop yourself from feeling hungry or thirsty? Or from telling your heart to beat or your lungs to breathe? There are certain things your brain overrides, and this is what happens when addiction takes over. It’s no longer a choice. Scientifically, we know that opioid addiction is actually a brain disorder – an actual illness that needs medical treatment.

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Photo credit: Mike Thurk

In Colorado, there are 22 certified opioid treatment programs and 600 doctors, physicians assistants and nurse practitioners statewide who can prescribe buprenorphine treatment. Often, what keeps those with opioid addiction from seeking help from these resources is that same stigma. The one that equates addiction with failure or poor choices. These labels only cause more harm, so, if you’re looking to make a difference in the opioid crisis, I’d encourage you to remember this –  beneath the label of opioid addiction is a person just like you or me, whose use of opioids may have started innocently, but then found themselves wrestling with a very real medical struggle.

If you or someone you love is suffering from opioid addiction, please reach out! You can also visit LiftTheLabel.org for more information, or if you feel your or another’s life is in immediate danger, call the Crisis Hotline at 1-844-493-8255.

Who I am – Without Running?

When did it become commonplace to define one’s life by a single subjective thing? When did we start whittling a person’s existence to a singularity; a career, a relationship or single attribute? Throughout evolution mammals never fixated on  one thing – if they had, they never would have survived. So why do we choose to judge, assume or react to ourselves and others based solely on one single attribute? Whether that be a physical characteristic, a personality trait or a job, modern society – enhanced by social media – encourages these snap judgements and generalizations.
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Photo Credit: Mike Thurk

I’ve certainly fell into this trap, especially when it comes to the activities I do. Since finding the sport, I have built a whole new life around running and the person I am as a runner. It’s an empowering community. To be surrounded by people who share your passions and can relate about gross toenails, ducking into the woods for a quick “break,” and especially those tiny moments where you feel so small, yet so connected to this vast universe. It’s addicting and can quickly become all you care about.

 

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Photo Credit: Greg Mionske

Recently, I’ve been forced to reevaluate this lifestyle. Now, the community and environment that has been a source of joy, belonging and acceptance has become painful. Running doesn’t come naturally to me now, it’s a battle of recovery, to regain strength so I can walk normally. Instead of finding solace in this community, connected and cemented in the life-centering activity of running, I find myself angry and consumed with grief. It has become isolating – a self inflicted ailment. Since I’m not running at the moment, I feel as though I have lost my identity, who I am. I’m lost in getting back to the “runner I was.” Trying desperately to prove to myself that this emptiness I feel can be fixed if I can just run again, if I could just walk down the street like a normal person, if I could just push through the pain of each step, if I could only go back in time and not step on that rock that cast me off the mountain side. If only . . . .

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Am I really that unbalanced? To be someone who defines their entire self-worth solely on one activity? Before my accident I would have defined myself as a balanced person. I have a Masters degree in Neuroscience and I teach Chemistry, Biology, and Physiology at a small college in Colorado. Anyone who knows me can see my extreme fascination and intrigue in the world around me, with science, especially with bugs, lizards and frogs. It’s been a passion of mine long before I became a runner and will likely continue to be something that captivates me long after I stop running competitively. I do have a life outside of running and I enjoy fostering those interests.

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Yet, I am still devastated by this state of injury I find myself in, and the halo of sadness that constantly surrounds me. So much so that it has begun to negatively affect my life outside of running, those interesting parts of me that have always been there. I’m realizing now that I have intertwined my identity with running. My injury is temporary, and as I continue to show signs of progress to regaining my strength and a sense of normalcy, this feeling of disconnection still persists. It can be dangerous, especially when ‘health’ and being ‘injury free’ seems to be the only cure – the promise of a wholly better self in all capacities, even those that weren’t directly injured in my accident. It is the utopian idea that once I can run again, all of my problems will disappear. But this is not true. Real life problems, the ones that running once helped alleviate, have a persistent nature and lay in wait for the next time I slow down or find myself injured again.

So I ask the question: who am I without running? Beyond my job, my hobbies, my relationships, what lays in wait there? I’ve struggled immensely since my injury and it’s forced me to take a deeper look and connect with who I am at my core – without the preconception of a job, activity or physical attribute interfering.

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Photo Credit: Greg Mionske

It’s a difficult question to ask, one I still struggle with. In fact, I’m still amid the process of introspection. It is the part of the injury recovery process that most people don’t get to see, and one we most often try to keep private, attempting to hide our struggle from others to save face. Why? I’m not sure I have those answers quite yet. I’m finding a sense of ease in the process but I still struggle. The biggest impact of this rebuilding process has been that I no longer look at myself through the lens of singularity. I can see a more complete and complex person beneath the brightly colored running shorts and shoes. One that enjoys being outside, with eyes glued to the ground in search of bugs, or frogs, simply because it makes me giggle and brings me joy. I want more of that complexity and diversity in my life. This injury and break from running has been immensely difficult but the blessing has been the lessons it has taught me about myself.

Of course, I’ll get back to running – it brings me so much joy to move in that way – but I’m no longer allowing my happiness to be fixed to that linear timeline. In the meantime, anyone want to go bug hunting?

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Resting Into Greatness

 

Resting is recovery. Resting IS recovery. Resting is . . . well . . . it’s hard. I’m a person of routine, and running is part of it. Running, moving, getting outside is part of me. It makes me better. I can focus; I’m more patient, and more productive. When I rest I find myself restless, not sure what to do with my pent up energy.

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It’s a distinct feeling from tapering. For a taper, I’m relieved for some rest and recovery. I am motivated to save my energy for an upcoming race or hard effort. I have an end goal. Extended periods of rest are a bit more difficult for me.

I like to take an off-season from competitions. I need the mental reset. Generally my off-season is October until my first race of the season in May, which leaves me with no real goals until the following spring. Of course I’m running during that time, but my intention is to reduce volume and intensity; I do easy running mixing in skiing and strength work. This time is important for me mentally and physically, so I feel rejuvenated when it’s time to train hard again.

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Logically I can talk my way through this, but when it’s actually time to rest, to recover and take a break, I struggle. Maybe you can blame this on my type ‘A’ personality, my goal-oriented way of thinking, my determination and discipline? All of these qualities make me a great runner and hard working; however, they also make it hard for me to chill out!

Recently resting has been a challenge for me. I spent the summer in Europe racing. I was focused, training every day, making sure I was prepared for the challenging races I committed to. So, once it was over and I returned home, I found myself at a loss. I was bored, unhappy and dissatisfied. It wasn’t due to disappointment – I was happy with my season – so what was it, this profound sense of uneasiness? So I went searching for it, trying to run through the boredom and uncertainty. I would stay in Boulder during the week to teach my classes, and then I would take off for 4 days, meeting up with friends or spending time in the mountains alone in hopes of shaking this unease.

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But I didn’t find it. I only ran into tears, fatigue and more dissatisfaction. I wasn’t giving myself permission to enjoy the down time. I was terrified of where my mind would go, what I would do with my time, of feeling unproductive.

Finally, after too many runs spent crying and wondering why I was still pushing, I realized rest was really what I needed. In fact, after a few days, I got pretty good at it. I just needed permission to rest, and some time to figure out the transition; to establish a new routine.

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I’m learning these periods of relaxing and allowing myself to move at a slower pace are a treat. I come back stronger, more motivated and eager. It’s not always easy. There are definitely days where I have to be more patient and not be so hard on myself, but those days are getting easier. I’m letting myself rest into greatness.

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Check out more articles at Trail Sisters, and thanks to The North Face for their continued support.

Why live a life that’s perceived as mad?

Why live a life that’s perceived as mad?
It’s 3am. I’m surrounded by darkness and a crisp breeze. Goosebumps line my skin, I feel groggy, unmotivated and tired. I lace up my running shoes, as I try to silence the voices in my head: “You’re going running again today? Why so far? Why so long? Why?” . . . . I stare into the darkness, turn on my headlamp, start my watch and go.

 

I was living a life perceived as mad. My family didn’t understand, most of my friends thought I was crazy, sometimes I didn’t even understand why I running. I didn’t understand until I was out there, moving; when I was feeling the mountain air, listening to my footsteps, breathing and pushing my body forward, it all made sense. All questioning dissipated, it didn’t matter what they thought, what anyone thought, I was in my element, my own world. A runner.

 

I haven’t always been a runner, let alone an endurance mountain runner. I was on track to a life defined solely by my job, the amount of money I made, the car I drove and the house I lived in. Not a life guided by my passions, providing freedom to dream and pursue goals other than those associated with a job. This transition, to be a mountain runner, an ultrarunner, to a life focused on the outdoors, has been met with skepticism. Most people didn’t understand what I was doing. Why was I running? What was I running from? What was this ‘obsession,’ this gratuitous hobby?

At first I didn’t know. It’s unexplainable and complex; this desire to run extreme distances through technical terrain, over high-mountain passes through unexplored territory. Is it mad? Some days I think it is. When I’m suffering and battling through the pain, the desire to stop, the raw state of my body exposed to the relentless mountain. Is this life mad? No. In fact, it’s the opposite. In these raw moments I find strength. I find the power within myself to continue and face any challenge that comes my way. It’s a feeling, a place where my mind is clear and I am connected with the world, my heart, and my thoughts. It is the place where I feel the most at home in my own skin, where I can challenge myself, learn, grow and become stronger. It’s a deeply personal form of self-exploration, yet it transcends into every aspect of my life, making me better. It’s powerful, rewarding and beautiful. This madness, is not really madness at all, but a steadfast desire, guiding my heart, mind and soul to a greater purpose and belonging.

 

#QuestionMadness

 

Balance

Strictly speaking, balance is defined as the ability to remain upright and steady due to an even distribution of weight. This is definitely applicable for most trail runners – although falling is inevitable at times. However, I’d like to talk about a different kind of balance, one dealing with the stability of one’s mind and state of being. I’m constantly striving for balance. Maybe you laugh, scoff even, that an ultra runner knows the meaning of the word. Balance? Indeed, I am familiar with the term, and I strive for balance in my daily life.

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First, I start with running. It’s a huge part of my life, and my favorite way of enjoying nature. However, I don’t want to overdo it. This is to prevent over-training, but even more importantly, to prevent burn out or lack of motivation in my running/racing. I balance my training: mileage, hours and vertical gain.

Now, it’s not always easy to maintain this balance. Heard of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)? What about YOLO (You Only Live Once)? I fall victim to these ailments, especially when I’m traveling or exploring a new area. All I want to do is get out and run for hours and hours up every mountain I see! Of course, I will get after it, but I’m constantly monitoring how I feel. I allow myself the freedom to slow down, skip a workout, take an extra rest day, or go longer that day if I’m feeling good. I am dedicated to my training plan, but want to maintain a playfulness and happiness with running. This balance keeps me hungry for more.

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I can’t run all the time, and even if I could, I don’t want to. Another important aspect to maintain a balanced mind is work. This is something us runners don’t talk about a lot. We assume that if someone is a sponsored runner, that’s all they do. Wrong. In fact, the majority of ‘professional’ trail runners have a day job too, a family and other interests that they are balancing. For me, it’s science.

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I’ve been a scientist since before I could walk. I’m pretty sure my first words were ‘miller moth,’ you know, those moths that come around in hoards once a year and get stuck in your house? Yep. I wanted to be an entomologist for as longa as I can remember, dressing up as an entomologist on career day in kindergarten, or for every Halloween.

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This love of science and curiosity in the natural world motivated me to earn an undergraduate degree in Organic Chemistry and a Masters degree in neuroscience. I worked or volunteered in labs starting in middle school.

Currently, I’m teaching chemistry, physics, anatomy and physiology at a small college outside of Boulder, CO. It’s the perfect way to motivate the next generation of scientists. Plus, it’s challenging to teach the material well.

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Science, teaching and running are major parts of my life, without each piece I am not whole. I’m a better teacher if I prioritize running before class. I have more energy and more focus. Then, when it’s time to run, I make it count no matter what the training is that day (even rest days). Balance is more of a way of living, rather than an achievement. It allows me the freedom for change, constantly adjusting my life as my interests evolve. I also coach runners, I ski, and rock climb. I do yoga, cycle, read, cook and travel. Now, of course, I can’t balance those daily, but I can incorporate them in my lifestyle as a whole. Each adding a unique value to my life, while contributing to entirety of me.

 

Check out more pots on Trails Sisters

 

Past the Limit

Ultra running is a niche sport, an extreme one at that. It can take many forms as far as terrain, but the definition is simple: covering a distance more than a marathon. Covering that distance in one piece however, is not so simple.

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I first discovered ultra running in the form of mountain running. This quickly turned into a love for an even more extreme form of mountain running known as skyrunning. Here, courses take you from the sea to the sky, in the most direct path imaginable. This year I’ve been lucky enough to compete in La palama (Transvulcania 75km), Madeira (Madeira ultra sky 50km), the Dolomites (Cortina Trail 50km), and the Pyrenees (Buff Epic 110km). I find motivation and challenge in skyrunning, due to the demanding technicality and steep grades. However, my most recent race, the Buff Epic, at the skyrunning world championships in Valle de Boí, forced me to places I had never been before.

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I’m not going into the details of a race report, but for background, this race was 110km with 8000m of positive gain (about 69 miles and 26,500ft). Extreme.

 

I knew this race would challenge me, maybe even break me, but never did I expect the day I had.

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I started comfortable, anticipating all the climbs, letting the steepness dictate my pace. I felt comfortable, calm to be running. Within the first 20k I had already managed to go off course for a few minutes, to fall on some slippery rocks, but even that couldn’t get my spirits down. I knew I was going to be out there all day, mentally I was ready to be patient.

Then, all of a sudden it hit me. Nausea. I was being proactive about my nutrition, but suddenly, around the 25km mark, even the smell of food made my stomach turn. I would vomit when I tried to eat anything!

I thought things would turn around if I stuck to liquid calories and salt to get back in some electrolytes, but things just got progressively worse. Sipping coca cola soon lead to vomiting and by the 50km mark I was stuck to drinking a salt solution provided by the aid station, with very little caloric value. I was worried and I wanted to quit.

I had an amazing support crew who were meeting me around all sections of the course (which were really hard to get to), so perhaps that was a source of motivation. But, for me, running is so personal. I won’t simple do a race or a run because someone tells me to, I must be convicted to do it myself. So I kept going.

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This time, every uphill, or slightly steep pitch I was dry heaving. Pushing my body past a certain pace caused me to double over with nausea. I was 67km in.

My mind was spiraling. I worried about my place. How I was competing – I wasn’t competing. I wondered what people would think about my performance, it was the world championships, I wondered if I was a horrible runner now. I thought about quitting simply because I wasn’t in a podium position like I imagined I would be. Right then, I stopped on the trail, and told myself out-loud: ‘That’s a horrible reason to quit Hill, and it’s not why you run.”

 

So I kept moving forward. Around 75km now.

 

I wanted to quit! Why wasn’t I quitting?? Should I quit? Am I causing myself damage? How am I able to walk up this mountain with no food in me??

 

I carried these questions with me into the last major aid station at 81.5km, convinced this was the time to call it quits. I had run 50 miles – that was good enough. Plus, I didn’t want to run in the dark. I was ready to quit, like I had told myself around the 30km mark.

 

My crew had everything prepared. My headlamp, water, more water – water was the only thing I could stomach now. I looked at their faces to confirm my defeat, but they told me they’d see me at the finish. I didn’t believe I’d make it. But I got up, making my way towards the door, hesitant. I wanted to quit, to end the suffering, but I was still moving toward the door. I left in a slow trudging jog.

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Where was the hope, the perseverance, and this determination within me? Why were my feet still moving me forward? How? Why won’t my stomach stop hurting? How in the world am I still dry heaving? Why am I not quitting?? I still want to quit.

 

These words played like a broken record within my head. Repeating, circling, questioning, begging myself to quit. I really had no idea how I was still moving or if there was anything to be proud of with my performance. I was absolutely defeated. Yet, still moving. How were these two things possible?

 

The last few hours of my race were all a blur. The dull ache of my stomach and my circling questions made time irrelevant. I came to when I say the 1km mark on the side of the trail. I had made it to the finish, but not in a triumphant manner, or with any extra surge of energy. I was relieved and confused crossing the finish line. Why and how did I keep going? How did I make it hear.

 

Over the next few days, I kept reliving my experience and I still can’t explain what transpired that day. I’ve always said I run for the challenge, and the strength it gives me as a person. That day I felt the weakest and most challenged in a race or run. Extraordinarily, I still had something more. Nothing tangible or explicable, but I had something deeper that kept me moving forward, something that wouldn’t let me give up or give in to the pain, the challenge and doubt.

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I wouldn’t have discovered this silent strength, this powerful force within me, unless I was pushed past my limit. I would have never known I possessed this immeasurable strength if I had not kept going that day. This is my silver lining, and the true reason why I run. There is strength in the struggle and grace in the challenge. All I must do, is simply run.

 

 

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Thank you to The North FaceSky RunnerUltimate DirectionSkratch LabsSwiftwick Socks and Real Athlete Diets (RAD) for their continued support.