For as long as I can remember, I have dealt with anxiety in some form or the other. The diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder has been stamped on my medical charts since my early 20s. However, I am not ashamed of it. This is who I am, and my brain is just wired a tad differently. I am also certain that anyone who meets me in person could pick up on the fact that I’m anxious after 5 minutes of conversation. I feel as if my anxiety is as much a part of my personality as much as my ridiculous ability to remember random movie or television trivia. I am who I am, and who I am is anxious.
My anxiety had a heckuva time after my cancer diagnosis, where every unfamiliar pain or ache led my brain to leap to the “YOUR CANCER IS BACK OH MY GOD” conclusion. It’s cliché, but it is true for me that anxiety is fear of the unknown. I started running in 2013 as a way to cope with my anxiety and well, just life.
I am never going to be that person who says, “Oh running is my therapy” because that is such a BS, tone deaf statement for anyone with actual mental health problems, like anxiety. No, therapy is my frickin’ therapy. Running is just one of the several tools I use to help manage my anxiety. While I run, my brain quiets and I’m not overthinking. It’s my meditation.
Enter Covid-19, and one of my tools to managing for my anxiety transformed into one of my sources of stress and anxiety, instead of my respite from them. Normally, I am a road runner. When the pandemic first began, I would try to avoid as many people as I could while running some of my common paths. However, other Pittsburghers would have the same idea as me, and I ended up playing the “excuse me” game to small groups of people either running, walking or riding their bike.
Whenever I witnessed people not social distancing or not wearing masks, I would feel a combination of anger and helplessness about them not following the rules. I missed running with my friends, and I was running solo. Why can’t they follow the rules?!? What makes them so special?!? Oh lord, this pandemic will never end….
As soon as I realized that after a run, I was routinely walking back to my car in a fit of rage, instead of my normal state of productive exhaustion, I knew I had to make a change.
I decided to switch from road running to trail running to stay away from as many people as I could.
If you know me and my history of trail running, then you’d know this is a big deal because I am not really confident when it comes to trail running. Like, not at all. I have done a handful of trail races without actually having ever trained for a trail race. Unsurprisingly, I did not do particularly well at these races. In summer 2019, I signed up for three ridiculously difficult trail race. I completed two of those races, and the third one I gave up after the first loop (my first DNF – did not finish).
When I decided to start primarily running trails, I was signed up for a race in August that I knew would be canceled. However, I figured that it was good motivation to get me out there on the trails anyway. (Turns out, I was right, and the race was recently postponed until 2021.) Regardless, this race that never was turned out to be great motivation to get me out there.
Trail running is hands down much more difficult than road running, and in the past, I have been discouraged from trail running due to that very fact. It is hard. The elevation gain, and terrain that can send you flying down a hillside face-first if you’re not careful, all make for an adventurous and challenging task. I’m a klutzy person in general, so someone like me trail running is asking for trouble.
These last months trail running has changed something in me and how I see myself as a runner. I really enjoy trail running, and at the same time, I’m still not very fast or good at it. Finally, I got to my moment of Zen about trail running: Who cares!?!
When I am running in the woods, I never feel so alone yet so connected to something bigger than me. As I huff and very much puff along the trail path, I can focus on what I hear and do not hear. I listen out for other runners or hikers on the path, or the sound of mountain bikes coming toward me at a speed I do not understand or wish to emulate.
The views I get to see on my trail runs are incredible and oftentimes, I just stop my watch and take in my surroundings. I rarely take pictures whenever I do that because I don’t believe I can truly capture what it is all I am seeing. It’s not just the sights. It’s the smells and the sounds. The symphony of birds chirping or birds rhythmically pecking at trees entertain me.
I like whenever I pass by spots where uprooted trees have toppled down the hillside. Sometimes the base of the tree where the roots are jutting out look like a creature straight out of Jim Henson’s imagination, and I expect to see a pair of sleeping monster eyes open from their slumber.
Other joys of trail running include spotting creatures I normally don’t see on the road. I have seen groundhogs, and been stopped in my tracks to wait for deer to leave the path. One time, a small feral black cat crossed my path. As soon as the little spooky kitty spotted me, it dashed the other way and I felt the opposite of cursed. I had to make a last second leap to avoid accidentally stepping on a tiny toad. Squirrels and chipmunks are a constant sighting, and they rustle the branches and brush alongside the trail as I run by. Sometimes I feel like I have been transported in a Bob Ross painting, even during a heat wave that’s making me sweat buckets at 6:30 am.
I don’t that many other people often during my run, and that’s been my saving grace during this pandemic. I do miss running with my trail buddies, but for now, I have to keep at this by myself for the time being. The time I am spending by myself and challenging myself at something that has been daunting to me for so long has been wonderful for my self-esteem. I can do hard things. Maybe when we’re allowed to have races again, I will sign up for more and actually do well because I am getting over my weird complex about trail running.
No matter what, I am kicking ass by just finishing these runs. It doesn’t matter that my pace is slow compared to others. Who cares? I am having fun, and my quads are getting even more massive (you can’t see it, but I am smirking with pride right now). I am a runner without a single race to train for, and what a change of pace this has been…. Um, pun not intended.