If you had asked me two years ago if I wanted to go for a run, I probably would have laughed at you and come up with an excuse for why that was not possible.
I was a cyclist. I hadn’t owned a car for over a decade, and I was obsessed with pedaling all types of bicycles (I’m pretty sure I had five AND a tricycle at the time).
Early in the summer, I broke a part on my mountain bike and the cost to repair it was going to be close to seven hundred dollars. I just didn’t have the cash at the time, so converted to road biking for the rest of the season. All of this was fine and well, but after a few weeks, the local trails in the hills and mountains were calling to me.
I missed the sights, the smells and the feeling of solitude experienced when you disappear on a good bit of single track. With the urge to get off the black-top and onto some dirt growing within me, I felt it was time to find a new way to enjoy the trails.
Like any new sport or activity, there is the initial ‘buy-in,’ if you will. This was the first part of running that I found appealing: It was cheap to get into. I already had shorts and a tee shirt, and all that was left was a pair of shoes. I needed a decent pair of trail runners that could handle the rugged terrain. Not knowing anything about the sport and the footwear involved, I did what anyone might do and bought the first pair that was visually appealing.
‘Sweet! I’m ready to hit the trails and I’m only set back about seventy bucks.’
Personally, every time I try something new I’m met with feelings of awkwardness, trepidation, and self-consciousness. It’s the fear of the unknown that might hold anyone back from actually trying that thing in the first place, but at the same time, that fear can be exciting. You’re challenging yourself to step out of your comfort zone and explore something new.
With all this in my head and a fresh pair of shoes on my feet, I headed out onto same the trails where I had ridden my bike for years. I was excited to get back out there and revisit my favorite sections, only this time by the power of my own two feet.
Let’s just say my expectations and fantasies were ground to a quick halt only a few miles in. I quickly realized that this shit is hard. I didn’t have the wheels of my bicycle to assist with a quick descent, a saddle to rest on over the flats, nor the suspension to rely on to carry me smoothly over the rocks and roots. I had to find a way to make my body do all of that on its own, and it was amazingly challenging at first.
I thought for sure I was going to be able to cover a decent section of trail my first time out, but my legs and my lungs were not in running shape and that I learned quickly as I gasped for air only a few miles in. I swallowed my pride and ran a much shorter distance than I expected.
Even though we learn to run at such a young age, most of us become separated from this activity that was once so natural (for the record, the day after, I sure didn’t think it was very natural given how sore my legs were).
But I was determined. I was determined to get better at this ‘trail running’ thing, partially because I’m cheap (I still didn’t want to spend the money to fix my bike), but partially because I enjoyed the challenge.
Even though I couldn’t go as far running as I could on my bike at first, the slower pace provided more time to actually look around and take in my surroundings. I started running more and more, and slowly but surely, built up my fitness to be able to enjoy the trails as opposed to just getting through them. The running bug had really sunk its teeth in me, and I started to wonder how far and how high I could go. With Snow King and Cache Creek as my training ground, I started to set my sights on trails and mountains in Grand Teton National Park (but more on that later).
Running, like a lot of really demanding physical activity, can be difficult to motivate yourself to do at times. Feeling this, I thought it would be a good idea to sign up for a race and use that as my motivation. I wanted to see where I stood in this new world of trail running, as being out there by myself I had yet to find out where I fit. I also wanted to see how far I could push myself, and figured this would be a good way to do so relatively safely (most races have aid stations and some sort of medical staff on hand).
Nervously, I signed up for my first trail running race: the Spitfire Ultratrail Challenge 25K in Menan, Idaho. Coinciding with the middle of winter, I quickly wondered how I was ever going to get ready for this event while we were getting buried in snow. At the time, I had never run further than ten miles at the very most. Doing a 25K race would be the furthest I’d traveled on my feet yet.
All nerves aside, I made it through my first event pretty well. I learned a lot about myself and the new sport (remembering that it was only because I was too cheap to fix my bike), including one big lesson: to look at the course guide beforehand. I will never forget the feeling when, closing in on the finish line, I thought we were almost done. This was only to be met with the realization that we were only halfway there: the course required us to do the entire lap again.
While the hurt of completing my first race set in, I was already wondering if I could go a little bit further. After giving myself just enough time to recover, I quickly started to look around for the next, longer event to register for, as well as what trails I could run in the Tetons. I found The Old Gabe 50K in Bozeman, Montana: my first ultramarathon. Excitement mixed with nervousness as I knew I was pushing my boundaries even further. As it turned out, I was not able to complete the 50k due to a partial ACL tear I suffered out on the course (I did, however, complete the 30k portion of the race by limping my way to the finish line).
It was a really strange mix of feelings: I was stoked I had just finished my longest race yet, but at the same time, was barely able to walk. I spent the next month in a knee brace and was told not to run at all (although could bike with the brace), and was given a series of exercises to do on a daily basis by an amazing healer and physical therapist.
I feel lucky to say I came away from the injury a little wobbly, but overall feeling strong. The daily commitment to the bike and the exercises really did pay off, and with it, the itch to get out and explore the trails returned. This included the Teton Crest Trail, just over 40 miles point to point (something that would take your average backpacker four days to complete). Closed to bikes, as a non-runner this trail had remained a fantasy for over a decade. It’s funny and amazing how things work out when you put your mind to it. With the support and confidence of a good friend and almost 11 hours together on the trail, we got it done.
There is something about moving quickly along a trail high up in the mountains where you can take in all the sights, sounds, and smells. Intoxicating, I might even say.
Fast forward about a month, and I was signing up for the Park City North Face Endurance Challenge in Utah. When the registration process prompted me to choose a distance, keeping with the theme of pushing my limits, I went for the 50-miler. Immediately after I hit the button, the question arose. What have I gotten myself into? Although I had just run 40, running an extra 10 miles in a day in race format was something I wasn’t sure I was ready for.
When I got to Park City, the weather turned and we had snow in the forecast. As a result, the race director and ski resort managers altered the course to reduce the elevation we were supposed to run. I couldn’t help but have a little laugh to myself because as I finally taken the time to review the course map, all that was changing. I guess I really am supposed to just wing it.
I managed to finish the 50-mile Endurance Challenge in just under ten hours. While I was walking funny for a few days after the race, I recognized how much I learned that day, after traveling those miles and dealing with the roller coaster of emotions that come up when running a long event. I’m constantly amazed at what my body is able to do when I ask it to, and what my mind can handle when things are not going as planned.
Once a cyclist (and non-runner), I’m excited to keep pushing myself to see how far my mind and body can go. And I am incredibly grateful for every step along the way.
It’s funny to think that what prompted this path was not for the intrigue of running, but instead to avoid spending seven hundred dollars on a new bike part. I’ve since spent much more than that on race fees, gas money, and of course, the gear.
When you find something you love, the money doesn’t matter.
This was Matty’s first contribution to the DBR Blog. Thinking of getting into trail running? Consider these tips!