Back in the heart of summer, I spent one week at an all-women’s trail running camp in Estes Park, Colo. – a small town located at the base of Rocky Mountain National Park. Elevation: 7,522 feet.
Each day we would wake up around 5:30 a.m. and run a new trail – sometimes straight up a mountain. Then we’d come back to camp and eat a delicious, healthy home-cooked breakfast before taking an hour or two nap. That would be followed by a workshop on training, form, nutrition, etc.; lunch; and an afternoon of cross-training (rock climbing, pool running, mini-hikes). The day ended with another phenomenal (vegetarian) meal. We’d then go to bed and repeat it all 8 to 10 hours later.
In short, it was a runner’s Utopia.
Going into this mini-adventure, I had no idea what to expect. Would I – a sea-level dwelling Bostonian – be able to handle the elevation? Would the running be too much? Would everyone be faster than me? Tougher than me? Would I even like these people?
I was nervous, anxious, and slightly terrified. What the hell had I gotten myself into?
As the cliché goes, though, the things that scare you the most are often the things most worth doing, and this was definitely one of those cases. I grew as a runner and (to hit you with another cliché) as a person, and learned a few valuable lessons along the way.
1. Try new things – even if you think you’ll suck at them. Kids are constantly trying new things but as adults, we tend to stick to what we know. There’s this fear many of us have of being terrible and failing. And while sucking at something is a bummer, you know what also is a bummer? Missing out on experiences because they’re new and unfamiliar. I’d never been rock climbing. I’d never run down mountains. I hadn’t even tried pool running because I thought it would be awkward and I would look like an idiot. Turns out, I’m not too shabby at all these things – in fact, some would even say I have a natural talent for running trails and climbing rocks. (Pool running is always kind of awkward and silly looking but also surprisingly entertaining.) And yes, I did fall. And yes, it was scary. But guess what? Sometimes that’s exactly what you need to get over yourself – and your fear – and start having fun.
2. Focus on the right here, right now. I usually like to zone out on my runs but when you’re running down a mountain, you need to be fully present. You need to actively think about what you’re doing – putting one foot in front of the other while avoiding rocks, roots, and all other sorts of trail debris. Because the second you let your mind wander, BAM! An ankle rolls. CRASH! You’ve got a scraped knee. While it sounds like a lot of mental work, I found it to be the opposite. It was quite meditative. In this world where we’re all doing 17 things at once – and always wishing we could do more – it was nice to focus on just a single task.
3. Don’t forget the meaning of easy. I never really “got” recovery runs. Why would you run when you could just sit on your couch with your feet up and watch Netflix? No run was that easy, in my opinion. So when I woke up on day 4 of camp and Every. Thing. Hurt., I was extremely skeptical of our “easy” 5 miler. After all, it was still 5 miles. On trails. At altitude. That’s not my definition of easy. At the beginning of the run, though, Terry – the camp’s founder, cook, and all-around running guru – told us to run as slow as possible. If something hurt, we were going too fast. If there was an uphill, we should walk. In fact we should walk whenever we felt like it. “OK, sure, whatever,” I thought as I shuffled away with the group at a 12 minute/mile pace. Much slower than any easy run I’ve ever run. But lo and behold, somewhere between miles 2 and 3, I noticed I felt … better. I started the run exhausted, drained, feeling tight and sore; I finished awake, energized, and perhaps most incredibly, less achy than I had been all week. So long story short? Easy runs are for real, and if you don’t “get” them, you’re probably doing them too fast. Game. Changer.
4. Stop and smell the flowers. Before this camp, I had been strictly a road runner and racer, and I assumed “trail running” simply referenced the running surface. I never realized there was an entire trail running culture. Not only are trail runners the coolest, nicest people you will ever meet, but their running mindset is something to aspire to. They’re all about embracing and enjoying the run. They’re not caught up with pace or rushing to finish so they can get on with their day. Running is a part of their day and they have no problems stopping to enjoy the scenery, snap a photo, or eat a snack.
5. For the downhill, you need the uphill. Hills are hard; mountains are harder. Our runs were up mountains, with elevation gains in the thousands of feet. (Our highest point was 12,546 feet.) The steep climbs, the thin air, and the new terrain made for some challenging uphills where at times we did a lot of power hiking and very little running. A great workout, sure. Beautiful, of course. But fun? That’s debatable. You know what was fun, though? Running – really running – down the mountain. Jumping from rock to rock, over roots, in between trees. It was exhilarating, freeing, and an adrenaline rush. And that’s something you can’t experience without putting forth the effort of getting to the top. The scamper up was worth the journey down.
While the camp I attended was all women (and, side note, they were all incredible women and I ended up liking them very much), Active at Altitude – the company who hosts these retreats – does have coed trail running camps as well as beginner running camps. If you’re even in the slightest bit interested, I can’t recommend it enough, and if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Please note: Active at Altitude did not at all sponsor this trip in any way nor did I receive any compensation from them for this post. I went on this trip as a runner, not a writer. All opinions are my own. It truly was phenomenal.