I still remember my first run. I was thirteen. I left from my backyard and ran on a small stretch of grass before hitting the newly paved trail that went all the way to my friend’s house. It was probably only 2 or 3 km, but I still remember my feet hitting the pavement in what seemed a perfect stride, a light breeze blowing through my long blonde hair, and my heart pumping as I ran past a small forest and manicured lawns. I distinctly remember the feeling in that moment that nothing else mattered in the world.
That was the start of my love of running. I loved feeling the exhilaration of my body moving swiftly and seemingly effortlessly. I loved running with no expectations. I did not have a watch to gage distance, pace or heart rate. As a teenager, I often ran at dusk; my legs spinning fast the last few blocks to my house, I would round the cul-de-sac just as the sun was setting.
At sixteen I ran my first 10km race and at eighteen my first half marathon. I became hooked on the adrenalin and sense of accomplishment that it brought and I continued to run road races throughout my twenties. I frequented the 109 Street Running Room store in Edmonton to buy running gear and new shoes for the season, run with the Wednesday night group, and excitedly check the upcoming race schedule posted in store (this was the time before the internet).
I did not realize then just how lucky I was to have discovered my love of running at such a young age. How fortuitous it would be when I encountered life’s challenges. Fifteen years into my running “career”, I was a new mother when I first heard of trail running. Although I had hiked and backpacked in the mountains, I had never run on a mountain trail. Suddenly, I had a burning desire to run deep in the backcountry and escape the sometimes monotonous routine of being a mother.
My youngest was six months old when I planned to run the Canadian Death Race. Unfortunately, a back injury and a year of physiotherapy not only prevented me from realizing that dream, but stopped me from running for 2 years altogether. Instead, as part of my recovery, I walked. I walked and I dreamed of the day I could run on mountain trails. Slowly I added running on the track, first two minutes and then five minutes. Eventually, I worked up to ten minutes of running outside.
Just as my running was progressing, my mom was diagnosed with a rare cancer. Grief stricken, I stopped running. After three months, it became apparent that I needed to run not so much for my physical recovery but for my emotional wellbeing. Walking with short running intervals became my crutch, my way of coping with the uncertainty. It was how I managed to get through the day with two small girls and a mother who was battling an aggressive cancer.
On those runs, I dreamed more than ever of running on a trail deep in the mountains in the middle of nowhere where I could be surrounded by wildness and the healing powers of nature. Where I could briefly escape the very real fear I faced every day. Would my mother survive this? Would she be around to watch my girls grow? Would she be here to help me on my mothering journey?
On those runs, I was able to let go of my fear and simply feel the exertion of my body. In those moments, I was finally able to run freely with no pain, I dreamed of recovery for my back and healing for my mother. I dreamed I would trail run one day and that I would come out of this challenging time stronger as a result.
Sadly, my mom died seven years ago, one year after she was diagnosed with cancer. In a short span of time, I experienced postpartum depression, grief, insomnia and anxiety. Running in the forest became my ritual, my daily practice. Running, and especially trail running, was instrumental to my healing. In the year my mom died, I ran my first trail race in Canmore and for the last 5 years I have run in the Sinister 7 mountain trail race that takes place in her hometown and where her ashes and memorial bench now rest.
What I love about running is that in a matter of minutes, I am transported from the confines of the city and into the forest. I become lost in my surroundings and let go of worry. After my mom passed, I became a meditation teacher and now have a daily meditation practice. However, it is running in the forest among the birches and the birds, the wildflowers and the wind, where my practice is elevated to a whole new level. In nature, I feel an expansiveness, a sense of freedom – a connection to something greater.
Last year, on a hot summer day, I woke early and drove four hours to the mountains. I ran 30km along pristine jade coloured lakes, flowery meadows and lodge pole pine and swam in a backcountry lake before driving home and crawling into bed with utter satisfaction. In the fall, I ran my first ultra-marathon, 50km along the highest mountain in the Rockies. It took over a decade, but I finally realized the dream I had 12 years ago. The dream of running in the backcountry, pushing my body while exploring the vast wilderness.
Although 30 years have passed since that first life-changing run, when I head into the forest and my feet hit the trail in a seemingly perfect stride, I experience the same sense of freedom and exhilaration I did as the young girl with blond hair flowing in the wind while she ran past the trees on the way to her friend’s house. My mind clears, a lifetime of challenges dissipates, and I become lost in the moment.