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“You hated running. What changed?” I’ve gotten this question multiple times from friends and family. People see me running 5-6 times a week and wonder who the hell this person is and what they did with the real Kyle. In hindsight, for me at least, it’s easy to see why I fell in love with trail running.
Throughout my life, what they said was true. I hated running.
I was that person sighing when the coach said we were going to do sprints. Friends who went for runs were aliens to me and I was content letting them head to their little running planet alone.
In fact, in my freshman year of high school, I decided to join the track team. I went to the first practice with dreams of being a sprinter. One hundred meters, two hundred meters? Sounds great.
The coaches took a look at me and said, “He looks like he’d be a fantastic distance runner.” My heart sank. Distance? I don’t want to run long distances, I thought.
The coaches had us do our first run. A simple out-and-back to the local Wendy’s, which was only two kilometers in all.
The other runners ran to Wendy’s, I ran home. No way was I about to be a distance runner. I just couldn’t understand why someone would want to run long distances.
The irony is fantastic, I know.
A Little Background
So, to understand why I fell in love with trail running, there are a few things you need to know about me.
I’ve always been an average athlete, but I love sports. I had always played basketball and baseball growing up. Then I graduated from high school, and the opportunity to play organized sports waned.
All I had was the occasional pick-up game of basketball and intramural games at my college. And that was mostly people who just wanted to have fun and maybe get drunk before (and after) the games.
However, I’m ultra-competitive and want to win at everything. If you accidentally kick a rock down the street while we’re strolling along, I’m going to find a rock and make sure to kick it further than yours. Accidentally, of course.
But, I graduated from college, went on and did other things, and had no means to play any type of sport. It drove me crazy.
Toward the end of 2017, my girlfriend, Kaitlyn, and a friend of ours, Carey, decided to sign up for a half-marathon in Phuket, Thailand, where we were living at the time.
“Come on, Kyle. You should sign up for a run. You don’t have to do the half-marathon. Just do a shorter race,” Kaitlyn and Carey said on more than one occasion.
“No way, man. I’m not a runner, and I never will be.”
But, the idea kept weighing on me. Why not just try it?
Their sales job eventually worked. I signed up for the 10k.
Now it was time to train for it. I had no idea what I was doing. Do I just go out and run hard every run? Well, that’s what I did. That lasted for a few weeks, then slowly winded down, as did my enthusiasm for the race.
My First Race
But that didn’t stop the race date from approaching, and I found myself on the start line, standing next to my friend and course director of the TEFL course I did in Phuket, Eric.
“Stick with me. Many times there’s a log jam in the beginning, but you can weave your way around and get out to a good start,” Eric said to me.
I had no idea what he was talking about, but the ’stick with me’ part sounded good.
The race started, and Eric took off. I ran hard, trying to keep him in view as he dodged, ducked, dipped, dived, and dodged around other runners.
Finally, we were in the clear, and we were toward the front of the pack. Eric continued pushing his pace. And I felt those long-dormant competitive juices start running through my veins.
It was something I hadn’t felt in a long time, and I loved it.
Eric eventually dropped me as I couldn’t keep his pace, and I watched him become a tiny dot in the distance until I was by myself.
About six kilometers in, I was struggling.
This is f—cking hard, I thought to myself. And, just as that thought crossed my mind, a younger woman flew past me in her bare feet, another person that would become a tiny dot in my vision.
What is this sport? People run in their bare feet and still leave me in their dust?
I got to the finish line (barely) and went to take a seat. I needed it. That race was one of the most challenging things I had ever done to that point.
As I sat on the curb near the finish line, I observed the runners who had finished and others who were just now finishing.
And, I was amazed by one thing that everyone had in common. Every person had a smile on their face. They slapped each other’s backs, exchanged high-fives, and congratulated each other on a job well done.
The energy was electric. You couldn’t be there and not feel the general positivity that everyone had. Even the volunteers had big, bright smiles on their faces, cheering runners on and helping them with anything they needed.
It made an imprint on me, and it’s something I’ve found in every race I’ve done. And I think it’s unique to running.
The Take-Home Message
It took me a while, and a lot of running, until I was able to formalize my thoughts on the subject and began to understand what made this sport so special.
I had always taken competitiveness to be me against you. Your success means my failure. And I’d be damned if I was going to fail.
But that’s only a form of competition. There’s also the competition against yourself, and that’s what running embodies. And is a much larger challenge, in my opinion.
You compete against other runners, sure. But, the actual competition is against your past self. It’s how you train and the work you put in to be better than you were yesterday, last week, last month, or last year.
It’s something that applies to all areas of life, but it first revealed itself to me in the form of running.
And that’s what made me a runner. I no longer had the option to compete against others in organized sports, but I could compete against myself. And, if you think beating others in a game is great, then winning against your past self is intoxicating.
So Why Trail Running?
So, let’s get to trail running. That run was on the road, and I continued running on the road for a couple of years.
But, I started seeing more about trail running. These grizzled athletes, going out into nature, traversing insane distances and elevations, fighting their body to keep going, and then coming back out a better version of themselves. Well, maybe not at that exact moment, but eventually.
And the views along the way were incredible. Dense forests with trees reach out over the trail. High mountains with wide vistas stretching out seemingly forever. It embodied the beauty that Earth has on display for us if we just go looking for it.
Cities have never been my thing. But, you show me a good trail, and I’m perfectly content spending hours on it.
Ultimately, the answer was right there in my face. That race led me off the streets and onto the trails. No way was I going back to road running.
The feeling of running on a trail was as refreshing as the air in the forest. The terrain added to the challenge. Uneven paths, hills that rose and dropped quickly, roots and rocks sticking out, hoping to trip you up. It was all so….incredible!
Most of all, it seemed like running became simpler.
I know it’s cliché to say, but I felt more connected to what we evolved doing. It brought back the joy into something that had started to become stale.
I wasn’t thinking of splits, cadence, stride length, running power—none of it.
It was just me and the forest. I didn’t care how long my runs took. It was just longer I got to spend on the trails! I came out of the forest, covered in mud, leaves, grass, and what I’ve dubbed ‘trail goo,’ and it made me feel like a kid again.
It didn’t hurt that, as I became a full-on trail runner, I started feeling healthier, too.
The added climbs made my legs more defined and stronger. The uneven terrain provided a full leg workout and some core work as I worked to maintain balance. And my knees didn’t have that ache that I’d feel after a road run.
And this isn’t mentioning the health benefits of spending time in nature.
Running became fun again. It was my excuse to get out and play in the forest.
And that’s all trail running is for me, ultimately. I tell people I’m training for a race or doing it to stay healthy. But that’s just my excuse to go play.
And that’s what drew me in like a hit of heroin and kept me coming back for more. The trails are my dealer, and they’re serving up the good shit. And me? I’m a full-on junkie for it.