It was an early morning, and a couple of running friends and I set off for an easy run along our local trail. I started thinking about my daughter, who died suddenly last year, and about life, grief, and how things often don’t end up the way we expect them to. As my hips and knees started their usual grumpy twinges that accompany the start of any run after a running hiatus, I thought back to my last race, which was a couple weeks ago.
The last race I ran was a half trail marathon in Oakland Hills, California. The course is a little over 13 miles in the wooded, hilly area near San Francisco. The name of the run is misleading. It should be called Oakland Extreme-Mountains-Of-Painful-Cramps-And-Stinging-Hornets Trail Run.
I ran this race for the first time right before Eve died last year, and my quads knotted up and it sucked. I decided to run it again (I’m kind of bullheaded in that way) and I expected to sail through those hills and set a PR (personal record). But it was not in the cards, and instead I was plagued with painful cramps in both calves that locked my toes under my feet at mile four.
I hobbled to mile nine where my coach for my running group gave me some salt tablets, and said — ‘Only four more miles to go! You got this!’ Despite the fact that the last four miles were entirely uphill, I managed to drag myself up the mountain and over the finish line (because you don’t argue with your running coach, especially when she’s badass.) Then seeing that I did much worse than my previous time, I felt so defeated, so disappointed that all I wanted to do was cry.
My coach, one of the most amazing women to walk this planet, told me in my early, uncertain days, ‘You ARE a trail runner. You are here, and you are doing this thing. How amazing are you, and how awesome is this!?’ So, she convinced me that, maybe, I was a trail runner, so I kept doing this running thing. I learned that my strength lies, not in speed, but endurance. Five miles or twenty miles; heat or snow; a swarm of hornets, cramps, or Star Thistles (which should be named Satan’s Spikes) — I kept going. I was slow, but I kept putting one foot in front of the other.
There Are No Bad Races
So, when I told my coach about my despondence over my ‘bad race’ at Oakland Hills, and how disappointed I was in myself, she laid her hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘There are no bad races. It was just a race. Time is not important on the trails, what is important is you went out there, and you did the best you could that day. Your body gave everything it could at that moment. And as a bonus, you finished! How awesome is that?’
Again, you can’t argue with your badass coach, so her words brought me comfort. And I’ve come to realize that my running tribe has often been just as, if not more, restorative and comforting than traditional outlets for grief over this past year. By being a part of this running community, I’ve learned many things that have helped me find my own path as a runner. I’ve also learned things that, unexpectedly, have helped me on my walk with grief.
All I need to do is allow the ache to be, because that is how my heart remembers that Eve lived. And I always want to remember that Eve lived.
Run Your Own Race
Don’t expect what worked for someone else to work for you. From gear, fueling, hydration, and training plans — there are so many different ways to support your body and mind during a race. Every runner will be different, and you need to find what works for you. This is similar to how grief works. It’s easy to look at other people who are living with loss, and think — Wow, they have it together. They are rocking this grief thing, and here I am, barely able to take a shower some days. But we don’t realize that those that seem the strongest, are often the ones who are hurting the most.
Many people have told me about the things that they have done that brought them comfort, and described when they started to feel better, and I think, No, that is not for me. I’m not sure I will ever feel better. And it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there is something wrong with us because we think we ought to be able to do/feel ____ by now. This is when we need to remind ourselves that our journey is different from someone else’s journey. The only thing you need to do is to focus on your path, and run your own race.
Be An Excellent Problem Solver
I think this one is the mother-kicker of all time — finding out that something that used to work for you (like a specific training plan or your favorite gear) all of a sudden doesn’t work anymore. There’s only one solution to this (well two, but the other alternative is to stop running, and that is not an option for me.) The answer is: you have to be an excellent problem solver.
This is probably one of the most frustrating parts of running and grief. Grief changes the game day by day, and what brought us comfort or made us feel safe will often change without reason. We need to take the time regularly to turn inward and ask ourselves, What are my needs today, in this hour, this moment? I find by focusing on the small moments, I am less likely to feel overwhelmed. Then I am able to look at what my needs are at that moment, and what I can do within my space. This might mean doing some breathing exercises in my car, journaling during lunch break, or sitting with another bereaved, holding each other’s hand as we cry together.
You can’t go fast, if you don’t go slow. Rest is one of the most critical components of a training plan, and too often people forego rest because they think more is better. More miles, more time their feet, more cross training — they think that it will all add up to a PR and a better race. This is not always true, and usually results in injuries, which can sideline runners for weeks or months. I remember my coach telling us that when she was training for the Western States Endurance 100 Mile Run, her coach told her — ‘I want you to show up slightly under-trained and uninjured.’ She passed that mantra on to us, and in order to show up slightly under-trained and uninjured, we need to honor our rest days. Grief is exhausting, and it is even more exhausting when we are holding up the life left in the absence of a loved one. Those of us to walk and live the life of the bereaved need, even more so, to rest and take care of ourselves, because we will be on this grief-journey for a lifetime.
Be Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable
If I said I loved every minute of running, I would be lying. Sure, there are moments here and there where I feel powerful, in tune with my body, and with the surrounding landscape. But there are times (to be honest, there are a lot of times) where it just sucks. Running up hills? Sucks. Tripping over the tiniest, invisible root? That sucks (and hurts.) Hitting a wall and almost getting a DNF (did not finish) because I didn’t fuel or hydrate properly? Sucks too.
Trail runners talk about going into the pain cave — the a place where you acknowledge that it hurts (sometimes everything hurts), but at the same time you make peace with the pain. You sit with the pain, and rather than try to diminish it, you see it and make space for it to unfold as it needs to. Making space for our pain, and learning how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable is the only way to move with our losses. For me, this means accepting that Eve’s absence will always be a deep ache, and all I need to do is allow the ache to be, because that is how my heart remembers that Eve lived. And I always want to remember that Eve lived.
The Next Mile
It might seem like people who voluntarily run double or triple digits are in a class of their own, almost superhuman. But in reality, most trail runners are not gifted with any kind of superpower (unless you classify bullheaded stubbornness as a superpower), however they tend to be a tenacious lot. They make a home in the infamous pain cave, and they learn how to continue to move, to accept being terribly uncomfortable at times, even as they eke out one mile after another. Trail runners do this even when they know that at the end of this run, there will be another trail to climb. They do this despite the fact that their race will never be done.
By the same token, I know I will never be done grieving the loss of Eve, and as I sit with the pain of her absence, I remind myself everyday to run my own race. And I offer these words to you as well, as you hold your own loss in your hands, as you navigate this new, sad chapter, remember that all you need to do is run your own race.