Last month I raced the Waterville Valley Mountain Race, host of the USATF Mountain Running Championships in small mountain town of Waterville Valley, NH. This was my first racing experience after having achilles tendon surgery way back in December, 2018. You can read more about how I got injured in an earlier article.
Leading up to the Waterville Valley race, I had only a few weeks of consistent running, and for much of the time post-surgery, my training came in the form of low impact cross training activities like aqua-jogging and cycling. Normally, with so little time spent running, I wouldn’t even consider entering a race. Normally for me, racing is a culmination point after good training blocks, a way to celebrate the hard work of training and to perform at the best of my abilities. Racing in Waterville Valley, however, didn’t fit any of these criteria. I didn’t have good running training, I wasn’t in top fitness, nor did I have even musculature on both sides as my left calf still showed atrophy from surgery 9 months earlier. However, once on the starting line, I was confident that my new achilles was strong and that I should race.
For this article, I’ll share how I came to the decision to race and what it taught me as a runner looking to reconnect with racing in a positive way after over a year without racing. Although my run at Waterville Valley was not a breakthrough performance, it did help me better understand how to find joy in racing again. Coming back to running after injury is not always black and white, injured or 100% healthy, and I hope this article can help runners learn to find joy in the gray area in between.
Finding My Racing Spark: #Goating
My desire to race came from a moment at the Active at Altitude Fall Trail Running Camp this past September in Estes Park, CO. I worked as assistant camp director, helping lead runs and running workshops and sharing insights from my experiences as a professional runner on topics such as training, running technique, and nutrition. On the long run of the week, we agreed to run up Twin Sisters peak, elevation 11,427 feet. The run would include nearly 2,500 feet of elevation gain in a little over 7 miles round trip. It was on this run that I gained confidence in my running and transformed, according to the campers, into a real mountain goat.
On the run, I took the lead group of two campers to a junction just before the peak. We began to wait for the others to arrive, but my body wanted to keep moving. I was amazed by the beautiful high alpine landscape, and felt an energy and joy surging through me. I couldn’t help but want to take off running down the trail. I told the two campers I would go behind and check on the others. I let loose my inner mountain goat. I took off, dancing on my feet through a boulder field, moving too quickly to think about where to put my feet, relying solely on instinct to guide me down the trail. I felt free, no fear of falling, no worries about my injury, just pure enjoyment from being a goat once again. I met the other campers, some of whom wanted to film my running, telling me they’d never seen a person run so easily over boulders and so much like a mountain goat.
At the end of the camp, the campers gave me a gift I’ll never forget. They bought me a painting of a mountain goat. They coined a new word, “goating” to describe the way I ran on Twin Sisters.
Goating: the activity of running effortlessly in mountainous terrain in the manner of a mountain goat.
After the camp, I wanted to have more “goating” experiences. I returned to one of my favorite mountains, Mount Olympus, in my hometown of Salt Lake City, UT. I “goated” up and down, without timing myself, so as not to be distracted by comparing my performance to previous times I’d run up this peak. I focused instead on recreating the same incredible experience I had with the training camp in Colorado. I became a goat again.
After running up Mount Olympus, an idea began to solidify in my head for another goating adventure. I knew I would be working with my American Trail Running Association colleagues at the USATF Mountain Running Championships in New Hampshire and thought about how I could get another “goating” experience. The course seemed really exciting to me, which consisted of over 3,300 feet of climbing in 7 miles, largely on ski slopes averaging 18% grade. It was the perfect course for a mountain goat. So, I thought, what if I run this race? I wouldn’t run to compete, but instead treat the race as an experiment to see if I could make it as enjoyable as my experiences running up Twin Sisters and Mount Olympus. On both of these mountains, I forgot about my lack of running fitness, the imbalances still present in my body, and I ran with confidence and joy. That is what I wanted my experiment in Waterville Valley to be about.
At this point, you might be wondering, “Why would you race if you knew you weren’t 100% back to full strength and capable of performing at your best?” Although it’s true that I still have work to do to regain full strength and range of motion on my left side, that doesn’t mean I couldn’t use the race to reconnect with racing in a new way. I didn’t have any fears that racing in Waterville Valley would re-rupture my achilles tendon. My PT and doctor confirmed that my new achilles was strong enough to run, even if it would take more time before running would feel completely normal.
This race was not only about running like a goat, it was also an opportunity to replace some of the negative memories I’ve had surrounding racing for the past few years. Some of the races I ran before my surgery, the 2017 Pikes Peak Marathon, 2018 World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships and the 2018 Speedgoat 50K (to name a few), I ran injured. It was hard during these races to think about anything positive. I ignored all signals from my body telling me to stop and I pushed through pain. I’d been taught to believe “serious runners push through pain,” and I thought that’s what I was doing by running with injuries. I ran cautiously, protecting my injuries by compensating with other parts of my body to hobble across finish lines. Racing was not fun. The idea of replacing these negative racing experiences with joyful goat-like running appealed to me. What if I could race again, without fear of injury, with only happiness to be back in the mountains? I was going to give it a shot in Waterville Valley.
Run Like a Happy Goat!
Standing on the start line felt good. I’d almost forgotten the feeling of butterflies in my stomach. Although usually this feeling is a sign of nerves, I instead thought of it as a form of excitement. These butterflies would give me the energy I needed to go shooting off the start line. I touched the earth, a practice I’d learned from the Active at Altitude Trail Running Camps, and set my intention: run like a happy goat!
The gun went off and we departed quickly from the start line. I did my best to wear “horse blinders,” ignoring the placement of others in the race, focusing only on my own race experience. I looked for positivity in every moment. Short steep punching climbs and descents tested my ability to shift gears. Long climbs required me to develop a consistent rhythm in my stride. The final steep downhill tested my recklessness, which was undoubtedly still there!
I smiled throughout the race, reminding myself how incredible it was to be in the beautiful White Mountains of New Hampshire. I may not have been fully prepared for the physical challenges of this race, but I still enjoyed every moment of it. I crossed the line in 16th place, with a time of 1:00:05, over 7 minutes behind race winner and my good friend, Joseph Gray. Although I might normally be dissatisfied that I was not more competitive with the top elite runners in the field, I stuck to my intentions for the race and made it a positive experience. Going forward, I’ll use this race to inspire future goating adventures as I rebuild strength and reconnect with running.