I recently finished a series of trail runs with 300 other fanatics in the surrounds of Perth, Western Australia. Over five events I ran 54 kilometres of gravel and dust-covered hills, saw 1 venomous snake, and ate 1 fly (yep, gross). To top it all off, this is the fourth consecutive year that I have taken part in this series. I could easily just get my fitness fix by running on pavement and not trails where I am routinely covered in dirt from head-to-toe… So, why do I keep coming back?
The main reason is: trail running teaches me more about myself in just one hour than any self-help book can. Better yet, it puts into practice what therapists and other health professionals tell us is needed to live a meaningful, purposeful life. These are the top four unconventional lessons I’ve learned from trail running:
1. A playful attitude is king
Trail running has taught me that play isn’t just for kids. On one trail run in the series, competitors need to run down a hill with loose gravel underfoot. They need to dodge bigger rocks while trying to position their feet in a way that won’t result in a broken ankle. I’ve seen a lot of people run down this hill – the fastest people having the best time are those who embody a playful attitude. The reason being, to be able to make split-second judgements about how to balance safety and speed, a playful attitude is your best ally. If you approach a downward hill with hesitation or anxiety then you are more likely to end up frustrated with a twisted ankle. Alternatively, if you approach the same hill with the thought, ‘I’m going to trust in myself, give it my best shot, and take a risk’ then the outcome is always better. Being playful means taking a leap of faith and not being attached to the outcome. It’s this attitude that I take to trail running and in life – go with the momentum and if I fail, no big deal.
2. Feeling connected with other people means leaving your ego at home
I used to sit in large crowds of people and still feel deeply alone, isolated, and disconnected. It took over a decade for this feeling to not overwhelm me and trail running was a huge facilitator in speeding up that process. The main reason is because trail running is hard, so it brings out people’s real, vulnerable selves. You can’t keep up the normal image you want to project to people when you have sweat streaming on your face in the hot Australian sun while trying not to fall flat on your face. When you trail run, it’s just the goodness of your person on display and that’s what makes it the perfect breeding ground for connection. Initially this made me feel very scared. It disappeared when, on a run, I spent most of the time chatting with a person I’d never met and actually feeling connected. We laughed and took it in turns to say how beautiful the landscape was. When I accepted what I brought to the conversation, and accepted myself fully by leaving my ego at home, I could finally feel like I belonged.
3. Whatever you bring to the table is good
Ever rocked up for a social event or meeting and thought, ‘Crap. I didn’t prepare/I’m not wearing the right thing/I forgot to do something’. Trail running teaches me that even if I rock up to an event in a paper bag, I still have worth because it’s precisely these quirks about myself that make the experience worthwhile for others and for myself. When I started trail running I often noticed I had the thought that I was the ‘worst one here’ or the ‘largest one here’. Over time, I realised that others enjoyed exactly what I brought to the events and this began to resonate with me in my life. I now think, ‘Being myself is more than good enough, it’s perfect’.
4. You’re not alone in this tricky thing called ‘life’
At one trail running event I started off being dead back of the pack. I actually said out-loud to myself “I’m going to come last”. I didn’t realise that other people were having the same hard time as me and I thought I was in it alone. This is common – when we’re stressed out we get stuck in this thinking that we’re the only one experiencing this stress. As I began to approach other runners, I could hear them puffing and realised that they too are feeling this pain. I said to a woman, ‘keep going, you’re doing great’. I felt invigorated knowing that I wasn’t alone in my journey. At the finish line, it brought a smile to my face to see other people who had gone through the same struggle and to encourage others.
The best thing about these four lessons is that you can replace ‘trail running’ with any social pursuit of your choice: Playing music, rock-climbing, photography, dancing. Engaging in meaningful, shared activities can teach us playfulness, self-acceptance, and bring a sense of connection to life. For now, though, you can trust that I’ll be hitting up the trails, getting grazed, dirty knees for many years to come.