The Art of Running Avoidance

I don’t run, never have and never thought I would. I took pride in that statement, as if running was beneath me and my egocentric skier, mountain biker and rock climber image. I thought to run was to be a pedestrian, and I scribed an arms-length of reasons not to lace up a pair of sneakers, then make rapid movements with my legs in a somewhat forward direction. But these days, my carefully mortared, anti-running walls have crumbled. I’ve joined the ranks of short-shorted, tank topped, sweaty, heavy breathers. So what did it take for me to actually run? The Ragnar Wasatch Back Relay and a ton of peer pressure, that’s what.

Turns out peer pressure is powerful stuff, because I didn’t willingly sign up for this shindig. I think I felt the earth shake when I was lassoed in and registered by an overzealous team organizer who left me with little choice (she took my “ummm, ahhh” waffling as a “yes” and signed me up anyway.) In my head, I justified my acceptance into the race with memories of working as a volunteer for team Chafing Tail during last year’s Ragnar Wasatch Back. The experience of watching how much fun my wife and friends were having on the course while I toiled away picking up garbage in a dorky reflective vest changed my tune. Slowly (and I mean slowly,) my hatred of running on streets started to cure; medicinally healed by the encouragement of spouse and friends.


So thanks to Ragnar and the grinning faces of my buddies, I started the awful ritual known as training, despite my being absolutely opposed to running. Okay, not completely opposed. I would run if, say, an outdoor gear shop had a one-hour only, 90% off sale on brand new powder skis. Yet even if that splendid dream did come true, my stride would resemble something more akin to a rapid saunter. Perhaps an event more primal would motivate the sprinter in me, like a bear attack or someone announcing there’s only one IPA left in the cooler.


Damn my friends and family. Damn their “you can do it, it’s not that hard,” and “it’s more of a party than a run” wordage. Everyone’s support of me had ruined years of carefully sculpted avoidance and excuses, and led me to this breathless fact: I run… and I’m actually starting to like it.


Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t like the process of running in the same way I like, say, waterproofing leather boots or giving the dog a bath. But I do like the benefits of training that slowly manifest themselves over time. For example, my chicken calf muscles now look more like something akin to baby tree trunks rather than the ends of willow twigs. My cardio endurance has increased to the point that I no longer feel winded while doing a activity that’s actually fun, like backcountry ski touring or mountain biking. And best of all, running has given me incentive to save money, leave the meatheads and gym rats in the rearview, and turn city streets into a treadmill.


Running still sucks though.


Shin splints suck, running under the sun sucks, running in the rain sucks, wearing special, expensive shoes to avoid stress fractures sucks, keeping track of mileage, heart rate, and time sucks, and being out pounding artificial surfaces because of some Ragnar-suggested training schedule, when I could instead be on my bike, really, really sucks.


In fact, there was nothing worse than being in the middle of an 11-mile training slog up a canyon, with mountain bikers constantly descending in a steady stream of taunting two-wheels and gears. Those moments made me want to throw in the towel, hop on my full suspension, and kick Ragnar out of my life. But I take pride in the fact that when I say I’ll do something, I do it. So I evicted the anti-runner in me, dutifully trained, drank lots of beer to reward myself, and waited for race day to come.


Then Ragnar arrived. My body seized with anxiety as we drove to the starting line in Logan, hours before dawn. The party atmosphere at the beginning of the race was a taunt, and everyone’s enthusiasm chipped away at my own. Despite the training and slow dissolution of my running allergy, I was downright nervous. The long wait between an exuberant unleashing of our first runner, and my own first leg, was an unspoken torture.


When it was finally my turn to run, I stretched, tried deep breathing, and attempted to relax. Then, somehow, an entire lifetime of running avoidance was terminated when I begrudgingly took the slap bracelet from my teammate and ran up the gravel road called Avon Pass. It’s one of the more difficult legs that comprises the Ragnar Wasatch Back course, and requires runners to ascend 7.4 miles of dirt road over a 1,210 foot gain in elevation. The race notes describe this leg as, “very hard.” For a non-runner like me, Avon Pass was the embodiment of fear.


But something happened on Avon Pass. It occurred half-way up the road when a rush of light-headed energy coursed through my body. Maybe it was “runner’s high,” or maybe it was the lack of oxygen, but in that moment I forgot about the pain. Awareness of myself was gone, replaced by my surroundings. Instead of concentrating on running, I was taken in by the view of Utah’s northern mountains. I didn’t consciously move my legs anymore, but still felt the variation of rock and dirt passing under my feet. I could hear bird song and a flowing stream despite heavy metal music barraging my eardrums. I breathed high-country air and felt the sun on my skin. I stopped thinking about running and simply ran.


So this was what those crazy runners were after. It wasn’t just about exercise, burning calories, or impressing the opposite sex. Running was really about traveling outdoors in the most simple way, and with the only gear anyone really needs – their own two feet.


After an hour, I bounded atop the summit of Avon Pass and handed off the baton. Teammates said I was a natural runner, and I was beginning to think they might be right. After that run, the rest of Ragnar was easy as a casual jog in the neighborhood. Gone was my cultivated reputation of running avoidance justified by tall tales of bad knees ruined from skiing. Gone was my displeasure toward the monotony of right-foot-left-foot pounding on pavement with only my breath as a companion. A transformation happened on Avon Pass that day.


I am now a runner.

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