Ode to the Gray Zone

In our 2022 annual DIRT issue, we’re leaning into the in-betweens. 

Photo: Allison Dobbs

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You’ve probably heard that we’re supposed to stay away from the dreaded “gray zone” in training. That’s the zone where you’re running hard enough to produce lactate and build-up fatigue, but too hard to adequately recover or deliver enough oxygen to your muscles for it to be purely aerobic exercise. Nothing good happens in the gray zone. 

But sometimes, it does. 

Life, unlike training, is full of challenging, complicated, gorgeous, gray zones.

Gray zones. Neither full color or void entirely of it. It’s that liminal in-between, go-between threshold space where tissues exist to connect two things. Dawn. Dusk. Times between not quite day and not yet night. They’re all process and no destination, the sun on its way to setting but not gone yet. The gray zone asks us to be precisely where we are, not taunt us with where we ought to be headed, the liminal space between athletic ability and ambition that drives us to press on.  These in-between zones demand a certain presence just as they invite us to consider our intentions moving forward. All this to be said . . . a gray zone is the domain of magic.

In this year’s annual issue of DIRT, we’re leaning into those in-betweens and listening to the liminal spaces that exist in a messy, complicated, human world. 

My favorite poet, John Keats, coined the term “Negative Capability” in a letter exploring what he admired most about fellow writers. “Negative Capability . . . being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts,” is the ability to embrace question marks, revel in the spaces where neat solutions don’t exist, and celebrate ambiguity. It’s about letting yourself be challenged, surprised, even amazed by what you don’t know or haven’t seen. 

In this issue, we’re breaking out of binaries and rejecting black-and-white storytelling that fails to capture the nuance inherent in life. Using running as our lens, we explore what happens between competition and collaboration, race and gender, agony and ecstasy. We take a dive into the Midwest’s hardest race and invert the very notion of “conquering mountains.” We talk to a group of women who set out to flip the script on FKTs and lift up biracial and non-binary athletes as they speak for themselves. We follow one Indigenous runner as he invites others to heal alongside his ancestral homelands, and we travel through the ruins of mountaintop removal in Appalachia. And finally, two photographers take us deep into the many emotions of ultrarunning from a new perspective. 

We’re proud to present this features-only collection of stories that steeps in nuance, that celebrates the messiness that is an athletic life – or any life. Let’s lean into the in-betweens and get into those gray zones. 

Happy Trails, 

Zoë Rom, editor-in-chief, Trail Runner

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