How To Thrive in a Competitive Mountain Town

Focus on your own training and performance as you immerse in the local community and the unique challenges of the natural environment

Photo: Getty Images

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I moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, from central Florida in the summer of 2020. Primarily the result of a job opportunity, the move seemed to also promise a new world of outdoor-related possibilites.

Back home in Florida, my husband, Nick, and I were avid runners and consistent attendees of our local running club, which included a fair number of trail enthusiasts. I felt like I was one of the cool kids. The de facto leader of the group, Patrick, had run Western States, among several other ultramarathons. Nick and I were enraptured by his stories at Michigan Bluff and his tales of running through the jungles in Paraguay.

I was in on a secret—the joy of running on dirt. I can’t remember what any of my paces were at that time or how I ranked on Strava segments. All I knew was that I felt awesome just for being out there. My confidence only grew with each run through the Florida pines and palmettos.

Unfortunately, my inflated ego burst within moments of arriving in Salt Lake City for my first group run.

“What have you guys done since you’ve been here?” a runner asked Nick and me casually while waiting in the parking lot for the run to start.

“Umm…” I looked at Nick’s eyes for guidance, unsure if I understood the question. “We hiked up Grandeur Peak a few days ago. What about you?”

“I completed the WURL this past weekend.”

“Oh…cool!” I exclaimed, having no idea what that was, but I gathered from the context it seemed like a stout way to spend a day.

As others started to gather in the parking lot, I eavesdropped on their conversations. So-and-so won a big trail race that weekend. Someone else ran here from their house—ten miles away. Another spoke about how his training was going for an upcoming 100-miler. I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious. All I had to talk about was some six-mile hike I did.

RELATED: Avoiding The Comparison Trap

Gradually, we made friends and started learning the trails. Our long runs grew in distance and became more creative, linking up various routes throughout the canyons. I eagerly studied Gaia and Strava looking for new features to explore. I felt a strong sense of accomplishment standing atop various Wasatch peaks, looking out onto the valley where my new home was nestled.

Despite this pride, I remained one of the slower runners among our group of friends. I became easily discouraged and would frequently decline invitations to go on runs with others, not wanting to be the person who might hold up the rest of the group. The few times I did join in, my mind swirled with negative self talk: Why aren’t I as fast as them? I’m sure their heart rate isn’t as high as mine. Why am I not good at this? Inadvertently, this mindset likely made my running worse as negative self-talk has been shown to negatively affect performance. 

Self-deprecation can creep into our minds quickly when you’re constantly surrounded by the best. With time, self-compassion, and a little bit of therapy, I learned there is a way to thrive in mountain communities where everyone around you might seem—or actually is—an elite athlete.

Choosing the Right Mindset 

“When you’re constantly surrounded by a higher class of athlete, you can run the risk of always having to qualify yourself,” said Finn Melanson, founder and host of the SingleTrack podcast. “Negative self-talk can begin to seep into your psyche, making you doubt yourself in runs and workouts.”

Despite those risks, Melanson thinks the benefits of training with those a notch or two above your abilities outweigh the negatives, as long as you can dial in the right mindset. After finishing his first thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, Melanson moved to Salt Lake City as a way to embed himself in a community where there was already a high concentration of individuals serious about their outdoor pursuits, specifically trail running.

“I’ve always been someone who feels at peace with being a small fish in a big pond,” Melanson said. “Every workout, I have to be OK with the fact that I’m going to see Caleb Olsen or Garrett Corcoran a quarter mile ahead on a hill repeat. In the process, I actually might be PRing by 10 seconds because they’re pulling me so much on that workout.”

Melanson explained the experience can at first be a shock to the ego; however, he trusts that this process will ultimately make him the best version of himself.

RELATED: Time Outside Can Feel Like an Escape. But Your Mindset Matters.

Another podcaster, Jonathan Levitt, host of the For the Long Run podcast, found himself in a similar position to Melanson, moving to Boulder, Colorado, from Boston.

“There’s a culture of excellence here,” Levitt said over a recent video call. “If I want to go faster, I can run with Kara [Goucher] and learn something new about my running and myself, or run with Gwen [Jorgensen] and just try to hang on for 75 percent of each rep.”  Although Levitt frequently trains with elite runners, his initial draw to the area—and reason for staying— involved much more than proximity to excellence. In Boulder, it’s less about the elite athletes but more about the high-level of dedication to training and adventure among the general population.

“Everyone is here because they love the outdoors and truly want to be here. I’ve really come into my own since I moved here.” He finds that within the Boulder endurance community, individuals are able to immerse themselves in the natural terrain and find their own challenges to conquer, which makes for an inspiring environment to live in.

Embracing Digital Minimalism

When speaking to both Melanson and Levitt, I was surprised at how healthy their perspective seemed. A fair amount of emotional maturity is needed to get past the immediate discomfort of being dropped on runs in favor of long-term gain.

Julie Emmerman, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist in the Boulder area, specializes in working with individuals at or near the professional level of sport. “Just being a competitive, high-achieving person lends itself to comparing yourself to others,” Emmerman told me in a recent interview. “No one has finished scrolling Instagram [or Strava] and thought, I feel so much better. It creates a lot of false narratives about what and how much people are doing.”

Emmerman advises her professional clients to disconnect or shut off their social media accounts completely during the season. She notes this is slightly easier for her clients in more mainstream sports, compared to professional endurance athletes who are more likely to be paid for promoting products/brands on their social accounts. But Emmerman’s message is simple: focus on yourself. She warns that for the amateur athlete, these platforms can lead to a feeding frenzy for comparison.

RELATED: 5 Ways Trail Runners Can Ditch Self-Comparison on Social Media

“Try to be discerning about what you are trying to feed. Ask yourself: What is the hunger in you that is trying to get satiated by others?” Emmerman advised.

Another piece of advice Emmerman gives her clients is to trust in their own training plan if they subscribe to one.

“Most dedicated athletes usually follow a training plan, and you have to commit to that plan in order to know how it’s working or how it needs to be refined. If you’re bought into your own plan, you can look at Strava, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing,” Emmerman said. “You know you’re doing what you believe is in your best interest.” In that scenario, Strava can revert to being a resource in finding new and interesting routes and a phenomenal way to provide support for your fellow runners.

In order to thrive in these communities where comparison easily runs rampant, we must ask ourselves: Do I believe I’m doing what’s best for me based on where I am now and my own unique goals?

Rethinking Your Unique Community Contributions

Doug Mayer, author, journalist and founder of the trail running tour company, Run the Alps, loves his trail running community in Chamonix, France.

“Among the year round crowd here, your ability doesn’t matter,” Mayer says. “We don’t see each other as competitors except when we happen to be competing. We see each other’s ups and downs, root for each other’s successes, and grieve losses together.”

As a self-described “average runner,” Mayer notes that he’s careful to not compare himself to the elite members of his community like Hillary Gerardi, Meg Mackenzie, or Mimmi Kotka. “You might as well be comparing yourself to an alien.” Unlike Melanson and Levitt, Mayer typically enjoys running by himself, knowing his community is waiting to grab drinks or a bite to eat afterward.

Where the competition—and drama—comes into play in Chamonix is typically during the summer months when an influx of foreign runners come to train and compete for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) races. Mayer observes that the year-round crowd typically retreats from the city to escape the pressure and sense of comparison.

“Even among recreational runners here in town, there’s an understanding we’re ground zero of the trail running industrial complex,” Mayer says. With that understanding comes opportunities for unique contributions other than fast running. Mayer himself has carved a unique role, not as an elite runner, but as an elite thought leader in our sport through both his business and writing. Melanson and Levitt are similar in that they both drew inspiration from their respective mountain towns to facilitate the development of their ideas on their media outlets. All three have helped to sculpt the current landscape of trail running.

Perhaps, recent Flagstaff, Arizona, transplant, Ryan Hansen, articulated this sentiment best. “Obviously, the trail running competition is really deep here, but there’s such a mutual awe and respect for each other across varying mediums.” Despite Flagstaff being another hotbed of trail running talent, Hansen also advises others to not get caught up in comparison. Rather, take your time to find your own groove. Hansen noted that he took several weeks to trial various running clubs in the area before finding the people he connected most with. Now, he spends his time running with others who are as equally stoked about challenging themselves in the mountains as he is—elite or not.

These mountain communities are not great solely because of the physical talent they attract, but through the relationships and support their individuals have for one another. For those of us living in these areas, hopefully we can learn to be motivated by the excellence that surrounds us, and be inspired to share our own talents as well.

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