Finding My Footing, Finally

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“Do you want company?” my friend half-heartedly asks. I don’t want to hurt her feelings, but when I say a tentative, “No?”, I see relief on her face.  I’m relieved too that my planned run doesn’t include a social chit-chat.

Most of my trail and road runs are solitary. I like it that way. I’m an introvert and self-conscious about my pace and form, so I’m most relaxed when I am single-tracking alone. I have always been a loner, preferring work, sports and home life undertaken independently; It’s amazing I’ve been married for 35 years (to the same guy!).

Despite preferred isolation, I also am competitive. I have eyed other women runners and wanted to compare my pace against theirs, but, I grew up in 60s and 70s, when female competitiveness earned a frown from our culture. My sisters and I were scolded: “It’s not attractive” to chase the boys around the playground to see who was faster, or to gallop our ponies flat-out across the fields to win Capture the Flag. Athleticism and winning at sports were not appropriate aspirations for girls—plus, too much strenuous behavior could damage our baby-making “insides,” we were told.

My sisters seemed happy to braid daisy-chain necklaces. Looking down at my body, I saw a skinny, knock-kneed girl. My desire to run, to run hard and fast and breathless, didn’t even get a chance to charge under a starting banner until my mid-40s. In my 20s and 30s while I was busy birthing, raising, and launching our two children, women and running culture dashed right past me to the podiums. For that, I thank you, winning women! In a generational twist, I didn’t break the trail for you, you broke the trail for me.

I didn’t even know trail running had become a “thing.”

In my 40s, when it was finally socially acceptable for women to run (and the rumors that running would make our girl bits infertile proved to be untrue), I started to run again. I ran independently and self-sufficiently. I invested in quality gear, knowing the motivation to keep going on long runs would come from feeling comfortable from my feet to knees to hips and upwards. I faithfully kept track of distances to buy new shoes every 500 miles. Then that competitive voice from my youth whispered to test myself against other women. I entered 5K, 10K and ½ marathon road races—typically finishing in the top 30 percent for my age group.

I didn’t even know trail running had become a “thing.” As a child I recall secretly racing through the woods, smacking trees with an open palm as I careened by, playing tag with the forest. I loved the nearly airborne freedom! I loved the feeling of being up on the balls of my feet, balanced and hopping from rocks, to tree roots, to hardscrabble earth, jumping over a downed limb, to the soft footfall on dense pine needles, to deliberately splashing through muddy puddles. My mother decided instead of buying me new white frilly socks yet again because my mud-splattered ones wouldn’t bleach out, she’d just give me my older sisters’ worn ones.

I had forgotten those feelings of trail-running bliss until by accident I found myself running a trail again at the age of 52. On a hike with my adult son on Mount Monadnock in southern New Hampshire, trying to find a well-known, but well-hidden cave ¼ mile above the tree line, clouds dropped in on us suddenly, darkening the late afternoon. Thunder rolled across the granite top of the mountain, echoing back up to us from the valley below. At the first flash of lightening we gave up the search and turned heel down the exposed rocks. My son stepped into a downhill jog. I too started trotting, and as rain made the trail a slurry of mud and slippery rocks, I found that long-forgotten balance of being up on my toes, jumping from landing to landing, racing the storm. Soaked and breathless at the base, we ducked into my car, laughing. I had not felt that alive from running in a long time.

I started reading everything I could find about trail running. I had arrived late to this party of singletrack devotion and I was hungry for information, especially as a female Master’s Level runner.

It felt like the same obstacles I knew as a child, which originated from fear: “can’t,” “don’t,” “shouldn’t,” “be careful.” But I also know fear is not solid ground from which to make decisions.

Disappointingly, I didn’t find as much as I would have liked. How could women my age not have found this freeing sport of running along ribbons of trails for fun and exercise!? Trail running doesn’t need to be a young person’s sport, does it? I wondered. I gobbled up books about different kinds of endurance adventures by or about Henry Worsley, Cheryl Strayed, Jennifer Pharr Davis, Scott Jurek and Diana Nyad. Their experiences encouraged and inspired me. Yet, I felt an undercurrent of caution from the trail-running community. My brother-in-law, a weekend hiker on the same trails I run, said bluntly, “You’re getting kind of old, Lisa, to run on trails. What if you get hurt?”

It felt like the same obstacles I knew as a child, which originated from fear: “can’t,” “don’t,” “shouldn’t,” “be careful.” But I also know fear is not solid ground from which to make decisions.

So, this time I am running anyway. I enter trail races from 5Ks to 35Ks in New Hampshire. Because there aren’t a lot of us women in our 50s pounding our way through trail races, I am usually in the top three in my division, and occasionally first. I’m not fast, but I do have the advantage of mental endurance. I used to work 12-hour overnight shifts as an acute-care nurse. I can stay on my feet, focused on a task, and keep moving for a very long time. I won’t set any FKTs, unless gender-specific Master-aged people are recognized for longer established trail routes (anyone? anyone?).

Do I have aches and pains and aging issues? Yes. I take glucosamine for my joints, I only run three days a week to protect those same joints, opted for bladder sling surgery, sometimes take afternoon naps, and pack Ibuprofen with me everywhere I go.

My entire family is supportive, including my faithful 80-year-old mom; she prays for my safety, because she knows she can’t stop me this time. My husband bought me a rowing machine to build my core strength and for winter fitness when our New England trails and roads are icy. My daughter signed us both up for a four-mile mountain run on my 56th birthday (I came in second in my division). My son will race me down a path at the word “Go,” and I recently ran a half marathon with my daughter-in-law.

Training for races remains my favorite part of trail running; I love to race as a signpost for where I stand compared to other women my age, but it’s really getting to the race that I love. It’s about finding that balance point in my life as a rising-toward-60-year-old-woman, staying on top of the balls of my feet, palms open, running narrow paths, playing tag with the forest.

—E. Lisa Hoekstra is a Registered Nurse, free-lance writer, and lives for days off when she can play in the woods all day.

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