Lessons we learn when running

Lacking motivation without a confirmed race? Here, Erika Snyder, 36, yoga teacher and mum of three from Washington, US, explains how a switch in mindset during her first ultra marathon helped her to let go

Erika, enjoying the trails in Colarado during Autumn.

Why do I run? Why do any of us run?

It’s a question that my coach, Danielle, often asks me. ‘What is your why?’ Like most of us, my answers used to range depending on the day.

Some days, it’s to escape the house, other times, a quest for fitness, or simply a chance to slow down and take time out from the relentless pace of life. But it was while running my first ultra that I discovered a completely different reason.

The race, the Naked Bavarian (so called because they keep costs low by not giving out race medals or swag) is a 43 mile ultra through Blue Marsh, Pennsylvania USA. I chose it as preparation for a 50 miler I was planning to do the following month with my sister, Danielle to celebrate my birthday.

From the first day of my training, I began getting thinking about the finish. Would I make it to the end? How would I feel? What would I want to eat? Who would I want to see?

I’m a typical over-thinker and became obsessed with the things that couldn’t be planned for, mentally tracking down as many unknown outcomes as possible and turning them over and over in my mind.  Will I finish? Will I get sick from the distance? Will I get frostbite? And, my most pressing concern, will I beat the cut off time of 11 hours?

Finally, race day arrived in February and I woke to the sound of my alarm and the wind howling outside my hotel room window. I was on my own, as we lived miles away from the race, and my partner and I decided it wouldn’t be good for our kids, aged three, seven and nine to come as they’d get cold and bored with the temperature at minus 11 degrees Celsius..

I felt cripplingly nervous. When I’d signed up for the race, I’d liked the idea of the challenge of running through the forest in the coldest part of the winter. Now, I just felt terrified, not badass.

As the race started, I felt the adrenaline course through me as I jostled for position in the pack of a couple hundred runners before we all tucked in behind each other on a single track trail. I felt comfortable, I’d made a race plan and had decided on my forever pace and small goals of reaching aid stations every eight kilometres that I could tick off rather than thinking about the full distance.

But within an hour of the start, I felt freezing, despite wearing thermal running tights, a base layer, a thermal top, fleece, hat, gloves, and face mask. My legs felt like lead and the trail was so ice-packed, it was like running on the pavement. I looked at my watch, sure I’d been running for ages. Eight kilometres. I couldn’t believe it; 61 to go, a marathon plus another 19 more kilometers.

Could I keep going?

Suddenly, the distance seemed impossible, there was no way I could run another 50-something kilometers. I started to panic, my chest tightening, as the trees moaned and smacked against each other in the wind. I instinctively ducked as I ran, worried the trees were going to come crashing down on top of me.

Then I remember my coach’s words on the phone the night before; “It’s ok to be tired, it’s normal to feel tired but you can still keep going.”

I pulled up my fleece around my neck and pushed on. Come on, you’ve run hard miles before, I tell myself and I’ve run even colder miles.

Erika, during her training in Colarado, which helped prepare her for running alone on cold trails

The sky was a pale grey and snow started to float down as the runners thinned out and I found myself running alone, along a narrow trail in a dense forest of bare trees. Gradually, I began to settle in, and stopped thinking getting to the finish line. All I focused on was the rhythm of forward movement, my appreciation of the sights and sounds of the now.

No longer is this a race to the end, I see that the end is an entirely unknown place so far away it’s not worth thinking about. What is important is this moment, this footstep, this tree, this breath.

The race was split into two loops of about 32 kilometres. As I finished the first loop, other runners were sat shivering on the grass, the heater that was meant to keep people warm, having fallen over. I changed into dry clothes and socks quickly, blowing on my fingers that were frozen.

Just stripping of my sweaty clothes and changing tired me out. I consider walking off the course and going to my warm car. Instead, I get up and start to walk along the hill towards the trail that leads back into the woods. “Just get into the woods, you can change your mind if you want to”, I tell myself.

I hear my coach’s voice in my mind; “You will feel tired but you can keep going.” So I do. This time, I tuck my watch out of sight and focus on just taking the next step and the next breath. And slowly, the miles tick by. 

Suddenly, I am approaching the end of the race. My legs are light and I feel overwhelmed, hoping my family will be at the finish line. As I come up the last hill and cross over the finish line, my kids run to meet me

I can’t believe I’ve finished, nine hours after I began. And I’d come third in my age group. I felt amazing.

But in running this race, I have come to realise that the finish line is just one brief moment. The real part of the race is learning to be comfortable sitting in those painful moments – to find a way to move into the unknown without being consumed by the need to know what comes next.

I realise how how lucky I was to run that race on the 29th of February, one of the final events before everything was called off due to the coronavirus. And suddenly, the lessons I learned on those trails are even more pertinent.

Every day, we all rise into the unknown. I don’t know how long my family will be required to shelter-in-place. In my house, my partner Zach, kids and my sister all navigate the ever smaller space. None of us know when life will return to normal.

My impulse is to focus on that unknown point in the future when this ends. But, sometimes, the finish line is too far away to imagine properly and all we can do is trust in the moment.

As runners we’ve all learned to keep moving forward when we feel tired and things are not comfortable, because we know we will come out the other side, and this is the call that inspires us in each adventure, in each run, in each day.

Erika, with her three children at the finish line of the race.

Erika Snyder is a mum of three and a yoga teacher, with a background in creative writing. Here is a link to her Facebook page. She is coached by @innerdriveathlete.

Would you like to contribute an article to our website? Whether you want to share an experience, empower, or educate, find out more here.