The weather is perfect, it is crisp with a cool breeze and the sun is shining warmly on the back of your neck.
Your feet are light, your muscles strong, and you feel as if you could run all day; the effort of running up the hill you normally dread is of no consequence today. On your headphones, your running playlist is throwing you favourite song after song, and the beat matches your cadence perfectly. There is no one around for miles, and you have the mountains all to yourself, save for a few delightful wildlife encounters; like the butterflies that crossed your path as you passed through the forest, or the majestic kite that circled overhead, playing in the warm thermals. You have no pending deadlines to rush home for, and endless trail at your feet to explore.
Sound familiar? No, of course not. Because this magical, mythical, trail running dream come true is the unicorn of running experiences. A run that is highly desirable but difficult to obtain. You may have had one once... or maybe the post run endorphins tricked you into thinking you did... and you spend countless hours on the trails seeking to recapture that euphoric feeling.
In reality, the large majority of my own runs seem to be spent bribing myself into completing the distance I have set for myself (5km more and you can go get a foot massage, Tanya!), or entering a dialogue cycle in my own head about how I need to toughen up, then whining about how hard it is, then calling myself a loser for being so weak, so I better toughen up, and so on. And I started thinking... I can’t be the only one who feels this way. I put the question to some running friends, and the overwhelming response I received was:
‘This is hard. Why am I doing this?’
So WHY do we do this and what makes it so hard? Apart from the physical demands of running, there are many external factors that determine our trail happiness output. For me, it is predominantly the weather. I do not cope well with the heat, so the demands of training in the oppressive humidity of the Hong Kong summer directly correlate to my mental health on a mountain. For others, it’s the difficulty of balancing family, work and training demands. And of course, on top of everything else, we have to deal with the effects of ovulation: impacting on our emotional state, the way our body breaks down protein, fat utilisation, and sodium and blood pressure levels.
So, if it sucks so badly, why bother? You could argue that the health benefits are the most obvious driving force behind lacing up. But, I would argue that this is merely a pleasant side effect in the pursuit of something else, something more spiritual. Perhaps, it’s that blessed hour away from the world to think; the chance to connect with nature and appreciate her beauty (and at times, ferocity); or maybe it’s the satisfaction of inching ever so slightly closer to a personal goal that helps you grow as a person. Everyone has their why, or else we wouldn’t keep showing up.
Ultimately, as my friend Lyndsey aptly put it: “just like with our emotions: when negative or difficult emotions crop up and we don’t want to do certain things, we learn that sitting with those uncomfortable feelings and accepting them, and even doing the behaviour we don’t want to do, will lead to good things.”
And maybe also, one day, that elusive Unicorn Run.