“They make it look easy.”
What comes to mind for you when you hear that phrase? Maybe Tom Brady throwing a perfect spiral. Maybe Gordon Ramsay dicing an onion in seconds, fluid and automatic. For me, I think of Miller versus Hawks. That iconic, rambling, POV clip of two greats in the sport of trail running, matching each other stride for stride at The North Face 50 Mile Endurance Challenge in 2016, plunging through spurts of lush greenery before suddenly emerging again into sunlight, a panoramic vista of the blue Pacific stretching on for miles. If you haven’t ever watched the video, go check it out. It is truly hypnotic. The steady, controlled breath of the two runners and their gentle footfalls give an impression of effortlessness. Where most of us would be a sweaty, stumbling mess, Miller and Hawks, in that moment, appear as if they are on a Sunday stroll. They make it look easy.
Fast forward to February 12th, 2023, and I’m plunging down a trail of my own. There’s a flatness to the unvarying cold. Bits of frost lash the ground, and bald hills of yellowish grass dimple a horizon touched by a mute, cloudy sky.
“On the balls of your feet, weightless, just…”
“No, not on the heel, the balls, lightly, float over the…”
You’ve heard of hand-eye coordination, but trail running requires entire body-eye coordination, and something is seriously screwy with mine. My feet plop down on the dark earth like sacks of grain. I trip over roots. I vacillate between shuffling gingerly down the steeper sections with short, choppy steps, and opening up my legs into longer strides; neither one feels right. My ankles are wooden. Heck, my whole body feels like one of those mini-mannequins used to teach art students how to draw the human form, rod-stiff, only turning at the joints. I repeatedly attempt to will myself into a graceful rhythm, calling upon my endless bank of YouTube ultra footage to emulate proper form, biomechanical perfection, but, try as I might, it doesn’t make a difference. I still feel–and look–like a baby deer who’s just come into the world, staggering onto their feet, trying to figure out just how to use these leg things. Others on the trail–hikers, runners, families–watch me with what I imagine is a mixture of perplexity and sympathy.
When it comes to experience, I’m no seasoned vet, but I’m not a novice, either. I’ve earned my stripes by dealing with those classic trail goons that jump you when you least expect them: navigational errors, stomach problems, gear blunders. And once you accrue a certain amount of experience at something, be it trail running, pickleball, or knitting, you slot yourself mentally into a different category of expectation. There’s what beginners do, what they struggle with, then there’s you. You don’t make those mistakes anymore. That doesn’t feel hard for you anymore. In the beginning, you gave yourself grace, because it was all a part of the learning process. But now the time for grace is over. You’re out of the kiddie pool and plan to stay there.
But adopting this mentality can go sour. There’s nothing wrong with setting the bar at a high level, nor with being proud of yourself for the growth you’ve achieved. However, that can quickly escalate into believing yourself to be invincible, permanently beyond the struggles of a beginner. This mentality is not only unrealistic, but insidious. It can set off a meta-loop of frustration inside one’s own head, becoming angry with yourself for not meeting the standards which you yourself have created. Nothing and no one else is imposing them upon you. But we erroneously feel that these standards, and the pressure that they exert, are our ally, a tool to push ourselves and maintain a level of high performance.
When I was crashing down that trail like a train that had jumped the tracks, I felt frustration twisting inside of me, fogging up my mind. I was frustrated that a form of movement which I’d adopted–one that I love, at which I’m ostensibly experienced–felt so forced, difficult, and unnatural. I was frustrated that I felt like a beginner again. The irony is that this frustration was contributing to a feeling of failure and feeding into my own distraction, putting me out of touch with my body, escalating my sense of incompetence. Little devils of doubt danced in my head, “Had I ever been good at this?”
I nearly faceplanted for the fourth or fifth time, courtesy of some invisible stone lurking under the dead leaves. Then I laughed. A feeling of recognition and unburdening washed over me, like a kid lost in the broad expanse of a department store, finally spotting the jackets and coats section where their mom had instructed them to meet. I’d been in this headspace before. And one thing of which I was certain – if I breathed and stopped fighting, if I accepted that running, in that moment, felt alien to me – it would pass. It may not be for another mile or two, or even until the next run. But to give credence to my worst fears and doubts – that I had suddenly, inexplicably, become this clumsy fraud, or worse, that I had been that way all along – would be akin to believing that the sun had been snuffed out because I was passing through a tunnel. Though the darkness is complete, we don’t panic in tunnels. We know that it is also artificial; just outside, the same world is waiting to unfurl its brilliance when we re-emerge.
One of my personal favorite analogies is that of rolling a ball up a hill. Give it a toss, and it nearly crests the top, but not quite. Down, down it comes, all the way back to the bottom, and it seems as though you’ve made no progress at all. Whether you get thirty or sixty or ninety percent of the way up the hill, you won’t know how close you’ve come to the top. Some might find this dispiriting; for me, it is quite galvanizing, because the implication is that every ounce of effort we make–every slight push, every extra second we endure–can be the difference maker. When a run is feeling uncomfortable or forced, then just one more step can be the thin veil separating you from finding your flow again.
I’ll let you in on a little secret – you’re never too good to make mistakes. There will always be periods of discomfort and struggle, of separation, where it seems everything you thought you knew or achieved was a mirage. The value of experience is not that it keeps all these things perpetually at bay; the value of experience is that, when they arrive you know enough to push through. You know that they will not last. Take that extra step, and you may find yourself out of the tunnel once more, or sitting pretty at the top of the hill.
Though the camera did not show it, Miller and Hawks may have been fighting their own demons just before the red record button flicked on, or even as the tape was rolling. Even those who make it look easy have to wade through the mental muck at times. All those whispers of doubt can reach a fever pitch, regardless of whether you have been running for one year or ten. But when they come–and they will come–recognize them for what they are: a natural part of the experience, of the sport, and of being human. Know that they will dissipate, like morning fog over a lake, if you just keep putting your feet forward.
I slowed my pace and collected myself. The trail before me came into sharper focus, and what had been a soupy blur of browns and grays reshaped itself into the playground I know and love. I sank into each impact and absorbed the shocks, springing up and down. I glided along, and it felt easy.
Out of the tunnel, at the top of the hill, I continued onward.