Zen and the Art of Trail Running Maintenance

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Hannah Belles

By: Hannah Belles

Hannah Belles is an avid trail runner, skier and perpetual fangirl living in Salt Lake City, UT.

Sarah and Chris handed us the keys to their house hesitantly on Memorial Day, 2022. My husband, Nick, and I had purchased this house several months prior and were excited to finally move into our first home. We had struggled through a very competitive Salt Lake City housing market, but managed to beat 25 other buyers by offering probably a bit too much money and promising to give the current owners a free, 2-month leaseback upon closing. It was easy to do – I loved this little house and was thrilled to finally start building roots in Salt Lake. We celebrated closing day with champagne and dessert, but carried on with life as usual in our current apartment for the next 60 days. Finally, the sellers invited us to meet them at the house. Sarah and Chris were extremely generous, showing us all of the little odds and ends. You can access the water shut-off valve here, this switch actually turns on the internet, here’s how you operate the microwave – our microwave still confuses me. Sarah loved this house; they had initially hoped to keep it as a rental, but selling made more sense as their own family was growing. She walked me past the flower beds in the front, describing each plant in detail. I nervously tried to take mental notes, hoping she wouldn’t realize I knew nothing about gardening. After handing us the keys, they drove away in their green Subaru wishing us luck. Nick and I looked at each other like children. We did it!

Buying a house seemed like such an objective for so long. We had saved and saved only to be caught in one of the worst buyers markets of all time. I felt disappointed our money wouldn’t be able to go as far, but still grateful for the opportunity to afford our own home, when I knew so many could not. When I held the keys, I finally felt like we had crossed the finish line of a race I had been training for the past 5 years. Initially thrilled – but then a peculiar emptiness. Now what?

This past summer was the first time I had ever trained consistently for a big, goal race. In March, I began to work with my friend and coach, Giselle Slotboom, in an effort to finish the Rut 28k. Every run pointed toward this goal; each workout was intentional. I watched as my body changed, becoming more tolerant to steep uphills and technical descents. My legs grew stronger and my lungs, more efficient. A quote from Des Linden came to mind as the race drew near: “Getting in shape is hard, being in shape is awesome.” And damn, did I feel awesome.

Seasons changing outside of Salt Lake City with fall colors coming in.

However after finishing both the Rut and Flagstaff Sky Peaks 26k two weeks later, I knew my body was telling me to pump the brakes. Little niggles started popping up. I was tired all the time, and most heartbreakingly, I just really didn’t feel like running much anymore. I spoke with Giselle about these feelings and we agreed on a 2-week break from running. She advised me to only do activities I enjoy. The intentional break was lovely. However, as soon as I attempted my first run back, I felt the same bewilderment as when I received the keys to the house. Now what? What even was the intention of this run? I wasn’t planning on racing over the winter, preferring to focus my attention on skiing, but I was now terrified of losing the fitness I had worked so hard to gain. Although, before this moment I would have liked to think I was intrinsically motivated to run, I realized that I had never just run for the sole purpose of running. My running had always been a servant for a specific race or when I was younger, a number on a scale. I was always running after the metaphorical carrot in front of me. But now here I was running – but with nothing to run toward.

A few days after this moment of panic, Nick’s parents came into town. As far as in-laws go, I got pretty lucky. Greg and Diane are kind, hard-working people who value family and their relationships above all else. It nearly killed them to find out Nick and I had bought a house in Salt Lake City – a final reminder that, no, we were not planning to move back to Florida. Despite their obvious disappointment, Nick’s parents were eager to finally see the new house in person.

Greg is a locksmith by trade and owns a successful shop in Zephyrhills, Florida. He is quiet and subdued, happy to be working on his truck with a Michelob Ultra in hand. While some might think of him as a handyman, craftsman suits him better. Throughout our relationship, he has built several hand-crafted items for us including a beautiful coffee table made from Nick’s first surfboard; the surfboard is designed to float gracefully atop wooden legs in the shape of cresting waves. When we converted our camper van last winter, he patiently explained each step in detail as I nervously cut a hole through our ceiling to install a vent. His hands are hardened with callouses from decades of labor, but move with incredible finesse when working on more delicate projects.

Diane operates similarly, but perhaps with a more energetic demeanor. Whenever Nick and I guide her on various alpine hikes through the Wasatch, she is more excited to see a small cluster of flowers at the trailhead, fully zooming in on her iPhone to capture their vivid colors. She spends most weekends at home with a pair of loppers in hand, maintaining her beautifully wild backyard, which overflows with azaleas, bromeliads, palmettos, and oak trees. She teased Nick and I relentlessly when we started looking for houses, “Now you two will actually have to do chores on the weekend!” We usually dismissed her with a laugh.

Upon their arrival, all I could see were my failures as a new home owner. The Hardie board siding had bowed and peeled off the side of our shed, and the lawn was scorched with patches of brown earth from the abysmal Salt Lake Valley summer. As hard as we had tried to control the weeds, they were overgrown and had started choking smaller trees in the backyard. We had several inside projects on our list as well – the most extensive being replacing our backdoor which had a rather large hole in it where a small doggy-door used to be. It had been haphazardly boarded with a thin piece of plywood. Though relatively small concerns, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed. I had no idea where to start.

Luckily, Greg and Diane took the reins and began checking off each task one by one. Greg worked with Nick on resizing our replacement door that was too large for the frame. I watched as Greg methodically hammered the threshold lower until the door slid smoothly. They both smiled with pride when the work was finally done and the new deadbolt turned with a smooth Click!

Meanwhile, I worked with Diane in the front yard. Together, we pulled 3 garbage bags full of weeds. She talked me through the various plants that lay dying, advising me on how to properly cut them back.

“Let’s leave most of these. You never know what will come back in the Spring,” Diane commented as I was about to uproot every wilted item in the front beds.

Plants that Hannah and her mother-in-law worked on getting cleaned up.

Later, we purchased several small perennials at Home Depot to help fill in some of the empty space. I watched in awe as she demonstrated the correct technique to remove the young plant from its plastic pot and untangle the roots. Her hands delicately pulled at the small orange strings and began to massage the soil. She handed me the plant as I placed it carefully into the hole I had dug. I filled the hole with water and smiled seeing the plant sitting content in its new place. I methodically repeated Diane’s method for two additional plants. I felt peaceful and calm as my hands dug into the dirt. After several hours and 16 bags of mulch later, my heart beamed with pride seeing the work we had accomplished and the new skills I had learned. My house seemed brighter; it looked loved. I had felt like a child for the entire day, reveling in the experience of exploration and learning.

One of my greatest fears is getting stuck. That life is going to continue and I won’t be able to keep the pace. My friends will have their children, and my coworkers will get their promotions. And I’ll just be observing it all from a distance, unable to empathize. This fear is certainly present in my running – quite literally that I will not be able to keep pace if I don’t push myself hard enough. However, that day spent with my in-laws brought a new idea to surface – the art of maintenance.

Maintenance is not progressing, but being. It is a slow and deep process of consistently tending to the things of value for you. Maintenance isn’t sexy. It doesn’t get attention. It’s not going into a salon and coming out with bangs, but rather an almost imperceptible trim that keeps your hair healthy and growing. Maintenance is intimacy.

I realized I had been neglecting the art of maintenance toward myself. I felt similar to when Greg and Diane arrived at the house – overwhelmed and a little embarrassed. Where do I even start? I called Giselle and explained my dilemma.

“I think I need some sort of maintenance schedule. Would you help me?” I asked eagerly. While some thrive in an environment without any structure, I love a good schedule and to-do list. I explained to her that I knew I needed some serious downtime, but that I also wanted at least some scaffolding to help me perform small amounts of running “upkeep.”

“Just remember to keep it fun and flexible,” Giselle said as she sent over my updated plan. “I think this will be really good for you. You’ll be raring to go come Spring!”

With this new maintenance mindset toward running, I am getting to know myself and my body more. These small acts consist of good nutrition, strength training, and play. No specific intention tied to any activity, just a quiet expectation that I will put a small amount of effort into myself. This mindset feels strange for someone who’s been unknowingly so extrinsically motivated; however, I am more satisfied. My runs feel lighter, untethered by expectations.

I trotted back to my house yesterday after going for a short run, and smiled when I approached the front door. My new little plants had grown a bit and looked content. I stooped down to pluck some fresh weeds near the other plants Diane had helped me cut. Let’s see what comes back in Spring, I thought.

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