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My introduction to running happened when I was six or seven and had just learned to ride a bike. I would pedal along with my dad as he ran his weekly two or three miles around the neighborhood, pausing to push me up all the hills along his route. (Major brownie points for dad, negative vert points for me.) We always came back happy and exhausted, and those bike rides are some of my favorite memories.
When I actually started running myself, I gravitated toward the track, drawn to the unknown entity that was hurdle races. By my sophomore year of high school, I had improved to be an all-state competitor, enjoying the rapid uphill trajectory that comes with learning something new.
As I improved, something else started happening in my brain. Before big races, I would spend hours scanning the heat sheets of athletes I’d be competing against, then looking up each name individually (thanks, athletic.net!) to see who had the fastest PRs, who was older than me, who was my biggest competition. Anytime I saw a PR faster than my own, I knew with ironclad certainty that she would beat me.
By the time I graduated high school, I had earned four state titles and had been recruited by dozens of colleges. But I also turned to my parents before every race, telling them I was too tired to run, that it would be better if we just went home. I spent so much time worrying about my competition that I forgot I had once enjoyed my sport.
That feeling persisted when I got to college and transitioned, at my coaches’ behest, to middle distance events, leaving the sprints behind. Again, I found that incredible rate of improvement that accompanies a new event: I set constant PRs over 800 meters and the mile, notching a school record and winning a conference title. I peaked as an unknown 18-year-old freshman, earned a reputation as the one to beat, and felt the cycle in my brain begin again.
Anytime I would see competitors running higher mileage or faster workout times – even if those competitors were my own teammates, or people who’d never beat me in races – the hours of work I put into my own training seemed feeble and worthless. As my track career drew on, I’d find myself resigned to losing before the gun even went off.
Run Sharing and Mental Health
Fortunately, trail running is vastly different from track and field, and transitioning away from the track was one of the best things I could have done for my overall joy, self-acceptance and mental health. I’ve begun to slowly disengage the voices in my head that tell me I’m not running fast enough and tune in to my body’s cues, finding the total enjoyment in exploring wild spaces with new friends, the things we all love so much about this community.
I used Strava for exactly one day before deleting it. I use and enjoy other social media platforms, but sharing the statistics and progress of my runs with anyone who wants to follow me? It felt more deeply personal and intimate than posting a picture of my dog in the snow on Instagram (and also decidedly less cute).
All of a sudden, I felt far too….seen. Would my friends judge me for my heart rate, deeming me out of shape? Did running the same route slower than my next door neighbor make me less worthy of sharing my running experience? Were people picking apart my lower mileage and wondering why I thought I could possibly fit in? I felt the familiar creeping of impostor syndrome and knew that if I let it, the app would become an unhealthy rabbit hole where I’d allow myself to be intimidated by all the runners around me rather than trying to improve and enjoy my own training.
I realized immediately that if I’d had that kind of exposure when I was younger, I would have had mental health problems at a much younger age and felt that pressure much earlier in my life. My paper training log all of a sudden seemed laughably out of touch, but also inherently safe, where I could examine my training at its face value in the safety of my own mind and disregard anyone else’s evaluation.
Olympic speed skater Apolo Ohno has a quote, that “an Olympic pursuit really takes a full three to four years of Olympic preparation.” In his book, Zero Regrets, he writes about Olympic audiences, how amazed they are by the incredible performances on show at the Games. But Ohno notes that those same spectators don’t see the years of daily discipline and training that makes those performances possible.
With run sharing apps, every inch of that preparation is put on display. That carries major benefits if you need the extra accountability of an audience or love chasing those Local Legend designations (I get it, believe me.) But what were people really thinking about my runs and workouts? I found I didn’t want to know, and enjoyed running more when I didn’t.
Internal Validation Without External Pressure
Trail running “success” in the form of wins and fast times hasn’t come easily (or at all) for me like it did on the track, and I find I’m reveling in that. Isn’t it okay to enjoy running for running’s sake, enjoy strength training for the way it makes me feel, without constantly reminding myself that someone out there, or lots of someones, are faster and stronger than I can ever hope to be?
I’m okay with it if that type of success never does come, because it won’t invalidate the work I’ve done and the experiences trail running brings, that are more permanent than any podium finish.
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Don’t get me wrong, kudos – in any shape or form – feel great! Sharing the run is a huge part of why so many of us do it. But putting the minutiae of every workout out there left me feeling like I was running for other people rather than myself. Without a digital audience, I know if I have an off day I can skip a run, take a walk break or spend fifteen minutes looking at a rainbow. And I can be more present when sharing miles in a literal sense, enjoying every step with a friend or group without worrying what the rest of the world will think of my stats. Removing that external point of anxiety and giving myself permission to run trails on my own terms is reminding me why I loved those bike rides with my dad so much more than twenty years ago.
And if I ever do find trail success? I want it to surprise everyone but me. I want my own version of Ohno’s Olympic payoff: years focusing on myself and enjoying my process for what it is. Then on race day, my brain won’t be ruining things by constantly comparing me to other runners. Instead, I’ll be able to spend every moment genuinely and wildly supporting my competitors, and letting the kudos come.
Reagan Colyer is Trail Runner’s assistant editor. She lives in the Northern Rockies of Montana and came to the trails after college as a middle-distance track athlete. She is a copy editor by trade and a reader of literally anything.