by Janelle Schmidt
I still remember my first run, at age 13. It was probably only a couple of kilometres, but I remember my feet hitting the pavement, a light breeze blowing through my hair, and my heart pumping as I ran past a small forest and manicured lawns. I distinctly remember the feeling in that moment that nothing else mattered in the world.
That was the start of my love of running. I loved feeling the exhilaration of my body moving swiftly and effortlessly. I loved running with no expectations. I did not have a watch to gauge distance, pace or heart rate. As a teenager, I often ran at dusk, my legs spinning the last few blocks to my cul-de-sac just as the sun was setting
At age 16, I ran my first 10K race and at 18, my first half marathon. I became hooked on the adrenaline and sense of accomplishment that it brought and I continued to run road races throughout my twenties. I frequented the 109 Street Running Room store in Edmonton to buy running gear and new shoes for the season, run with the Wednesday night group, and excitedly check the upcoming race schedule.
Fifteen years into my running “career,” I was a new mother when I first heard about trail running. Although I had hiked and backpacked in the mountains, I had never run on a mountain trail. Suddenly, I had a burning desire to run deep in the backcountry and escape the sometimes monotonous routine of being a mother. My youngest was six months old when I planned to run the Canadian Death Race. Unfortunately, a back injury and a year of physiotherapy not only prevented me from realizing that dream, but stopped me from running for two years. Instead, as part of my recovery, I walked. I walked and I dreamed of the day I could run on mountain trails. Slowly I added running on the track, first two minutes and then five minutes. Eventually, I worked up to 10 minutes of running outside.
Just as my running was progressing, my mom was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Grief-stricken, I stopped running. After three months, it became apparent that I needed to run not so much for my physical recovery but for my emotional well-being. Walking with short running intervals became my crutch, my way of coping with the uncertainty. It was how I managed to get through the day with two small girls and a mother who was battling an aggressive cancer. On those runs, I dreamed more than ever of running on a trail deep in the mountains in the middle of nowhere where I could be surrounded by wildness and the healing powers of nature.
Sadly, my mom died seven years ago, one year after her diagnosis. In a short span of time, I experienced post-partum depression, grief, insomnia and anxiety. Running in the forest became my ritual, my daily practice. Running, and especially trail running, was instrumental to my healing. In the year my mom died, I ran my first trail race in Canmore and for the last five years I have run in the Sinister 7 mountain trail race that takes place in her hometown, where her ashes and memorial bench now rest.
Last year, on a hot summer day, I woke early and drove four hours to the mountains. I ran 30K along pristine jade-coloured lakes, flowery meadows and lodge pole pines. I swam in a backcountry lake before driving home and crawling into bed with utter satisfaction. In the fall, I ran my first ultra-marathon, 50K along the highest mountain in the Rockies. It took over a decade, but I finally realized the dream I had 12 years ago. The dream of running in the backcountry, pushing my body while exploring the vast wilderness.
Although 30 years have passed since that first life-changing run, when I head into the forest and my feet hit the trail in a seemingly perfect stride, I experience the same sense of freedom and exhilaration I did as the young girl with blonde hair flowing in the wind. My mind clears, a lifetime of challenges dissipates, and I become lost in the moment.