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What We Gain When We Lose a Step: Why Trail Running Gets Better With Age

Ten years after my first Mountain Games, I returned to the event that inspired my career.
trail running selfieAuthor's mid-race selfie; (photo/Sean McCoy)
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The finish line loomed in view, but my vision was narrowing. Anyone who’s raced longer distances knows what it feels like as you push to the end, your vision a shrinking tunnel as your oxygen-starved self tries to keep going faster with nothing left in the tank. A few more steps and I lunge across the finish line. I stop, and seconds later, chaos.

I lean over and retch, a stream of thin vomit pulsing from my mouth. Nasty.

That was 10 years ago this weekend at the end of my first running event at the then-Teva Mountain Games. A younger me, new to the outdoor media world, fresh from a life of newspaper work. I’d taken the assignment, run the race, and given it all I could. And in the end, it was maybe a bit too much.

Fast-forward to last weekend. On Sunday morning, I stood at a similar starting line with 65 other runners at the adidas Terrex 20K Trail Run, part of what’s now the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail.

But this time, I had 10 years of running under my belt. I’d run a thousand miles or more across trails and penned a few thousand articles for GearJunkie. The pressure to perform remained but was different, dulled a little by time and experience.

By the top of the first brutal climb, I felt the burn at the entrance of the pain cave. I was behind the middle of the pack. That would have really bothered me 10 years ago. But this year, it was a vague reminder of the passage of time. I settled into a slower pace and remembered my motto borrowed from Scott Jurek: “This is what you came for.

Instead of leaning into the inner world of pain and suffering, I lingered a bit more on the sparkling aspen leaves, lush from a wet spring. I watched the occasional runner pass me and tried to wheeze out a “good work” as they did. I felt gratitude for the cool morning air and the inspiring views and trails and volunteers along the way.

Truly, this is what I came for.

The author power hiking up a big ascent; (photo/Brian Metzler)

Of course, the darker side of my mind will never quiet. You’re getting older, it would say. No way you should even try to earn a podium in a race like this, competing against athletes half your age. It’s OK, I’d counter against myself. You’re out here. That’s what counts.

As I neared the end of the first lap, some of the faster runners from the 10K event, which started 5 minutes after the 20K, began to pass me, making their kicks to the finish line. That’s OK too, I thought. I’ve still got 10K to go, another lap. Let them go. And I did.

At the halfway point, I saw my family. My dog jumped in circles as I ran past. My wife waved and cheered. I laughed at the scene, grateful this moment existed.

Yes, that moment, frozen in memory. It was 10 years since my first race when a younger me climbed off the couch and to the top of Vail Pass via 13.1 miles of tenacious suffering. Now, maybe that wave of fitness had reached its crest and washed back off the beach. But what remains is a softer but more mindful me, one that recognizes how much beauty can crystalize in a single moment.

Vail during the GoPro Mountain Games is a very special place to be. The energy of thousands of amateur athletes and spectators electrifies a mountain paradise. And as I rounded that corner and saw my family, I realized that trail running was more than pain and suffering. It’s more than cresting a mountain pass at sunset or hunkering under a waterproof jacket during a downpour.

Trail running is bigger than stubbed toes and upset stomachs. Bigger than 100 miles.

It’s all those things, of course — strung together, mixed with nerves and pain and love, and shaken with the violence of uncertainty — that make a trail run. But even more, it’s a single moment of clarity — a hug from a partner or the cheer of a volunteer that we remember.

A few years older now, I watch for those moments. I see them. I’m sure I still miss lots, but I’m trying to get better at being present in my run, which while slower, is sure better with age.

A Long Run, an Indeterminate Finish

Into the second lap and another brutal climb, I pondered how the younger me would have felt, chugging away behind the middle of the pack. I’ve always been a competitive person. And sure, I didn’t really train for this race beyond my normal daily runs. But still, it can sting a bit to be pulling up the rear. It’s another piece of time passing that’s just hard to ignore.

As the second lap wore on, I found my rhythm. I made it to the top of the climb without much suffering, and my next descent felt fluid and smooth. No, I wasn’t fast, but I felt good and damn, the morning was spectacularly beautiful.

The trail cleft a brown furrow through the vibrant green meadows. The air smelled of warming earth and wood. And the sky was the blue only seen at altitude on a clear Colorado morning.

I made another climb and descended toward the last 2 miles. I hit the bottom again, and then began a final, long slog up a steep climb before the descent into town. As I began the climb, I noticed a racer moving slowly up in front of me, leaning over trekking poles. As I passed him, I could tell he was significantly older, yet still out here, still pushing. He was running the 10K, and I was lapping him.

Yet I realized, while he was almost certainly at the very back, this man was the winner. At the age of 84, he was still out here, and he completed one of the toughest 10K courses on the planet.

Race distance be damned, the real race is long. I may be somewhere around the indeterminate halfway point. None of us know where that finish line lies.

The author bounds across the finish line at the adidas Terrex trail run at the GoPro Mountain Games 2023
The author bounds across the finish line at the adidas Terrex trail run at the GoPro Mountain Games 2023; (photo/Bonnie McCoy)

But as I crossed the literal finish line in about 2 hours, 20 minutes, I didn’t puke. Sure, I kicked hard at the end. But, something about my pacing or years of experience kept me from burning that last bit of the candle.

I strode across the line, sprinting to keep my position against another racer, and nearly collapsed. But my breakfast remained in my belly.

I’ll take it as a win for now. And the race, really, goes on.

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