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Facing my fear of hills and bears for the love of running

March 7, 2018

Found in Activities, Stories

When I lived in Toronto, I led a very busy life. Working full-time as a television host, my schedule was all over the place; the high-pressure working environment resurfaced the anxiety and insomnia I’d experienced in my youth. It took me a while to find a coping mechanism but during the last two years that I lived in the 6ix, I discovered running.

Running was the perfect activity to complement my ever-changing schedule. It was free and I could just go out whenever my scheduled permitted. It also immediately helped me decompress from all the pressures I was feeling at the time. Though I never really considered myself “a runner,” it quickly became a key part of my life. Within the first year of picking up running, I signed up for a race, joined a few run clubs in the city, and really embraced the time I spent hitting the pavement. It became my saving grace.

Mel Offner in a Toronto road running race
Mel Offner running as part of a night run crew

Last January, I moved from Toronto to Vancouver, and I’ll always remember the first night I went out for a run in a new city. Since I didn’t know any of the local running routes (or any local runners), I met up with a nearby run club. Before we started running, the organizers asked everyone to share their running goals for the year. To my surprise, a lot of the runners mentioned wanting to do a few trail races. I was immediately intrigued by what trail running was about and spent the entire run talking to a fellow runner about his experience on the local trails.

Though I’d heard of ultras and trail running before, I’d never actually tried it. But with road running becoming increasingly familiar to me, I wanted to give trail running a shot. There were two things that were stopping me, though. The first was elevation: all my previous run experience was on flat ground, so I could only imagine how difficult hilly trails would be. The second was bears! Being from the city, I’d never encountered a bear before, so I was terrified to go running on trails by myself.

Trail signage in North Vancouver, bC

A few months later, a new friend invited me out for my first run on some nearby beginner-friendly trails. Though it did cross my mind during the run that I could potentially run into local wildlife, running with a friend made me feel safe.

Right away, I found out that that trail running is an entirely different beast than running on the road. Because you’re constantly switching up your stride and the terrain is always changing, it’s much harder to regulate your heart rate while out on the trails. I learned that when the hills are too steep or too lengthy, you even have to walk parts of the trail, which is something I’d never done before. Trail runners will tell you that if you pass them on the way up, chances are they’ll be passing you on the way down because your legs will be so tired from running up.

It also forces you to be extremely present. With two years of running under my belt, running on the road felt almost subconscious: I could listen to music, daydream and would be completely fine. But on the trails, one moment of inattentiveness and I’d trip on a branch or a rock.

Though it was amazingly challenging, trail running instantly seduced me. I love being completely immersed in nature, listening to its sounds, observing all the different colours and smells.

Over time, I’ve even ventured out on some solo runs (and though my concern about running into a bear is still there, it’s lessened thanks to tips I’ve learned from local trail runners). If I do go out on my own, I always let someone know where I’m going and I stick to routes I know and feel comfortable on. I also make sure I have the proper gear on a jaunt in the forest.

Mel Offner checking her watch in the forest

Not soon after I started trail running, I even signed up for (and finished!) my first MEC trail race last fall. While I’m still new to the world of running trails, it’s without a doubt become one of my favourite outdoor activities. So much so that when I travel across Canada and abroad, I now research which local trails are good for running – it’s a great way to get to know an area. And though running uphill is still the hardest part about trail running for me, the views from the top of a mountain or in a forest clearing are worth the leg burn every single time.

If I’d have known how peaceful trail running would make me feel, I would have tried it a long time ago when I lived in Quebec and Toronto. But it’s never too late to start! Since I started trail running, I’ve learned that cities all over Canada – not just Vancouver – have networks of trails to explore. (I wish I’d known about all the Toronto trail running spots when I lived there.)

If you’re like me and are worried about going out there for the first time, then joining a local trail crew or clinic can definitely help ease some of your concerns.

Mel Offner trail running on a snowy trail

Trail running has undeniably helped me become a better runner. It’s been softer on my body and so incredibly beneficial for my mind. Whenever I feel anxious these days, I just put on my trail shoes and head for a local trail. No matter where I am, it’s the best remedy for my soul.

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