I’m on the Hi-line trail, an oasis high up in the middle of the mountain, surrounded by red rock. I had just hiked through a wonderland, someplace you would find only in your imagination, a magical place. I was on day 7 of my Arizona Trail and things were most definitely not going to plan (the night before I was running for my life through a prescribed burned area thinking I was going to die a fiery death! But let’s not focus on that). Still, I couldn’t help but smile. The sun was shining and I was surrounded by mother nature’s glory.
I had set out to achieve the overall supported Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the 800-mile Arizona Trail with 110,000 ft elevation gain and loss. At the time, the FKT record for this was 15 days, 13 hours and 10 minutes. I had only started running 4 years previously at the age of 39 after quitting the corporate world of 22 years, and only started trail and ultra-running 2 1/2 years ago.
Rewind 6 days, I suddenly developed excruciating pain in my left knee whereby I couldn’t run on it for any long periods of time. Most of my rim-to-rim down in the Grand Canyon was fast hiking. This was only day 2 and 65 miles into my 800-mile journey. On day 3, I couldn’t run at all. By day 4 I could only shuffle for short bursts. I couldn’t bend my knee, so any small rock on the trail was a challenge to overcome. If any of you are familiar with the Arizona Trail, you’ll know that very little of it is smooth!
I was determined to keep up with my mileage, however, so this meant I had yet to finish a day in the sunlight despite starting at 4:00 a.m. each morning. It also meant that sweet rolling trails were like torture, glinting at me with their seductive promise of smooth running when all I could do was a hop, skip and a shuffle. I was longing to be able to run, to lose myself in its fluidity but instead was gritting my teeth with the pain, watching the hours tick by as I gamely continued putting one foot in front of the other. With every passing hour all I could think about was the sleep I would be losing with every step. The nighttime hours felt like I was on a treadmill, the trails seemed endless and repetitive with no sense of perspective, not being able to see far ahead in the pitch black, only the immediate illumination of my headlamp.
So, where were we? Oh yes on the Hi-line trail, day 7, 300 miles in. For some background, I spent months planning this: the route, access points, maps, terrain, gear required, mileage breakdown, food, etc. Knowing that once we got started I would be in no fit state to be in control, I needed a crew chief that I could hand over all this information to and be free to do what I needed to do, which was run. Turns out I wasn’t able to find someone that was able to take 2 weeks off work to support me, but instead, I found the next best thing which was a group of 4 people who had bravely accepted the responsibility. Unfortunately, due to illness, other commitments and various mishaps, these 4 actually turned into 9 different support chiefs. Five members of my support crew signed up pretty late, so they hadn’t been briefed about all of the logistics due to being last minute stand ins, which ultimately resulted in a few comedy errors. Looking back now, these comedic moments helped shift my perspective, roll with the punches, focus on what was really important and have fun, bathing in the love and friendship of those who were supporting me.
Oh yes, back to the trail that I’ve been struggling on for 7 days. I’m dog tired, I was spending too long at crew stops and my knee was still hurting. BUT I was still moving, I hadn’t missed any miles and I was still on plan. My coach had sent a message to someone on my crew that he wanted to speak to me. Miraculously I had cell service around halfway through the trail, so I called my coach. He said that he was worried about me. “Your knee hasn’t fixed itself, so you could be causing it long term damage,” he said. “You’ve been spending much longer hours out there on the trail and you’re not sleeping. It doesn’t look like you’re going to make the FKT, maybe you should consider stopping?”
If I said I was flabbergasted it would be an understatement. WTF???!!! Where was this coming from? It had taken all my strength up to this point to keep moving forward, to not let the demons win. Are you kidding me? Even if I have to drag myself to that finish line, I was determined to make it. I calmly explained that I was still hitting my planned mileage and my knee may fix itself yet. He said ok, but at least think about what might happen if you don’t hit the 15 days, you’ll have to come up with a new plan. It was a shift in my mindset that was worth taking into account, but for me it wasn’t about the planning or re-planning it was the shift to take a breath and to figure out what was really important here, what was my motivation and the ultimate goal.
When it came down to it, the overall FKT wasn’t the be all end all for me. Finishing it was my number one priority, savoring the experience, having fun (yes to most of you this would probably be type 3 fun!) and celebrating my support team (of whom ultimately, I had 40 members throughout the 800-miles). So, I hung up the phone with my coach, and let go of having a poor attitude. I decided instead, I would shift my mindset to celebrating my support team’s love and support and feeling grateful to have these people in my life. I also came away, thinking “seriously, NOT finish??” I don’t think so buster, and you’d better believe that I’m getting to the end of this trail, no matter what.
The overarching theme? DETERMINATION. GRIT. PASSION. Without these, I would have given up on numerous occasions and no one would have thought any less of me. But the thing is, I didn’t want to give up. I wasn’t looking for a get out of jail free card. Even though the demons in my head were telling me: “You’re so slow”; “You’re so tired”, “You’re never going to make it”; I was able to knock them right out with: “I’m doing great”; “Just keep moving”; “Take each step”.
Of course, this meant I had no peace during the entire 17 days. The mental fortitude required me to stay strong and keeping positive was relentless. I wasn’t even getting a decent amount of sleep with which to restore my levels. It was draining. Normally trail running for me brings me peace. It is my meditation time, where I reach decisions from my subconscious, I spark ideas, I find calm. This was the polar opposite. Every day for 20 hours each day my mind was working hard to keep me focused, to achieve my goal. My body was on autopilot and to be honest, physical capabilities were the least of it. It was all a mental game.
I made it in 17 days, 11 hours and 3 minutes setting the women's record for supported FKT on the 800-mile Arizona Trail. I slept for 4 days straight and 3 months later I am still on the road to recovery, mentally, but that’s a story for another day!
This article was originally posted on TrailSisters.net back in February 2020. Helen is a 2020 Impi team ambassador and resides in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Photo credit: Betsy Whited (@betsyayy), Rob Krar (@robkrar), Northern Arizona Trail Runners (@natraneil)