I am incredibly fortunate and grateful to live in Crozet. What an amazing, beautiful town! I am fortunate and grateful to live in a neighborhood where I have several close friends who love mountain running as much as I do. Most days of the week, at least one or two of us are willing to wake up before the sunrise to get in some mountain miles before work and family priorities set in.
Our neighborhood has one main road entrance, located at the crest of a hill on the country road. There is another access to the neighborhood, however, if you’re on foot, that is about 1/3 mile west and downhill from the main entrance. This grassy entrance is a shortcut into the neighborhood when coming from the west.
Countless times over the past 8 years, my friends and I have woken up at 4:30 a.m., donned packs and headlamps, and headed west on foot into the mountains. Generally, we head towards “Jarmans,” referring to the gravel portion of Jarmans Gap Road that leads up the mountain into Shenandoah National Park. How amazing is it that we in Crozet have our own local entrance to Shenandoah? In fact, if you include Sugar Hollow and Browns Cove, we have three! What an amazing place to live! (wait…you live in Crozet and you’ve never accessed Shenandoah National Park from any of these side entrances? What are you waiting for? Winter is one of the best times to get into the park!)
Back to running with my friends… countless times we run into Shenandoah, enjoying the ridge running of the Appalachian Trail, the summits of Little Calf or Turk Mountain, or some great miles on Skyline Drive, before heading back home. Generally, after making our way back down Jarmans, and then several miles on “paved Jarmans,” we are pretty tired and ready to stop running. Then here comes the decision that is the point of this month’s column. Do we take the shortcut into the neighborhood and walk the rest of the way to our homes, or do we stay on the road and run the 0.3 miles uphill to the road entrance?
In the first year or two of our runs into the mountains, this wasn’t much of a discussion. We would come home pretty wiped out and were happy to take the shortcut. But as our fitness grew, we would start to run the extra bit to the “entrance.” Sometimes this would be debated, other times we would feel like running that extra bit of distance and elevation was the right thing to do.
Over time, this ultimately turned into a challenge, or a call to our worthiness as runners. As we approached the neighborhood, the person who was feeling the best that day would preempt any discussion about where the run should stop by interrupting whatever conversation we were having with “Entrance!” The rest of us would sigh, but of course we would join.
After a few years, however, “Entrance!” became the expected behavior, to the point where calling it out is no longer necessary. It is expected. It has become habit. The only time we hit the shortcut now is if we are running terribly late, and any request for it is met with boos and a general hard time.
To the point of the column: sometimes it is these little decisions that shape our behavior and our character in our fitness life over time. I think everyone can agree, from beginners to experts, that nothing in your fitness will be given to you. Every gain is earned. We can probably all agree that the path to fitness is tough and lined with hard work. There are a million decisions on that path where we can deviate to take an easier path. In other words, the shortcut versus the entrance.
Other examples of taking the shortcut would be doing 8 reps when you told yourself you would do sets of 10. Swimming 1,600 meters when you planned on doing 2,000. Changing your bike route to shorten the initial mileage you set out to do. Cutting your walk short because it started raining. In all of these instances, you are still getting out and exercising—yes! However, in all of these instances we are making decisions to limit discomfort simply for comfort’s sake.
Most of the time these are decisions that only you are aware of. Only you knew how long or how far you told yourself you were going to go, and only you know of your modified plan. Granted, there are times when you are injured or sick or truly late for work, and you simply have to take shortcuts. Most of the time though, we are succumbing to the desire for comfort and, on some level, letting ourselves down.
Besides the benefits to your cardiovascular system and overall health, there is a huge mental benefit to exercise. Some of this comes from endorphins, etc., that you get from actually exercising. However, in my opinion, one of the biggest mental benefits is the positive feeling you get from working hard towards a goal. In both the short and long term, improving your fitness is rewarding because you had to work hard for it. Often, the harder you work, the more rewarding the experience.
I can’t say that I’m at work the day of a run saying to myself, “Wow, I’m so glad that I ran that extra 0.3 miles.” But somewhere inside, I know that I went just a little further than I wanted to go, and winning those little battles builds a more consistent and resilient version of myself. This is one of the ways we can improve our grit, something always in need in our lives.
Happy Holidays everyone, and may you find and nail your “entrance!” moments in this coming year.