The Unending Climbs

On sufferfests, and mental lows, and remembering that nothing lasts forever.

My hands were so cold that they had frozen themselves into claw-like formations. I could’ve used them to dive for a stuffed unicorn at the state fair. And my gloves were so wet that I could wring at least a mug of rainwater from the pair. I figured I might fare just as well, or just as horribly, without the sopping fabric, so I stripped them off and quickly realized I was wrong. My bare skin burned red with cold.

We were on our second climb up Hardesty Mountain, one of the closest foothills to Eugene and one of the least satisfying summits west of the Mississippi. This hill gifts you with a long, grinding climb and absolutely no reward at the top. The summit is swallowed whole by towering trees that obscure any view that might rest beyond them. And a sad pile of concrete sits atop the mountain. Remnants of a lookout tower that was demolished way back when Lyndon B. Johnson was in the White House.

I’d decided to do a double Hardesty for a long run with my friend Eric. It was a running plan that guaranteed at least a little bit of a sufferfest, given the profile and repetitiveness of the climb, the lack of rewarding scenery, and the very weathery conditions in the forecast. We hit a little bit of everything during our treks up and down and up and down the mountain: cold rain, biting wind, wet snow, icy mud.

A run that promised at least a mild amount of shittiness seemed like a fitting long run for the grind that has been pandemic life. And I’m a sucker for a good and pointless sufferfest.

On our second trip up the mountain, the weather devolved. The charcoal sky was spitting numbing rain that seeped through every layer of clothing. My hands froze into their claws and my feet sloshed around in my shoes. I wanted to tighten my laces to control the slip ‘n’ slide in my sneakers, but my immobile fingers couldn’t handle such a demanding physical task. So I continued to skid around the trail like a tipsy hog chase contestant.

The run started to seem like it might never end. I thought about filing a forwarding address with the US Postal Service. I would instruct them to: “please send my mail to: Emily Halnon, Cold and Unending Climb Up Hardesty, because I live here now.”

“I knew this second summit was going to get a lot worse!” Eric cried through the pounding precipitation.

“All I can think about is the very hottest shower and bottomless mugs of hot chocolate!” I hollered back through my hood. Hot chocolate seemed as unattainable as finding a one-million-dollar bill on the side of the trail. I would have to subsist on soggy moss and mud popsicles in my new residence on Hardesty.

The hopelessness of the run matched my mental state that day. I had slipped deep into depression and the longer it persisted, the more I felt like I might stay depressed forever. Each day was as grey the sky overhead. My energy and excitement for everything had vanished. I had a bottomless supply of sad emotions but couldn’t find any of the happy ones, no matter how hard I tried.

I’ve experienced depression plenty of times before, but my mental health was lower than ever. Probably a result of the bitter cocktail of grief and depression and pandemic.

I’d gone for a run earlier that week and as I ran through the dense woods, I felt so defeated by how flat my mood was. I was doing something that should give me at least a teeny-tiny jolt of happiness: Running! On Trails! In the outside world! But instead, I just felt like someone had painted me with a coat of sad. That was how I felt every single day. I began to doubt I would ever feel anything else.

“Remember that this isn’t forever,” my therapist had told me during our hour together that week. And I felt like she was guaranteeing a future as unlikely as Taylor Swift asking me to perform a duet with her on her next album.

My depressed brain refuted my therapist’s promise. It tried to convince me that I would have to live in the capital of sadness for the rest of my days. Depression was my new home.

As I kept running through the spitting sleet on Hardesty, I remembered the advice that fellow trail runner, and Oregon PCT self-supported FKT holder, Brian Donnelly gave me leading up to my own PCT record attempt.

“So much can and will go wrong, but just remember that time and distance is a sanctuary,” he told me. “There is always space for things to get better if they’re not going well in the moment.”

There were so many times on the PCT when I had to remind myself of that promise, because it felt like my current state of misery might last forever. When it seemed like my heel might never know another step without a screaming blister. When it felt like the weather would never be anything other than bone-chilling. When the next trailhead seemed like it was waiting in another galaxy.

But, time and distance did prove to be sanctuaries, and everything kept changing. Sometimes for worse, often times for better. But nothing was forever. Each physical niggle faded. The weather kept changing. The trailhead always arrived.

After what seemed like a billion soggy steps, our run up and down the arctic tundra of Hardesty also ended. I drove back to Eugene with the heat blasting. My body thawed. My fingers regained their dexterity. When I got home, I cradled those mugs of hot chocolate while I dipped my body into seven layers of fleecy blankets. I retracted my address change with the postal service. I did not have to stay cold and wet and climbing forever.

In the weeks since that run at Hardesty, I have done the things I do to cope with depression. The things that have helped me come out on the other side of prior bouts of poor mental health.

I have gone outside to move my body each day. I have made pandemic-safe plans with friends. I have plugged into my life in the ways I know are good for me, even if I can’t feel that in the moment. I started taking anti-depressants to give my brain a little help getting healthy. For weeks, I have diligently done the things I know I should do, despite not feeling any instant change from those efforts, despite still feeling like I might have to wear this coat of sadness for the rest of time.

I took this past Tuesday off to do a silly ski challenge with my boyfriend and my puppy. We wanted to try and climb 10,000 feet in one ski day. A challenge inspired by the same part of my brain that decided to run a double summit of Hardesty for fun. The allure of a good sufferfest gets me over and over again.

We arrived at the mountain under a bright blue sky. The sun burned with the warmth of spring. As I clipped my boots into my skis, my bindings echoed the familiar click-click that signals the start of a ski day. Something I’ve been hearing a lot this winter, but that my brain hasn’t responded to with any pleasure. Just like that trail run, I recognize that skiing is something that should give me a little joy, but that joy has remained an elusive emotion.

As we started walking uphill for the first of a billion laps, I slid my skis along the crunchy snow. I gazed up at the evergreens that lined the wintery hillside. The forest in this part of Oregon is my very favorite. I thought about the day ahead. I would be there for hours, pushing my body, snacking on chocolate peanut butter brownies and cheetos, surrounded by nothing but the snow beneath my skis, the hot sun above, and the forest and mountains that sprawled in every direction.

I felt my heartrate skip up a few beats at the thought of it all.

And, I recognized the feeling that was bubbling inside me: I was excited. Really, truly excited.

I kept walking uphill, soaking up the sun, and savoring the wave of happiness that was hitting me. I felt such relief and elation and hope as the warmth of joy washed over me while I climbed. It carried a promise that I would feel more joy in the steps and days and months ahead. And I believed it.

I’m so excited to share that this week’s Trail Mix is presented by UCAN. I’ve loved UCAN since a friend introduced me to it back in 2014 after I had major fueling issues during my first 100 miler (among plenty of other runs and races). He suggested I give UCAN a try because it’s formulated to give athletes sustained energy – like a slow-drip of fuel instead of crash-and-burn calories. So, I did just that and with the help of a lot of UCAN and about two pounds of bacon, I had the best fueling experience of any run to date during my next 100 miler. I was running up hills during the back half of the race and when I got to the breakfast burrito station at Mile 87 of Cascade Crest, I actually enjoyed that mountaintop burrito because my stomach was so solid. Now liquid fuel is a core part of my strategy for any big run or race so fueling (and running!) remains sustainable for the whole dang thing.

And, YOU can try UCAN for 20 percent off thanks to the friends of Trail Mix over there. (I recommend all of the fruity UCAN Energy mixes! Use the code TRAILMIX.)

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