Magnetic North - equipping alpine seekers
equipping alpine seekers



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GUEST POST: The Novice and the Mountain Mentor

snow on the long one, Cougar Mountain

Good morning audacious ferns,

I'd like to introduce a new guest post from a mountain runner, friend, and Magnetic North tribemember, McKenze. McKenze and I began working together during the 'Honoring the Dark' series and continued with a number of longer runs. Her practice is remarkable in how diligent and joyful she is as she conducts her mountain work. I've found her journey (inside and out) inspiring and asked her to prepare this post for you. 

I hope you enjoy hearing about her mountain gnosis.


Like many people, I exercised for image. I bought into society’s version of ideal women and I wanted, so badly, to be her. I wanted to be thinner and firmer, no matter how thin and firm I was. Like many athletes, I competed—even just against myself. There was no such thing as “body maintenance” there was only faster, harder, longer. I would oscillate between consistent pavement and hill running, and burning out: a few months on, a few months off. 
Then I was introduced to the mountains, and everything changed.

It started during a conversation with a co-worker. Living in Washington State, much farther north than I had lived since high school, I was griping about my inability to run with the short daylight hours during the winter. My conception of running revolved mostly around city running, so I thought, logically, it’s not safe to run alone in the dark. My co-worker told me the darkness didn’t have to be an inhibitor, and that on the trails it was just calm and quiet. Ultimately, she got several other ladies, and me, out for an early morning, mid-winter, mountain run. 

We all excused ourselves upon meeting, echoing one-another’s concerns of slowing down the group and needing to take breaks. We ran five mountain miles in the bitter cold that morning, getting to know each other, laughing, watching the sun rise, and running...just running. We had a great time. I now reflect on the moments before we hit the trail and I get a little dejected. Who taught us we had to excuse ourselves for being at a different level than other runners? Who taught us it wasn’t enough that we were there, in 21-degree weather, ready to run up a mountain? Who taught us to apologize for our abilities? No one slowed us down that day, no one went too fast – they couldn’t have, that wasn’t what it was about – we weren’t competing. “Too fast”, “too slow”, “too far”, “too short” are phrases that only have value when they are compared with something else. We weren’t comparing ourselves to one another once we were on the trail, nor could we compare that experience to any other we had before.

When competition – internal or external – melts away from the game the game changes dramatically.  In my first mountain run, my perspective on my favorite sport changed forever: I was bonding with other women, not competing with them; I was using all my senses to keep myself upright as sight could not be wholly relied upon (remember, this taking place mostly in the dark); I was trusting my body and gait in a way that I didn’t know I could, because what else could I do? I had to rely on form and function to navigate terrain. 

Despite the victory of letting go of some of my ingrained competition and learning to trust my ability, one realization came to me after that first run that still gives me pause: this is not about me; this is not about weight, calories, or getting fitter, faster, and firmer. This is about these women, this forest, this mountain. This is about sustainability, humility, and fun. For the first time in my life as a runner I started a new running cycle without perseverating on how my body would gain physically from it. The result enlivened my soul and my heart. I realize now how mean I had been to myself. I let myself stifle my soul and my heart by focusing so vehemently on my physical body. I let myself believe I was a failure for eating certain foods, eating too much, or missing a work-out. In one morning, running in the dark, where the environment did not allow me to be self-consumed (if I had retreated into my head instead of focusing on the rocks, plants, other women, etc., I would have fallen and hurt myself – no question), I finally succeeded in letting go of all the things I thought I was supposed to be, but maybe never could be. I simply enjoyed the event.

from the sitting rock, Cougar

It’s been four months since my first mountain run and I’m still at it. I run with the same women, and I introduced another woman, and both our boyfriends to the mountain. My co-worker is now my friend, my inspiration, and my gentle coach when I need it most. I still struggle with letting the ego out of my running (I’m struggling right now not to write how many mountain miles I have under my belt because I think some readers might find it impressive). I understand that the journey of letting go of competition will be lifelong, but I have already seen great yield: I’m not burning out – I’m more in-touch with my body and my physical needs than ever; I’m having fun letting my spirit breathe mountain air which changes my mood and my ability to be intuitive; I am kinder to others, because I’m healthier, and happier; I have more reverence for the forest than ever, and it just keeps getting stronger; and, perhaps the most dramatic change, is that I’m not mad at my body anymore, I don’t hate it, I mostly don’t even pick at it anymore. I don’t have a six-pack, nor have I dropped pants sizes. In fact, my bodily appearance has changed very little, but how can I begrudge it? This body takes me places – up hills and trails, rocks and mud. This body tells me what it needs and I have almost learned to listen.

It took only one run for the mountains to pull at my spirit and reminded me that who and what I really want to be is kind, generous, and productive. I can’t be those things to the extent that I want to be while maintaining vanity. My co-worker, my coach, my friend, incited the pupil in me and then had the wisdom to let the trails be my teacher. After her gentle nudging, all of these lessons (and ones yet to be discovered!) were taught to me by my mentor, the Mountain.

compassion > competition