Sarah Canney: Through Mountains and Awe

A runner's journey of self-discovery, from the streets of Boston to the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Written by
Sarah Canney
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Somewhere between Mount Madison and Mount Adams along the Presidential Traverse in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I felt it. Not the pinch of pain I would later feel that ended my attempt at the traverse, not the euphoric runner’s high, but a deep sense of awe.

New Hampshire’s White Mountains are rugged, laced not with single track, but rockfields of lichen-covered granite. The Presidential Traverse, a series of seven peaks over 4000 feet and a few lesser peaks, makes up the Presidential Range. Running in the White Mountains is technical and often hindered by ever-changing and extreme weather. But on the day I attempted the traverse I was met with clear blue skies, so blue I slid my sunglasses down my nose to see if maybe the filtered lenses had tinted the view. Nope. The crisp, deep dome of blue was real.

As I descended from Madison in the early morning light, I couldn’t help but pause to take in the view: the peaks I planned to run stretched out in front of me, a chain linked by granite ridges. The blue sky, my own body sure and strong, filled me with awe. What an incredible day to be alive, I thought. What an incredible gift that my body can do this.

I haven’t always felt sure and strong in my body. I struggled with an eating disorder through my late teens until my late twenties–over a decade of being at war with my body. I starved it through restriction and punished it with hours in the gym. In those days, my body would not have been capable of a mountain run like this. Starved and obsessed with the numbers on the scale, my eating disorder took on the characteristics of an addiction. It was beyond my control. That is, until I started running.

I started running when I became bored with the gym. At first it was about burning calories, but I discovered that my eating disorder voice got quiet when I ran. I wanted to be able to do more, like run a marathon, but I had to learn to fuel my body. The marathon proved motivation enough and it brought me out of the severe restriction that characterized my struggle with anorexia.

New to running, I naively thought I could simply sign up for the Boston Marathon, which at the time was the only marathon I was aware of. It was only a ninety minute drive away; it seemed the obvious choice. That’s when I learned you had to run a qualifying time to even toe the line. A marathon to run a marathon? I was all in.

I spent the next decade working towards a Boston Qualifying time (BQ). Through that decade I healed my body, had a few children and became a seasoned runner. When I finally showed up in Hopkinton thanks to my BQ, I was eager to run the iconic course. I’d finally arrived at the goal I’d been chasing for so long, but as soon as my wave went off, I realized I was in the wrong place. The crowds, the narrow roads, the potholed pavement and later the city streets, all felt off. Nearly all my training had been on country trails, unpaved and empty on the rolling hills of New Hampshire. I suddenly felt an urge to be back home, and the crowds, instead of filling me with energy, were draining me.

Road running in general had begun to lose its appeal. In chasing my road marathon goals I had become increasingly obsessed with numbers. My paces were like the numbers on the scale I had chased during my eating disorder. The more I tried to improve, the less joy I found in running. It took a miserable Boston Marathon for me to realize I was running in the wrong place.

A few months after I completed the Boston Marathon I showed up at my very first trail race: an experience I was ill prepared for, but eager to try. The race climbed rugged switchbacks, before finishing at the summit of North Peak in the Pemigewasset Wilderness Area in New Hampshire. During the race I didn’t look at my watch once; my pace didn’t matter at all. What mattered was my effort, and as I focused on what I could do, I entered the flow state that runners are always chasing. My mind and body were working together in a way I had never felt before. When I reached the finish line at the summit and turned around, a sweeping landscape of green mountains rolled out in front of me. I was exactly where I belonged.

"The more time I spent on the trails and in the mountains, the quieter my internal critic became. I stopped staring at my watch and started looking up."

That race was a gateway to a whole new world of running for me. I transitioned from the road to trail and mountain running, where I felt at home. Immersed in the natural world on training runs and in races, I found joy in running again, but mostly because these runs and races were an opportunity for awe.

Awe, according to Dacher Keltner’s book 'Awe', is an essential human emotion, one that directly impacts our sense of wellbeing and mental health. Recent studies have also shown that awe helps quiet the Default Mode Network (DMN), which is the source of self-reflective thinking. Awe stimuli, such as the natural beauty of a wooded trail or a mountain top, help quiet the critical voice in our head. It makes sense then, that I gravitated to more beautiful surroundings during my runs. The more time I spent on the trails and in the mountains, the quieter my internal critic became. I stopped staring at my watch and started looking up.

I scrambled up the bouldered peak of Mount Jefferson, using the cairns to guide me since the trail is little more than worn patches on the granite. As I made my way down Clay, my eyes on the summit of Mt. Washington, I leaped down a wide granite boulder and something in my foot gave way. I stopped as a wave of nausea moved through me. I sat down on the boulder, worried I'd broken something - not even bothering to stop my watch. Tentatively, I rotated my ankle, wiggled my toes, and flexed my foot. Everything seemed to be intact and moving without pain. I took a deep breath, reached down and ran my hand along the arch where the pain is most severe. I resisted the urge to take my shoe off and look. I took a few tentative steps, started to jog and then ran again. My foot wasn’t broken, but I knew I couldn’t finish the traverse. Luckily, I wasn’t far from a trail leading down to a trailhead where my ride could meet me.

When I finally did take my shoe off, there was a bloom of bruised skin on the arch. I made the right decision. As I reached down to collect my things and get in the car, I realized I didn’t stop my watch. It didn’t seem to bother me at all. I wasn't here for a time anyway. I was here for the awe.
















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Author Bio

Sarah Canney

Sarah Canney is a mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives and trains in rural New Hampshire, USA. She is also a running coach and founder of the women’s running retreat, Rise Run Retreat. Find more from Sarah on her website or Instagram.

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