It’s 7 am, day three. I’ve just finished breakfast at the mountain hut where I spent the night. I’ve filled up my water bottles and packed the few belongings I carry with me. These mornings are starting to become a familiar ritual, despite my body getting stiffer and achier with each passing day.
I run slowly at first, giving my body some time to adjust to moving again. The first rays of sun are peaking through the mountain tops, but for the moment I am still covered in shade and the air is cool. Ten minutes in I stop in my tracks; an ibex is standing on the trail in front of me. Guess he didn’t expect company this early. He stares at me for a few seconds, as if trying to decipher this strange creature that has entered his territory. He then proceeds to walk slowly down the mountain, as if allowing me passage. The safety of the refuge hut slowly disappears and, once again, I am alone. I have no idea what this day will bring, and that feels incredible.
Why do we run in the mountains? It’s a question every passionate mountain runner is so often asked. What’s the point? We know there will be discomfort and pain. We know each challenge will only be followed by another, be it rocks, weather, blisters or all three. We know our heart rates will spike, our muscles will ache, and our minds will begin to play tricks, telling us to stop. We know all of this. Yet we persist.
When I was a child, about five or six years old, my dad and I would head out into the woods on the weekends. We didn’t have much money and spending time outdoors was a cheap way to entertain a hyperactive young girl. Each time we went through the same ritual: we’d start by lighting a fire and making hot dogs. After that, which was always my favourite part, my dad and I would stand at the edge of the forest and stare from the outside in for a long time. "Do you see them?" my dad would whisper quietly. He was referring to all the moss-covered rocks, of which one could potentially start moving at any moment, revealing a forest troll just waking up from its hibernation. It’s been 25 years but I still believe that I will see a troll someday — if I just stay patient and keep looking.
In traditional Sherpa culture, mountains are not just masses of rock, but homes to their gods. Mount Everest is known as Chomolungma, the goddess mother of the world, housing the Buddhist goddess Miyolangsangma. The Sherpas have a deep respect for the mountains and believe that they are more powerful than humans. When we go into the mountains, we do so on their terms.
"When we go into the mountains, we do so on their terms."
This mystery surrounding mountains and the natural world is what first drew me to running. Running in the mountains was like opening a door into a new world; I had no idea what was out there, and that was incredibly intriguing. It’s the same feeling I had as a young girl imagining what was hiding out there in the depths of the forest. Curiosity and the will to explore, I believe, is an innate part of human nature. Yet many of us lose that part of ourselves when we become adults. Spending time in the mountains, running freely, has allowed me to reconnect with the natural world and to keep exploring — revealing the mysteries not just of the external world, but the ones within, too.
It’s early afternoon, I’ve come a little more than halfway. My empty stomach is growling loudly — I’ve had to skip lunch because the last refuge wouldn’t accept the money I had. In the last couple of hours, I’ve been dreaming about a Swiss Rösti and an ice cold coke. Now I’ll have to ration the last of my snacks for the remainder of today’s run: two gels and one apple. Dark clouds are coming in as I take out my phone to check the weather forecast. No service. I’m all alone, still with hours to go. Focus on your breath, I tell myself. One step in front of the other.
Others will ask, can’t you just go hiking instead? Or take the lift? A valid question, perhaps. But have you ever taken on a challenge, one where you’ve had to invest everything you had without knowing whether you’d succeed, only to find yourself on the other side realising that you’ve done it. The physical and mental gains of overcoming the limits of your own mind are impossible to measure but unarguably immense.
My own journey into the sport started with signing up for a 50K race with zero previous experience. I trained for six months and then ran the race. The last kilometres to the finish line were more of a robot walk than a run, and every step sent shooting pains through every inch of my body. But I finished. I finished, and I thought to myself: If I can run a 50K, what else am I capable of? Within a week I had signed up for my next challenge, this time a 50-miler (80 km).
"The physical and mental gains of overcoming the limits of your own mind are impossible to measure but unarguably immense."
Call me a masochist, but there’s tons of research to support voluntary suffering and its rewards, such as ‘Flow’ (1990) by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Pronounced: Me high? Cheeks sent me high!). According to Csikszentmihalyi, “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” Likewise, Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl says in his book Man’s Search For Meaning (1946) that “in some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”
The sixth and last day. It’s late afternoon, the heat of the sun is killing me and my body is begging for a hot shower and a good night’s sleep. All of a sudden, I turn a corner and there it is: the historical town of Zermatt, only a stone’s throw away. I can feel my eyes starting to tear up and my body relaxing a little as if knowing that in just a few minutes, it’ll all be over. When I finally enter the town square, there is no finish line to cross. Hundreds of people, yes, but no crowds cheering on me. Eventually I stop beneath a giant Swiss flag and decide that this will be my finish line. I ask a man passing by if he can take a photo of me. ‘Of course’, he says. He has no idea.
In my hotel room later that evening, before crashing into bed, I pour a drink and raise a toast to myself. I’ve achieved my goal — to run solo along the Walker’s Haute Route, 191km and 12 000 m D +/- in six days. I did it. I finished. If I can do this, what else am I capable of?
Each to their own. We all have our reasons as to why we choose (or don’t choose) to lace up our running shoes and head into the mountains, day in and day out. Whether that is to get closer to nature, to challenge our bodies and minds, to get a break from the stress of everyday life, or to reconnect with ourselves.
“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”
At the end of the day I can only speak for myself, and as far as the why-question goes, I still don’t have the perfect answer. My partner likes to say that a mountain is nothing but a snow-covered pile of rock. And maybe he is right. Yet if we are to believe in the teachings of existential philosophy, we are each responsible for creating meaning in our own lives. In the same way, running in the mountains is as meaningful as we make it.
I see the mountains as my greatest teacher. All I know is that every time I return from a run, I will have learned something new. Turns out those snow-covered piles of rocks don’t just make me a better runner, but a better human being, too.
What is calling you?
Cover photo by Aleksandra Janiak
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