Two weeks ago, I ran the Mount Mitchell Challenge, a 40-mile trail run up and down the highest peak in the eastern United States. (You can read my full race report here.) At 6,684 feet, this mountain at the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, was still spotted with patches of ice plus plenty of rocks, tree roots, twists, and turns. Needless to say, it was an extreme physical challenge.
And I'm happy to report that my yoga practice had a direct and positive impact on my experience—to the point that the race felt like an extension of my practice. Both physically and mentally, yoga equipped me with the tools to meet my goal for the race: to finish smiling.
Uphill running requires strong glutes and yoga’s standing poses can help develop this strength. Specifically, Chair Pose and the lift into Warrior I in Sun Salutations B, as well as the stabilizing work of the hip muscles in single leg balance poses, helped me be strong in my hips and thighs. This was especially important in the last mile of the ascent, done on a very steep hiking trail with roots that form a natural set of stairs.
Mentally, an athlete must be strong in her resolve to keep pushing even when things get tough. My practice has taught me that intensity is fleeting; what feels like an interminable hold of a standing pose will soon give way to something else. When things get tough, I aim to meet the challenge with mental strength and with the knowledge that this, too, shall pass.
Scrambling over icy boulders requires a lot of flexibility. At times, especially during the immediate descent from the summit, I had to stop dead in my tracks and strategize about how to contort my body to hold onto a tree with as I widened my stance to grab a toehold on a surface that wasn’t slick with ice. It was the running equivalent of playing Twister—and my yoga asana practice prepared me well. Without flexibility, it would have been far too easy to strain a muscle while working around or over the ice.
Mental flexibility is equanimity, the ability to stay grounded whether the mood is high or low, the trail is rocky or smooth. We develop this on the mat by staying present whether the pose is challenging or relaxing, and it is critical for endurance events, where the experience frequently cycles from exhilaration to dejection and back again. I was very grateful to my practice for giving me tools to weather the highs and lows.
The descent over miles and miles of rocky trails took all my focus. Physically, I zeroed in on where my feet went, step by step; on moving lightly over them; on staying as relaxed as possible everywhere I could, both in my body and in my breath. And this took extreme mental focus, hour after hour. I used all the tools we’ve explored in previous posts—turning my awareness inward, using mantra and drishti (look where you set your feet!). A few times, the focus gave way to a feeling of bliss that came pouring out of me, like while taking in the expansive view from the mountain top and while heading into the finish, out of joy for being able to do what I love all day long. And eight-and-a-half hours later when I crossed the finish line, accompanied for the last hundred yards by my 11-year-old daughter, Lily, I had achieved my goal: I was smiling.