In early 2013, I plan to run an ultramarathon. The very idea strikes some fear into my heart – not so much the five-ish extra miles past my comfortable 26.2 distance, but the endless climbing and hills. (I am much less proficient at running hills than a San Francisco local should be).

Despite the fear and quad-burning hill climbing, working towards an ultra has provided the butt kicking I need to hop in my car, head out across the Golden Gate and hit the trails. To me, trail running has hundreds of wonderful qualities, but three stick out to me:

  1. Gorgeous views. Hooray!
  2. You can run very, very slow.
  3. You can walk. A LOT.

Road running, at a certain point, can become routine – Golden Gate Park is beautiful, but I see it every day. Paying close attention to speed and pushing the pace can be invigorating, but exhausting and can take some of the joy out of running just to run. Getting off the road has been the change of pace I’ve needed to rekindle my love of running.

This weekend, Alyssa and I headed to the Muir Woods area to catch up over a 10ish mile run. The terrain was varied – three hours of sun, shade, jagged coastlines, and serene woods.

Our pace never went above a 10 minute mile (and that was downhill and felt like flying). A couple miles were pretty much just hiking uphill. And that was fine. There was no worry about hitting a target or to hurry through as fast as possible. We were just enjoying the ride.

On the road, I find myself subconsciously competing with myself and with other runners much more than I’d like to. Don’t let her pass you. Don’t walk, you lazy bum. This is pathetic, pick up the pace! Competition can be healthy, but the kind of negative talk I let myself engage in is completely counterproductive and weighs on me. Stepping back from all that allows me to remember WHY I run and what actually matters.

We walked when we wanted to. We stopped to take pictures. We ate real food. And the best part? It was fun. Being out in nature makes the run about the experience –  something to be enjoyed, not a checkmark on a training plan to miserably push through. At one point, a gorgeous red hawk flew RIGHT past us – maybe ten feet away. We stopped to just watch it, exhilarated by the feeling of being close to something so beautiful and pure, far away from the confines and obligations of the City.

I love running on the roads and the thrill of a city race, but in this new year, I’m excited to take the time to get out of the ordinary and bask in the blessings that come from living in such a beautiful place, with a body who can carry me through tough runs, and with friends that I cherish.

Who knows when I’ll complete my first ultramarathon – but when I do, it’ll be the celebration of a new season of leaving the pavement and city lights behind, immersing myself in nature and rediscovering the joy of running.