Far as I can tell there is not much useful, constructive, or productive that comes from self doubt. It just gets in the way of forward progress, popping up like a tree root to stumble over. I suppose you could argue that it can serve as a little voice cautioning you, slowing you down, saying are you sure? But mostly it feels more like a weed that grows twice as fast as everything around it. Doubt is a seed, and once it gets a chance to set roots it can grow like mad.
I am halfway up a mountain I did not mean to climb in the Calvin Coolidge Forest in Shrewsbury, VT. The first questionable decision I make is to ignore the fact that I have not yet seen a Catamount Trail marker even though I’ve been running about 20 minutes. Just keep going, this trail is really pretty, maybe it’ll link up soon. I continue climbing through hardwood and over boulders and into what is surely a favorite denning area for black bear and who knows what else. I take out my bell and let it hang from my waistband, making as much noise as I can. The view at the top is, indeed, stunning, and might even be worth derailing the rest of my day — I don’t know this yet though.
As I run back down I consider trying one of the trails I passed on the way up to see if it connects with the Catamount Trail, but in the end I opt to head back to the trailhead where I was dropped off and try again from the start. Within a minute or two I see where I went wrong: it’s the allure of a clear, well-traveled trail marked with blue blazes that I had followed, as opposed to the less attractive choice of plowing through chest-high nettles to find the CT markers. Silly me. I have now traveled 4 miles up and down Shrewsbury Peak to arrive precisely at the spot where I began an hour ago, a decision which turns this 8 mile run into something more like 12.
The little seed of doubt is setting roots. I am questioning my earlier decision to frolic, care-free up a mountain instead of staying with the plan. Which leads to some wondering about setting off again now on my still healing stressed hamstring alone into the remote woods with no cell coverage, already behind schedule. I try calling Tom to get a reality check but no cell service. Okay, I think, if I could talk to him what would he say? He would ask me what have you got for water, what have you got for calories, and how’s your hamstring feeling? Plenty of water. It’s predicted to be very hot and humid, but I tend to lean more toward pre- and post- run hydrating, so making the water last shouldn’t be a problem. My belly is full of oatmeal and I’m carrying about 600 or more calories in my Camelbak. The hamstring feels fine. My legs are, admittedly, a bit tired from the first 4 miles, but the rest of the run is supposed to be relatively gentle terrain, therefore … check, check, and check. Onward then.
Things start off fine. The trail is well marked and the map and description I am following all make sense now. I am lured deep into the woods and the adventure that lies ahead in spite of a few nagging pangs of doubt.
About 30 minutes in I notice that the going has become slower than I would like. Thick nettles, buck brush, and grasses blanket the trail making it basically impossible to see where to place my feet. And when my feet do land, they seem only to find running water, a rocky stream bed, or a jumbly mess of branches hiding beneath the growth. This becomes not so much a run as a careful one-foot-in-front-of-the-other while whacking away at the nettles kind of slog. The trail clears slightly for a ways, I’ll get 20 or 30 running steps in, and then I’m back to blindly feeling my way. It’s tempting to just plow through, but I know that attitude puts me at risk: one wrong step and I’m in trouble. Out in the woods, the difference between everything being okay and everything being really bad can be as simple as landing wrong. So I’m careful. And it’s taking forever.
I get to the Sargent Brook crossing and am dismayed to discover that in an hour I’ve only covered 1.7 miles. And the trail seems to be getting increasingly impassable. I’m frustrated and questioning myself and pouring sweat and the deerflies are finding me. So on I go. Forty minutes later I cross over the AT/LT and look at my map to see that this marks the “last bail out” opportunity until I get to mile 8.5. Doubt has firmly taken hold at this point. I am questioning every decision I make and then second and third guessing it. My inner cheerleader sounds like a flighty dumbass basically cheering me over the edge of a cliff. On my other shoulder is the voice that just shrugs and says I dunno, do the math. I look at my watch, I look at my odometer, I look at the map. Since my “restart” I’ve covered only 2.3 miles in just under 2 hours. I’ve got about 6 miles to go to get to my car at Brewer’s Corner. If the trail improves and I can actually run it, I'm golden — assuming all goes well and I don’t lose the trail and the footing improves and I ration my water and my hamstring holds up, then no problem. Even if the trail doesn’t improve and I have to machete my way over the next 6+ miles, I will still get out before dark. Probably.
I continue on, clinging to the tiny thread of optimism that hasn’t yet been choked to death by the gargantua of growing self-doubt. There’s pride involved too. I do not bail out. I see it through, damnit, even if it sucks. About 50 yards in I stop in my tracks. Shit. What am I doing? I turn and look behind me, paralyzed by indecision. Okay, breathe, think it through. I picture best and worst case scenarios for each decision. I imagine myself plowing on, getting the job done and feeling like the mightiest bad-ass ever — or at least like I’ve earned a cold beer. Or, I plow on, something goes wrong, and I’m alone in the woods with no cell service. Or, I swallow my pride and bail out, hop on the AT/LT and get myself out to the nearest road and figure out my next move from there. Or I bail out and regret it and later decide I have let myself off the hook too easily — a failure and a wimp. Shit shit shit. Doubt is clouding everything. I seem to have forgotten handling the 100+ miles of remote wilderness I ran last summer — a thought which really should fill me with confidence or at least give me an encouraging metaphorical pat on the back. Nope. Not a wisp of courage to be found. Just me, standing on this trail alone, kind of freaking out a bit. The idea of continuing on scares me. The thought of bailing out makes my throat get tight and tears form in my eyes. Shit.
I choose tears over fear, turn around, and jog back to the AT/LT and — with the decision now made —enjoy a long cruising run downhill to civilization. It’s another hour of running down a few back roads before I get cell service and make my mercy call. My hamstring held up well, and I am alive. But that pride I swallowed sits like a dark piece of coal in my belly.