Trail Imposter Syndrome

Not all who wander are lost.  Indeed, the more I wander, the more I find myself.

The trails heal me. The trails guide me.

I once hid in the shadows. Away from the world. Afraid they might notice. This broken girl. But running free in the woods and the trails. I find purpose, and solace prevails.

You, too, seek the trails.  You may also find that the trails heal you. Perhaps you are fleeing something.

But each time you run the trails, you question your worth there.  What value can your presence bring to the trails?  You understand the value that trails bring to you.  Yet you feel that you are an outsider.  You feel you do not belong there.

You feel like an imposter as you wander the trails.

I did not always feel like an imposter.  My whole life, I was driven to succeed.  I was laser-focused.  Get through school.  Pay my bills.  Heal past wounds. Start a career. Get married.  Start a family.  Change careers…  Perhaps I was too distracted to feel like an imposter.

But the day would come, and it gradually enveloped me over a period of months the way the morning dew gently envelops blooming wildflowers. Gentle and unassuming. You never see it coming until the next moment you are surrounded by it…perhaps even drowning in it.

A PhD program introduced me to the concept of being an imposter.  It was a gentle and unassuming notion that would spill over into other areas of my life.  And of all areas, it would color my presence on the trails.  Ironic, because as a geologist, I have hiked trails extensively.  Ironic, because I have been a runner my entire life.  Yet the moment I thought about running trails, I felt like an imposter.

Why would any TSer running trails feel like an imposter?

Are you new to the trails?  Perhaps you lack experience and being new causes you to question your presence on the trails.  You may believe that the other runners passing you are experts in all aspects of trail running.  You feel that their expert experience qualifies them, whereas your own inexperience disqualifies you.  Please know that every trail runner was once new and, for them, early days turned into weeks, months, and eventually years.  We all need to begin somewhere and the best way to begin is to take that first step and believe in ourselves.

You are not a fast runner.  Other trail enthusiasts fly past you quicker than greased lightning in a summer thunderstorm.  You are left standing in the dust, or at least that is how you feel.  You proudly represent the middle or back of the pack but become intimidated by runners who routinely BQ.  You have never stood on a podium.  You have never placed in your age group.  You cannot remember your last PR.  But I assure you, you belong on the trails.  Please remember, not every trail run is meant to be a race, and not every trail race will give you a PR.  Remember why you are there and why you love running the trails.  Let that be your focus.

No one else on the trails looks like you.  You feel like an outsider because you stand out.  No one else on your trails looks like you.  It may become more difficult to find a sense of community and belonging when you are different than everyone else around you.  Some runners may be less affected, of course, and run the trails without seeking representation.  But for others, representation is essential.  In the end, I believe we all crave a sense of belonging and it becomes difficult to belong when you feel alone in your “otherness.” 

You may feel as though you do not look like a runner.  But I pose the question, and with all the sarcasm, “What should a runner look like?”  Society places a tremendous burden on women to look a certain way.  Many TSers have felt this pressure, be it on the trails or elsewhere in their lives.  You may feel as though you cannot measure up.  Please remember that height does not matter.  Weight does not matter.  Running clothing do not matter.  Expensive gear does not matter.  I want to encourage all trail sisters to own their space. Be confident in your own space.  Find the beauty and worth in your own space.

You may not be able to afford much of the recommended gear.  For short runs, basic trail shoes and a sports bra are really all you need.  Longer runs may call for a handheld flask so you can stay hydrated.  Cold or wet weather running may require the relevant gear but know that many items can be purchased on clearance or secondhand.  Many running groups also encourage trading and sharing of gear.  Sure, it is fun to wear trucker hats and banditos and cool sunglasses of course, but please do not allow a limited budget to prevent you from feeling value and worth on the trails.

Perhaps you feel invisible on the trails. Feeling invisible does not help you feel to be less of an imposter.  It reinforces the notion in your mind that you do not belong here.  Perhaps you have felt ignored on the trails.  While I would hope that all trail enthusiasts would be welcoming to newcomers, you may at times find yourself on trails with others lacking the warmth you seek.  I would encourage you to remember why your heart is drawn to running the trails and let that be your guide.  Do not feel discouraged.  For building friendships around trails and being outdoors, it is sometimes healthy and necessary to move on, fostering new friendships on different trails, while adjusting your expectations on old ones.

We evolved in nature and so it should come as no surprise that we find healing in nature.  And so, I continue to wander the trails.  The trails heal me.  You, too, belong on the trails.  Be present on the trails and let them heal you.

Kuwanna Dyer-Pietras

Kuwanna Dyer-Pietras

Kuwanna is a life-long runner and a field geologist with a love of running adventures and field work. She has completed several marathons and is now exploring ultra distances. She is originally from Nevada and would love to see more BIPOC women running the trails. When she is not running, you will find her teaching geology courses, researching ancient river and lake deposits, all while trying to keep up with two daughters and a patient husband. She is a connoisseur of gluten-free beer and granola.

Trail Sisters is committed to creating opportunity and participation for women in trail running. Our content is always free to read. Consider a monthly contribution on Patreon to support Trail Sisters so we can continue to inspire, educate and empower others!


5 thoughts on “Trail Imposter Syndrome”

  1. Thank you! It’s been months since I’ve run trails and I’ve been surprised to recognize the insecurities and doubts that have taken root. Your words have reminded me of the healing and peace that will come when I get back out there. It’s long overdue! I miss my happy place!


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