Redefining Self-Worth on the Highland Trail

By: Katie Strempke, photos by Andrew during our tour

Prefer to listen? Here’s Katie reading her story.

Lining up for the Highland Trail 550, I felt strong. I felt confident. I knew I was going to have a good race. I prepared well and felt faster than I’ve ever been. Conditions were dry and fast and I was ready to crush. I wanted to go under five days and I was sure I could do it. 

I had a very specific race plan. On my first night, I’d stop and sleep for two hours, then sleep for four hours the rest of the nights, perhaps cutting back on sleep a little more on my last night. My partner Andrew and I rode part of the route as a tour in the weeks leading up to the race and I felt confident in my strategy and knowledge of the course and resupplies. Annie and Huw, our hosts during the time we were in Scotland, helped us talk through resupply, camping, and general strategy, so even the parts of the route I hadn’t ridden, I felt like I already knew. 

With a level of focus I rarely experience at the start of the race, I rode with strong legs that first day. I spun fast on the flat paved sections and mashed up each climb. I rode up Corrieyairack Pass, the longest climb of the route, feeling incredible. I was cranking in my 32×20 singlespeed gear, even passing some geared riders who were walking. 

I rode the high of first-day race excitement into the dark until I started to feel a knee twinge, interpreting the pain as a signal to stop. Once I stopped pedaling, I realized how badly I was wheezing. I was surprised that my lungs were already protesting that strongly on day one. I tucked myself into my bivy, but the wheezing and coughing kept me from sleeping at all. This was the first time I had to reassess my plan. Due to a lack of sleep and colder temperatures that are difficult on my lungs, I chose to snooze my alarm an extra hour, hoping to get a little more rest and start when the temperature was friendlier toward my asthma. 

When I woke up to my second alarm, my lungs were still tight, but the sun was starting to warm the air. I was optimistic that warmth would help. Unfortunately, my performance didn’t match my optimism that day. My asthma was difficult to manage and I had to take it easy on my left knee that was irritated from all the fast spinning. Interestingly, standing and climbing felt great, but the flat pavement sections where I wasn’t engaging my muscles were painful, which limited my speed on what would typically be fast miles. 

As the race continued, my condition continued to deteriorate. I would have moments of feeling good, but in general, my body was not having it. Overcompensating for my knee caused problems in my lower leg, and my asthma continued to worsen. I was spending more time than I’d like to admit frustrated, sad, and crying. I felt like I should be happy to be out there, and I was certainly enjoying the scenery, but a body that was not doing what I asked when I had such confidence and high hopes disappointed me. 

Trying to force myself to be happy wasn’t working, so I let the anger come. Caroline Rose’s “Feel the Way I Want” came on my playlist and I kept it on repeat, singing, “Gonna feel the way I want to feel.” It was cathartic and gave me more energy for the rest of the day. It turns out that positive feelings aren’t the only way to motivate during a race. 

Giving myself permission to embrace the lows just as much as the highs kept me going mentally, but my body was in rough shape. I made a huge effort from Ulapool, up the notorious Coffin Road, and into Fisherfield. Having ridden this section of the route with Andrew a couple weeks before, I knew what was coming and kept on the gas despite my crackling lungs and swollen leg. I hiked my bike with more effort and energy than I thought I had left and it felt amazing. I anticipated getting to the top and savoring the descent and fun flowy miles after the tough climb. 

In reality, as I started descending, my angry leg sent a shock of pain up my body for each bump in the trail. I stopped at my favorite view of the whole course overlooking Fionn Loch and started coughing up bloody mucus. I knew I wanted to at least get down the descent before stopping, so I continued the painful limp down thinking about what to do next. I stopped at the shore of the loch and took off my shoe and sock to assess my leg. It was about to burst. My lymphatic fluid was weeping out of my skin and was starting to blister. I tried not to catastrophize the situation in my mind. I was worried about my kidneys or some kind of blockage, but I knew that a more realistic picture of what was happening was the combination of the overuse for overcompensating for my knee and using too much compression. Regardless of what the issue was, it hurt freaking bad and I wasn’t going anywhere fast. I contemplated camping right there but decided to give myself a 15-minute nap first so I could think more clearly. 

After my nap, I decided to see how it felt to keep moving. Excruciating. It wasn’t worth the energy spent experiencing the pain to continue. I had plenty of food for the night and morning and taking a rest there meant I’d be at the next resupply within store hours. Despite the fact that it was 9pm and there were still two hours of daylight, I stopped and set up my bivy. I sat there and cried along one of the most scenic sections of trail on the route. Why can’t I do this? Why is my body not cooperating despite feeling so prepared? Why is my asthma so unmanageable during these things? 

Realizing my time goal had slipped away, I knew I had to reassess my goals. Did I really mean it that my main goal was to finish and that my time goal was secondary? 

Could I still love my body and myself despite this failure? 

I couldn’t shake the concerns about my lungs and my leg and decided I needed a serious reset. I committed to taking a 12-hour rest, hoping the swelling and pain in my leg would decrease and that my lungs would have a chance to recuperate. 

During my reset, I had plenty of time to think about my body. I ate a sandwich, potato chips, and cake while I thought back to my days as a teenager deep in the trenches of an eating disorder — from ages 13 to 19 I struggled with my behavior around food. What ultimately pulled me out of that dark place was a cross-country bike tour. Thinking about food as fuel helped to diminish my fear of food and eating. If I wanted to make it over the next mountain pass, I needed to fuel and I needed to take care of my body. When I finished that tour, I found such a sense of accomplishment in the fact that my legs pedaled me all the way from San Francisco, CA to Yorktown, VA. It didn’t matter what my body looked like, though my eating disorder was certainly based on more than just aesthetics, what mattered was what my body could do. That sentiment served me well for a long time: My body can do amazing things, so I can love my body and myself again.

But what happens when my body doesn’t do what I want it to do? Can I still love my body and myself under those circumstances? After a spring and summer of athletic failures – an attempt to ride the Mojave Road in one push that ended when I just didn’t have the energy, an epic hiking and packrafting trip that ended with blisters, and now, sitting on the side of the trail during a race I cared so much about with lungs and a leg that stopped me in my tracks, I knew I was going to have to find my self-worth in something beyond my physical performance. I realized that placing my value on what my body could do was no longer serving me.

But where should I place my value if not on what my body can do, push though, finish? I realized that how I face this challenge and how I deal with my broken ego is so much more important than my elapsed time on the course. I needed to value making smart decisions, taking care of myself, and finishing (or not finishing) with grace. 

I’ve used the mantra “growth over comfort” for years. When I first started using this mantra, I thought of it in a very physical way. I thought that growth came when I pushed past my physical discomfort to achieve a goal. Now I’ve learned that in bikepack racing, and even in life, often the discomforts I face are much more mental than physical. The discomfort of disappointment, embarrassment, and a broken ego were just as large of a factor as my cranky lungs and swollen leg. Giving up on racing in the way I planned hurt my ego. I would finish slower and further behind my competitors than I would have liked. 

While I woke up with the sun at 4am, I kept the promise to myself to rest for a full 12 hours and went back to sleep until 9am, a very luxurious wake-up time for a race. While the break worked wonders for my asthma, I was still limping along on my gimpy leg. It didn’t really feel like I was doing damage, there was just so much pressure in there from the swelling. Despite my ailments, I felt that if I prioritized rest, I could continue without doing damage to my body. 

As I packed up for the day, I thought about why I want to participate in bikepacking races. I love moving my body. I love facing challenges and overcoming them. I love seeing new and beautiful places from the seat of my bike. I love the feeling of self-reliance when I’m out solo. I love being in the moment and not worrying about things in the past or future. I enjoy the alone time and getting to know myself better. As long as I could keep doing these things, I was committed to continuing on the course to the finish at Tyndrum. 

By the time I left my camp spot, I came to terms with the fact that managing my body issues meant dialing back my effort, taking more breaks, and sleeping much longer than I originally planned. I wouldn’t be anywhere near my time goal. To be honest, it took a full day to let go of my ego and initial disappointment of wanting to go a certain speed. Once I let that go, I could begin fully enjoying the experience again.

The longer I’ve participated in bikepack racing, the more I’ve realized the importance of taking care of my body. These things are hard on my body and brain, and it’s important to find a balance of pushing my limits while being kind to my body. I was fortunate to be able to finish the Highland Trail. Though slower than I would have liked, I felt accomplished at the end. 

Despite the disappointment, or perhaps because of it, I was able to experience more personal growth from the Highland Trail than I’ve experienced in any other bikepacking race. Being able to make the transition during my 2012 cross-country bike tour from valuing my body’s appearance to valuing what my body could do was a huge jump in my personal growth. But this step from valuing my body’s performance to finding self-worth in how I deal with challenges and a broken ego feels like an even bigger step in my personal development. 

Growth over comfort always. 

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One response to “Redefining Self-Worth on the Highland Trail”

  1. Congratulations, Katie. I’m currently listening to Heather ‘Anish’ Anderson’s book Mud Rocks Blazes and suspect (hope?) she’s eventually going to similar conclusions as you did.

    Everyday that I can approach my body and life with a bit of grace feels like a win to me.

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