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Quarantine routines: Ultra trail runner Cassie Smith on habits, silver linings and puppy power

Cassie Smith is an Ontario-based ultra runner. She was a member of the Canadian Trail Team from 2015-2017. She's also the FKT relay record holder for the 900-km Bruce Trail amongst many other athletic achievements. As one who works in mental health, Smith understands that the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting quarantine is a serious challenge, but one that can be overcome with good habits, but also creativity and trying new things (including getting a new dog and picking up her grandfather's harmonica).

"These things keep my mind fresh and my heart excited," she says. "I think mental wellness is found in a tricky balance between acceptance of how things are while not settling for stagnation but working towards growth and evolution of ourselves. In times of greater restriction, we just need to get more creative in how we do this — and that’s what I’ve been trying to do."

Here is Cassie's quarantine routine, the sixth in our series

Where are you quarantining?

I live in Waterloo, Canada where I have been quarantining for the past few months. I live alone with my pup, Scarlet (a six-month-old Aussie cattle dog) in a small but cozy condo that backs onto a beautiful forested area that hosts a local trail system. Recently, as restrictions here have lifted, Scarlet and I have occasionally been spending some time in Toronto at my parents’ home as we are able to keep a safe physical distance in the space that they have for us.

How has it been going?

It really has been an interesting time of life with both challenges and opportunities. 

For a while, I had been thinking about getting a dog as a (running and otherwise) companion. While running and being an athlete for Smartwool is something I love to do, it’s something I do for fun on the side. I do have a day job where I work at the University of Waterloo as a psychotherapist, and almost all my work has typically been in-person with face-to-face meetings. When the pandemic hit, our service shifted to an entirely remote model. While doing remote therapy sessions took some adjustment (learning new technology, ensuring client privacy, etc.), it came with the opportunity to have a more flexible work-life schedule, including training a puppy and running and hiking more frequently. 

My life quickly went from a 9-5 work routine, evening runs, and study sessions (I’ve been working towards a masters in business on the side), to constant puppy “potty runs” every few hours and putting-up baby gates so my dog didn’t chew my condo to shreds and so that I could maintain some level of focus and sanity. I have been squeezing running and studying in where I could around work and Scarlet’s needs. 

Days initially felt BUSY. I kept thinking “isn’t a pet supposed to be good for my mental health?” Everyone else seemed to be talking about all the “free time” they had in quarantine, which, truthfully, has felt elusive to me even though my time has been flexible. But then I remembered that most things that are truly rewarding don’t come easily at first and require an upfront investment, and this motivates me with Scarlet, with running, doing a part-time masters, working in mental health, and just, in general, adapting to new “pandemic” ways of life. I know both from research and from my own life experience that resiliency and hard work always come with some personal gains, even if they aren’t the ones you expected. 

There have already been many silver linings, the frequent jaunts with Scarlet and more flexible work schedules have meant my mileage has increased despite running and hiking a very limited number of trails and routes that have been open. 

This has meant more time on muddy feet, and I can honestly say I’ve been thankful for being a Smartwool ambassador during this time in that I’ve got lots of sock options for hiking, running, compression and lounging.

My heart has also opened to care for a sweet little pup that seems to love me unconditionally (or at least loves that I dispense treats, belly rubs, and that I allow her to lick my salty sweaty legs after I run – although I like to think it’s a bit deeper than that). As restrictions have lifted, it’s been exciting to return to some of my favourite routes along the Bruce Trail and share them with my new furry companion. 

I am an introvert by nature, so truly can find joy in my alone time. If you talk to any ultrarunner, you’ll find a common ground is that we have learned to manage our relationships with ourselves — the good, bad, and in-between. Alone time is a given when you run for 10+ hours in remote places. However, chosen alone time is one thing — having it forced upon you in a very restrictive way is quite different than choosing it freely. As an introvert, I love to frequent coffee shops, run my favourite trails, travel, and move around the world as I please.  Not being able to do this the past few months has been hard, but manageable — and I think being an endurance athlete has helped with this. I’ve found some comfort and a kind of meditation in the monotony, as well as stimulation in the “newness” of this new way of life. I have also missed very basic things – like hugging people. I think we will all squeeze our loved ones a little tighter when this pandemic subsides. 

What are you looking forward to most when you are able to move around more and start getting back to normal?

Some of the things I have really missed include traveling to other countries, hugging people, and enjoying connecting with friends and family at places like restaurants, pubs, and coffee shops. I look forward to doing all these things. I have immediate family and loved ones in the US that I am currently unable to see and that part has been hard. I had to cancel travel plans to see some people I love and miss very much, not knowing when I will see them again has been heartbreaking. 

At the same time, I have plans to travel to Canada’s West Coast soon as restrictions are lifting, so am very excited for the change of scenery and to get back to the mountains.

To be honest, I don’t really miss racing that much. I think my life has shifted to more adventure-focused running and athletic endeavours, and less “type A” fun that I used to find in competition. Don’t get me wrong, I love to challenge myself, but races are just one way to do this. 

What is your current quarantine routine?

My routine has been both monotonous but also novel in different ways. The monotony has come from running and hiking the same trails and loops that I have been able to access locally on a relatively consistent schedule each day. Morning dog-walk, 3-5K, then 10-20K run later morning, and an evening 3-5K hike again with Scarlet are the backbone of most days. 

While I enjoy the discipline and consistency of the routine, I also miss getting out and doing new things in the world. Quarantine has allowed me to realize what a privilege that is. Overall, I think it’s been a good challenge. Sprinkled into this “backbone” of a routine I try to include a bit of yoga and some bodyweight strength training workouts including a virtual Thursday night program lead by Will Moroski (@willmoroski on Instagram). I have also been doing some road cycling, and recently incorporating paddle boarding — my new favourite leisure activity that even Scarlet is getting into! 

I’ve also been attempting to incorporate more maintenance work with stretching, foam rolling, and physiotherapy exercises for my various chronic ailments. I’ve tried to do this 1-3 times per week while listening to a podcast or watching a show in the evening, which is an improvement in frequency for me.

How about nutrition?

My nutrition routine is very much basic one: Let my body tell me what it needs and practice mindful eating. I’ve never counted calories, followed any diet, or been restrictive about what I eat. Instead, I try to pay attention to what my body is telling me it needs. If I’m craving a specific food, I eat it, if I’m full, I stop eating, if I’m thirsty, I drink more water. I find this has led me to have a diet rich in variety, flavour, and to never be too excessive in my consumption while still indulging in what I love. 

What about mental fitness?

I admittedly have a strong bias towards the importance of mental fitness (in sport and just in life) as I work as a mental health professional and am immersed in this world and the research surrounding it. In general, I’ve been trying to adhere to what I know is the foundation of good mental health in times of ambiguity — focusing on what I can control, and doing my best not to worry or ruminate on what is not in my control. This is essential but takes work and I’m not always perfect at it.

Additionally, I know it is mentally important to continue to keep some form structure and routine, take breaks to recharge, get outside (in a safe way, of course), eat well, prioritize consistent sleep, stay connected (even if virtually) to loved ones, and find time to laugh, be creative, and keep my mind stimulated. Also, taking time to be still and grounded in my own values, goals, and sense self is always important to me, but especially when the world feels a little bit confusing and chaotic. I may not always hit these targets, but I certainly aim for them.
 

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