Vanessa Chavarriaga Posada Belongs in the Mountains
Growing up as an immigrant had her believing that she had to be stronger than everybody else just to get by. When she started trail running, she was physically tested in ways she found thrilling.
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Vanessa Chavarriaga Posada shared her story with producer Stephanie Aguilar for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It was edited for length and clarity.
Even though I called my mentor up on the top of this pass, what was she going to do? Fly a helicopter to pick me up? There was nothing I could do because it was my own willpower that got me there, and it would be my own willpower that would get me down.
My name is Vanessa Chavarriaga Posada. Some of my friends call me Vane. I’m originally from Colombia, and went to school in Mexico. I’m currently based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. So I’ve been all over the place.
I did not grow up with any sort of sports whatsoever. I was very much inside reading books and afraid of going outside and getting hurt, and it just wasn’t culturally a tradition within my family. I think being immigrants, it just wasn’t one of our values.
In elementary school, people used to make fun of me for being the slowest at running. All of my life, I grew up believing I’m not a runner. I hated running. So when I moved to Wyoming a few years back, I decided to completely dispel that myth by signing up for this half marathon and trying running. Why not?
I did it, and that’s when I realized that I could in fact be a runner. I jumped straight from 13 miles to 40 because I don’t know how to do anything in moderation. It was a 40-mile trail, called the Teton Crest Trail. I didn’t think I was capable of doing anything like that.
It was just me and one other wonderful friend named Caroline. The first half is all uphill. You have to climb about 3,000 or 4,000 vertical feet to get to the top. I was mainly just worried about pacing and not burning myself out in the first half. So I was going really slow.
We were about eight miles in and we were minding our own business. We hadn’t seen a single person that day yet. I was in the front, and I was talking to Caroline about something, probably boys, and we were just in our own little world running along. And all of a sudden I feel the presence of this very, very big creature in front of me.
I look up and maybe 200 or 300 yards away, there’s a moose standing in the middle of the trail. It was a male moose with huge antlers. It was a really, really big one. And he seemed to be guarding the forest.
When we crested over that last hill, we were suddenly embraced by this expansive, beautiful view of mountains absolutely everywhere. If you could place anyone in the heart of the mountains, that’s exactly where we were. Every direction there were beautiful granite peaks. You could peek down into the valleys and see the bright green of the evergreen trees. The aspens were starting to turn golden and yellow, and you could also smell the fall; that sweet, slightly rotting leaf smell that I absolutely love. I remember almost laughing while I was running because I was in complete disbelief. It was just this beautiful reward or gift that I was given, and it felt like I could breathe for the first time. I just remember saying to myself, I can’t believe this is real. I can’t believe I’m here right now and I’m doing this.
The entire time you’re just getting closer and closer to the cathedral group of the Tetons. The Grand Teton, the Middle Teton, and the South Teton are all sort of nestled and they look like a crown or a throne. We were pretty far away, but we just kept getting closer and closer and closer to them until we butted up right behind them. At this point, we’re halfway done. We’re feeling great. This is amazing. Then you hit mile 26 and you say, Oh, now I’ve run an entire marathon. And that’s when you start going uphill.
You literally walk 3,000 vertical feet in a mile and a half. It’s super, super steep; it’s straight uphill. The views are beautiful, but at that point you’re like, I don’t care about the views, this really hurts. That hill seemed to take forever. We crested the divide at mile 32 or 33. At this point, my body was just done. My brain was just done. Everything was shut down. It’s so incredibly painful. This is the point where your body starts telling you, Why are we still running?
I tried to FaceTime one of my mentors while I was up there, but she didn’t pick up. She was texting me throughout, and she’s like, “How are you doing?” I was just like, “I’m dying. I’m not gonna make it. This is the worst thing I’ve ever done.”
Runners describe this dark headspace as the pain cave. I didn’t know what the pain cave was until I was intimately familiar with it. It just went from zero to a hundred. I just had really negative thoughts in my head. I can’t do this. I’m not capable. I’m gonna get injured. I’m not a runner. I should have never tried to do this in the first place. What am I trying to prove? What am I doing here?
I think what’s hard is knowing that I had to be the one to get myself out of this. No one else was going to do it for me.
We’re really struggling and we really want to make it down before it gets dark. My knees were screaming at me, I was in some pain. Up until like the last mile, I really, really didn’t think I could do it. And all of a sudden we started to see the lake.
You end at this lake called String Lake, which is a really beautiful lake. You skirt along the edge of it for at least a mile. You can almost feel the water lapping the shore, it’s a homecoming.
Caroline and I looked at each other and we were like, We’re going to do this, we’re actually going to finish. We passed people who were just returning from their day hikes and they said, “Oh, where are you girls coming from?” I remember looking at them and saying, “We just ran 40 miles!”
After that we proceeded to sprint to the parking lot. I was just celebrating with anybody who would look at us. “Are you kidding me? I just ran 40 miles! What’s happening?”
We got to watch the sunset on this beautiful lake. We could see the sun hitting the tops of the peaks and painting them pink. It just felt like such a beautiful ending to our day.
I learned a lot about my own capacity as a human and as an athlete. More than anything, I learned that I have the strength to do really hard things. Growing up as an immigrant and a woman of color in predominantly white spaces was really difficult, and I always felt like I had to be stronger than everybody else, or more mature than anybody else.
When I was growing up, I would tell myself, I’m not a trail runner. I’m not a runner at all. It’s because no one else saw me as that, too. But, the really beautiful thing was I realized that my capacity to do hard things from my upbringing can actually translate over into the mountains and make me a really, really, really resilient athlete.
I think it’s really important to expand our narratives of who we think belongs in these spaces, because everybody belongs. From that day forward, I started believing in myself as an athlete.
Vanessa Chavarriaga Posada is a professional athlete, environmental sociologist, writer, and advocate. One of her great accomplishments is completing her first ultra trail marathon. You can follow her on Instagram @vanessa_chav.
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