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HomeHealth & FitnessEmily Halnon on Grief, Running, and "To the Gorge" Book

Emily Halnon on Grief, Running, and “To the Gorge” Book

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Jon Meyers
Jon Meyers

Writer and ultramarathoner Emily Halnon didn’t experience a typical introduction to running. While still living in her home state of Vermont, she was introduced to the sport by her mother, Andrea, who ran her first marathon at age 50. Shortly after that, Halnon participated in the 2007 Marine Corps Marathon in Washington DC alongside her mother. Halnon’s mother finished 20 minutes ahead, and while that first marathon proved to be a humbling experience, it set the stage for a passion they got to share together.

Over a decade later, Halnon officially pivoted to running ultramarathon distances of up to 100 miles, finding that the challenges of trail running brought her more joy than the data-centric nature of training for road races. Andrea, meanwhile, had gone to complete several more endurance events herself, even learning to swim after she turned 60 so that she could do her first triathlon.

By this point, Halnon had moved across the country to Oregon, and in 2018, she got devastating news: her mother had been diagnosed with a rare uterine cancer, which proved to be unresponsive to treatment, giving her only 13 more months to live.

Just before Andrea passed away at age 66 in January 2020, Halnon committed to chasing down the fastest-known time that a woman had run across Oregon’s Pacific Crest Trail in honor of her mother. She would accomplish the goal in August 2020, seven months after her mother’s passing, ultimately setting the fastest overall known time for both men and women in seven days 19 hours and 23 minutes.

In her debut memoir out May 7, “To the Gorge: Running, Grief, and Resilience & 460 Miles on the Pacific Crest Trail,” Halnon, now 39, takes readers through her supported trek along the 460-mile trail across Oregon, as well as her mother’s final months. The book is about running, yes, but largely a reflection on navigating grief.

I was drawn to the book not only because I too have experienced maternal loss, although the circumstances couldn’t be more different: I unexpectedly lost my mother when she was murdered when I was 11 years old. I did, however, find many parallels to my own experience with grief in reading Halnon’s account.

Here, Halnon talks to PS about what the writing experience taught her about being vulnerable, and how she ultimately hopes the book will inspire readers, whether they’ve experienced a similar loss or not.

PS: In your mother’s final moments, you were able to share with her your plan to run the Pacific Crest Trail. Did you already have in mind that you might want to write a book about it?

Emily Halnon: Not at all — I don’t think in the overwhelming grief in the immediate wake of losing her that I could have imagined writing a book through that.

I did journal a fair amount during my mom’s sickness and after her death. I also knew I wanted to hold on to different memories through the run, so I told my partner, Ian, that I thought we should end every day documenting the highs and the lows, as well as the special moments. However, the reality was that I ended each day of running such a large number of miles thinking, “How quickly can I be horizontal in bed with a bowl of macaroni and cheese on me?”

When I did eventually decide I wanted to write about the experience, I worked with my therapist to access some of my rawest grief because I found I was a bit guarded in what I was putting on the page. That wasn’t what I wanted, I wanted to be more vulnerable to serve the reader. I wanted it to be something they could connect with, that challenged them to think about how they want to live, and to feel less alone in navigating their own grief.

PS: You wrote about the instinct to hide your grief from others you encountered on the PCT, which really resonated with me. How do you hope attitudes around grief, and displays of grief, change with each generation?

EH: I think it’s a real problem that we’re conditioned to hide our grief and stuff it away. We obviously can’t process grief and move through it if we’re stuffing it away, trying to just swallow it down and never share it.

I’ve had some conversations already about this book that feel really encouraging. Grief is one of the most universal human experiences, and the fact that we don’t really share it just sets us all up to struggle even more through it. One of the reasons I felt so strongly about putting my own grief on the page was to help other people feel less alone in the grief that they’ve experienced and help to create at least one more display of vulnerability that might encourage someone else to be vulnerable or to support someone else and encourage them to welcome that vulnerability.

PS: When you were coping with your mother’s diagnosis, your then-boyfriend said you weren’t being positive enough about the situation. I’ve been hesitant to write much about losing my mom because there really isn’t anything positive about it to come away with at the end; I think we should be able to hold space to simply say this sucks, it shouldn’t have happened, and these are the things she’s going to miss or will never experience.

EH: I agree. I don’t think we should force a positive message into everything. In the book, I also share how my brother, Jameson, lost his 36-year-old wife to breast cancer, which you just can’t talk about other than to say, “This is a senseless, unfair loss.” It’s hard for people to know how to respond to things that are so inherently tragic, but there is also a lot of value in simply letting people feel what they feel and not trying to force them away from their very justified and true feelings.

PS: You struggled with having moments of enjoyment while also grappling with anticipatory grief. How did you eventually overcome that guilt?

EH: It does feel really weird to have fun and laugh and do things you love while someone you know is sick and dying. It feels like those emotional experiences shouldn’t be compatible. But I watched my mom — all throughout the 13 months that she had cancer — really insist on continuing to hold on to joy, and I saw how it really helped her through those hard experiences. I certainly don’t want to downplay the ways that my mother very much struggled with her reality and felt the darkness of cancer and felt afraid of death and felt her own grief for her life ending and for losing years with us. But she didn’t want that to be the full story of her life.

PS: At one point, you quote former professional runner Lauren Fleshman as saying, “To choose your method of suffering is a privilege.” What kept you going during the physically and mentally tough moments?

“Grief is love, and this run felt so charged by my love for my mom.”

EH: Just continuing on for my mom. Grief is love, and this run felt so charged by my love for my mom. It still felt very shocking, just because of how healthy and active she had been before she was diagnosed. When I lost her, I felt so very lost. This run felt like a home for my grief and I really don’t know what it would have taken for me to quit this run because I would have felt like I was quitting my mom. I felt so committed to finishing this run for her and to continuing to show up and to get through these miles to celebrate her and to continue to pour my love for her into something to be able to hold her close.

PS: Four years later, what keeps you running now?

EH: Time certainly helps with grief, but that grief doesn’t go away, and there are days that are much harder than others. I’ve come to appreciate that I don’t always have to get out the door on those hard days; sometimes just letting myself cry in bed and fully feeling my grief is a way of getting through those days. I think allowing ourselves to fully feel our grief is an example of living in a brave and wholehearted way.

PS: You also wrote about failing to find the antidote to maternal loss and eventually accepting that your mother’s death will always be a part of you. Have your feelings remained the same?

EH: It feels more like I’m holding on to my mother’s life than her death, and I think that’s why I wrote and poured my heart into this book. It certainly does feel like putting my identity as someone who’s lost their mother out there, but it’s happening in conjunction with sharing so much of her life.

PS: What did your endeavor across the PCT teach you about navigating grief, and what did it teach you about yourself?

EH: It taught me that I am someone who wants to live in an open and vulnerable way, as hard as it may be to open myself up to more pain and heartbreak. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and to be open to the greatest love in the world, to the greatest joy in the world, to the greatest runs in the world, that’s where the real richness of life is. Ultimately, feeling the absolute devastation of grief means that we’ve known some of the greatest love we’ll ever know.

PS: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

EH: I hope this book encourages readers to express vulnerability through grief and encourages emotional openness to contribute to that conversation. I also hope my mom and stories about her life move people to think about how they want to live. Seeing my mom and my sister-in-law pass away so close together was just a horrible, unfair reminder that we don’t get to control the number of days that we have, but also that we are in control of what we do with the days that we get.

PS: The book’s release date is pretty close to Mother’s Day, which you’ve shared is a difficult holiday since your mom’s passing. Has it gotten easier to mark these occasions, and what advice would you have for others who may have a tough time on the holiday?

EH: I used to feel a lot of pressure with every grief milestone, whether it was Mother’s Day or my mom’s birthday, to do the exact right thing to honor and prove that I still love her. But I don’t think there’s any right way to get through these days, and I now know what I need for one of these days can vary greatly for what I need for another one. Running has been a throughline though because it’s a way that I feel connected to my mom.

I have found that one of the hardest things about these big grief milestones is that they make me feel farther away from my mom, like every anniversary taunts me with how long it’s been since she’s been here and reminds me that that’s never changing. And so, to have a way that I can hold her close on those days, or to feel connected to her, is something that I have found very helpful. Sometimes that looks like running, or sometimes it looks like listening to music by The Chicks, who we both loved. My advice for people navigating similar challenges is to just be gentle and compassionate with yourself and do whatever feels right on those days.

Emilia Benton is a freelance health and wellness journalist who is particularly passionate about sharing diverse stories and elevating underrepresented voices. In addition to PS, her work has been published by Runner’s World, Women’s Health, Self, Outside, and the Houston Chronicle, among others. Emilia is also a 13-time marathoner and a USATF Level 1-certified run coach.

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