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Lauren Fleshman’s Wilder Retreat Shocked Me

Photo: Jess Barnard
Photo: Jess Barnard

I used to write in a journal on a fairly regular basis. When I started exploring writing as a profession, that journal gathered some cobwebs. Writing became a job—one I thoroughly enjoyed and still do—but it lost that rawness that only journal writing can bring out. It had been very stream of consciousness, a way to convey whatever the heck was swirling around up there. There was zero structure, and I loved it.

When I first discovered Wilder, I immediately checked out the website and submitted my application. The retreat targeted runner-writers and writer-runners and offered an opportunity to learn how those two things intersect. I was both excited and terrified of opening up old doors in the writing world and obviously a bit nervous about running under the guidance (and maybe super hardcore-ness) of the great Lauren Fleshman. I was privileged enough to be one of the 30 people accepted into the retreat, so obviously I had swallow the fear and book the trip to beautiful Bend, Ore. And I’m infinitely glad I did.

The People Of Wilder

First, let’s talk about the people, the women who made this four-day retreat such a treasure. We came from all over the country, with various levels of running/writing experience and ultimately kind of similar stories as to why we were there. However, one thing we all immediately had in common was a no-judgment approach to the weekend and ourselves during that weekend. No one judged one another, the assignments, the program, the location, the food—nothing.

There were no cliques that can happen in a group full of vulnerable women. We were the clique. We were the crazy introverted, but maybe-kind-of extroverted, clique that applauded every single woman’s breakthrough moment, whether that was nailing one more interval during the workout, reading something to the group that’s never been shared before, taking an extra wild turn on the trail runs or feverishly writing more short prose than ever before. I have never been in a room full of people just like me—vulnerable, emotional, brilliant, hesitant and bursting with curiosity—and felt so comfortable. I walked away from the retreat with 30 new friends. If you don’t believe me, Lauren perfectly explains our shared feelings on a recent Running On Om podcast with Julia Hanlon.

Wilder Running

Second, the running. During the retreat, we had a handful of “small group breakout sessions,” where the large circle would break into smaller, pre-assigned groups to check in with each other and offer the opportunity to share for those not comfortable talking in the larger setting. I learned during one of these sessions that a lot of women were more hesitant about the running versus writing. I was the only one in my group who was “hell yeah” about the running. What this retreat taught me about my running is that I do have the capabilities to run outside of myself; I just needed to dig them up in an environment just like this one.

I was completely inspired during a first day of intervals, where sea-level creatures, myself included (MYSELF DEFINITELY INCLUDED), sucked wind through Lauren’s workout. I was inspired by the stamina and joy of the elites I had the privilege to share a few strides with. I felt awe struck when Sally Bergesen asked me what my “word” was during our sixth interval, when Lauren said to choose a word to focus on. (My word was fast). On the trails, I found myself near the front, chasing runners like ultrarunner Devon Yanko, who uses 20-milers as a warm-up before an ultra I’m sure. I was proud to keep pace with the Little Wing racing team for a full mile as we climbed a mountain. And I think the most surprising end to each workout was that I let myself feel proud of what I had done, of what my body can accomplish, in a way that I really hadn’t in a very long time.

Wilder Writing

Third, the writing. The weekend was full of prompts to make you think, feel uncomfortable and be challenged. The prompts on the surface seemed so simple—talk about a time you’ve been alone, talk about a memory when you were five—but there was one in particular I considered my “breakthrough moment,” where I realized the whole point of running and writing, of writing and running, of writing, writing, writing. Describe a doctor’s appointment. As I sat there, reminiscing over the dozens I’ve had with my gastroenterologist, I landed on one memory I didn’t even know I had. As I scribbled down the designs of the hospital walls, the sterile feeling of the patient room, that stale illustration of the large intestine, the word “remission,” my mom’s look of relief, I began to cry.

I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t upset. Hell, I’m not even sure why the tears started. But that was the breakthrough—that was the space Lauren, Marianne Elliott and Julia promised would be reached during this retreat. That little sweet spot that lies just out of your conscious reach, similar to that pain train that sits just outside of our comfortable race race. You can’t get to either until you let that runner-writer curiosity and drive take over and seek out that edge without fear. The tools I have in my mind to break through and write from the heart are essentially the same tools that I use to dig a tad deeper and run harder than I thought I could. We write to train, we keep our hand moving to fine tune, we listen to prompts to warm-up and dot that last period to cool down, and we trust the process that something beautifully powerful will come out of it as a result.

Is It Worth It?

Someone asked me if the retreat was worth it—is it worth the time and the money? Yes, it’s worth it, and for me, it was needed. To be surrounded by constant inspiration, to explore things just outside of your comfort zone (that’s where the fun starts, right?), to explore different parts of your soul, to really find a new part of yourself—can you really put a price on that?

Caitlyn Pilkington

Caitlyn Pilkington

Caitlyn Pilkington is the web editor for Women's Running. She started running competitively in 2001 and has completed three marathons and tons of half marathons. Her proudest moment as a runner was crossing the finish line of her first marathon in 3:29, qualifying for the 2016 Boston Marathon.