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How Trail Running Helped This Runner Explore a World Outside

After nearly a lifetime of feeling shut in, Shadia Nagati found a path out through running.

On Aug. 18, her 32nd birthday, Shadia Nagati completed the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from Mexico to Canada by fastpacking, a blend of light running and backpacking, over four months—a huge achievement for anyone, but especially for someone who had never done much physical activity until just a few years ago. Someone who, at one point, had lost the will to do anything.

“Growing up, I was confined inside a lot,” Nagati says of her childhood in Wichita, Kan. “I had really restrictive parents. They were distrusting of everyone and painted a picture of extreme fear of the outside world. We didn’t do things that normal kids did. We didn’t go camping. We didn’t go on adventures. I wasn’t allowed to play sports even though I wanted to.”

After graduating from high school, she attended college for a year, but dropped out after “a really rough time with depression,” she says. She moved to Portland, Ore., where she worked as a bartender and hit the party scene hard. “I went through heavy drug and alcohol use,” she says. “It got really dark. I was suicidal.”

Things started to change, however, when in 2012 she met Michele Merchant, a chef and an avid hiker who also had a substance-abuse background. Merchant, who has been sober for 33 years, nurtured Nagati and helped her realize that she didn’t have to self-destruct.

Nagati says she’ll never forget the first time Merchant took her hiking on a crisp fall day in Portland’s Forest Park, a mecca for trail runners, when a runner came flying down the trail. Nagati was inspired by how free he seemed—so she decided to try running.

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After training for and completing a 5K on the road, she went on her first group trail run in Forest Park with Wy’east Wolfpack, a local running and fitness training company co-founded by ultrarunner Willie McBride, whom Nagati soon hired as her coach.

“At that time, Shadia didn’t see herself as an athlete,” McBride says. “She wasn’t confident in her running abilities because she was just getting into it.”

But Nagati was sure about the trail and the running group. “I didn’t understand that feeling of belonging until I found that tribe of people and that place,” she says.

During the next several years while training with McBride, she ran a trail half marathon, a few 50Ks, a 50-miler, the 42-mile Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, and various sections of the PCT before tackling the whole thing.

On the PCT, she logged 20 to 45 miles a day, depending on the terrain, while also taking rest days. She kept her pack under 20 pounds and wore trail running shoes most of the time.

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“I’ve learned to live minimally and simply, and I want to apply that to my life,” Nagati says. “I feel like my brain has changed the way it processes information. I feel much more present and in tune with everything.”

She’s also learned that she can depend on herself, even in the most difficult situations. While attempting to cross a rushing stream in Yosemite, the current pulled her under and pummeled her into a rock, which sliced her knee open to the bone. But she stayed calm, patched herself up and kept on going.

“Even when I was having a hard time, I would tell myself that each step was a reward,” she says.

Her next step: college. She plans to return this winter to pursue a degree in environmental studies.