Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Vanessa Runs: Living Outside The Box

This interview with Vanessa is the third and final part of the trilogy I wrote for Sensa Nostra, which examines the lives of people who choose to live in vans.  Vanessa is a trail runner; an explorer of the world; and one of my favourite writers.

Vanessa Runs is a summit-seeking nomad.  She gave up a successful career as an Assistant and Online Editor in an office to live in a motor home and travel the land.  She writes, travels and takes part in ultra-marathons, up to 100 miles long.   Despite inhabiting a very small space, Vanessa certainly lives outside the box.  Here she shares her reflections on success, freedom, and her courage and perseverance in life, as well as running very long distances. 

My partner and I chose to live in an RV (Recreational Vehicle) because we wanted two things: to travel freely, and to live minimally. Our 22-foot Rialta RV is tiny by most standards. Most people use this RV for day trips or camping, but not for living. I love it because it forces us to keep only what we need and use, and it drives us to spend more time outdoors. We also wanted a vehicle small enough to fit into a regular parking spot. We didn't want to spend any time or money at campgrounds, and since we bought it we have never paid to spend the night anywhere.

We essentially drive from trail to trail. Both my boyfriend and I enjoy trail running, so we visit a lot of national forests, national parks, and state parks. He loves water and I love mountains, so we look for places that combine mountains with waterfalls, streams or lakes. We have no set plan in our travels and no deadlines.  I don’t see myself ever going back to owning or renting a home, or working a traditional job, but I would never say never. It’s a big world and I still have many more years to live, and experiences to experience.

Since quitting my office job, my writing career has actually become even more successful, a thousand times over. I finally have the freedom to follow my instincts, write about what I know and love, and dive into research and interviews that truly interest me. My writing has improved drastically, and it is much more personally fulfilling.  More writing time was definitely one of my goals. I have a journalism degree, so I knew I could write anywhere. I had stories to tell outside of my job and I wanted to write a book.  I had never made an obscene amount of money as a writer or editor, and as I was used to a very low-budget lifestyle. I felt I had little to sacrifice.

Years ago, I would have defined success as being married, having kids, having a steady and well-paying job, and owning my own home. The typical middle-class dream. For me, it truly was a dream since I grew up in poverty and I was the first in my family to pursue a higher education. A middle-class lifestyle seemed like a lofty goal at the time and slightly out of reach. I worked hard to put myself through school and achieve that original ideal.  The problem was that after I graduated, got a job, and owned a home with someone who wanted to start a family, I realized that I no longer wanted those things. I wanted more. I wanted to travel and run and live outside the box. So my idea of success changed.

Dr. George Sheehan said “Success is the certain knowledge that you’ve become yourself, the person you were meant to be from all time.”  To me, that is true success. The freedom to be yourself at all times, never compromising to please a boss or a spouse.  In life, I most value freedom. That doesn’t translate into everyone being jobless and traveling the world, but it has a lot to do with never feeling like you have to settle. Freedom means being able to construct and live your life on your own terms, whether that is raising a family, starting a business, or working in a career you are passionate about.

I love this quote by Howard Thurman: "Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." If you find what makes you come alive, your world will always be filled with wonder and beauty, regardless of employment.  I now see the world with much more enthusiasm and excitement. My values have deepened. I feel child-like in my ambitions, as if the world is there for my taking. I can read about a place that sounds interesting, and immediately GO there. I don't have to put it on hold. I don't have to ask for vacation time or permission from my family. I don't have to write it down in a bucket list. I have the freedom to move and travel wherever my whims take me. I feel in complete control of my life, it is truly liberating. 

For those who are considering living a more simple life, my advice would be this: Don't wait to simplify your life, do it now. There are many ways you can start downgrading to make the transition easier. This can include giving stuff away, selling things, or cutting out non-essential expenses. We waited until the last minute, and it became overwhelming to get rid of so many things. In retrospect, we should have started much sooner.  I believe that this lifestyle is sustainable for me and I can easily see myself doing it when I'm older. It's certainly much easier to continue this lifestyle than to suddenly adopt it at retirement age.  I don't think working necessarily means you will miss all the wonder and beauty in the world. 

Work can be seen as a dirty word in circles like ours, but that is a mistake. In reality, I work much harder now than I ever did for an employer, because I am more motivated and passionate about what I do, however, my pay check just isn't as large or as steady.  We started off our travels with a small base of savings, and then I immediately started working on my first book. Now my book and other writings are my only source of income. It's not a lot, but it's enough to support our simple lifestyle. I am working on my second book, but it doesn't at all feel like a job. It's a labor of love, and I've been lucky enough to work because something interests me, not because I need the money. This is the first time in my life I have been able to say that. 

There are definitely inconveniences of our lifestyle, which become surprisingly easy to get used to over time. Things like showers, laundry, and chores look very different than they used to, but I can't say they're negative. Is rinsing your clothes in a stream more negative than throwing into a washing machine? I think it's just different.  Living in this way has allowed us to travel, which our old life never could.

I fell in love with running in 2007, and when I discovered trail running I never went back to road. I always loved long distances. Ultra running fits well with my personality. It requires a lot of drive, dedication, energy, and mental strength. I love things that are hard and demanding, but low-profile. I love being alone in nature, drinking in the mountains and pushing my body to its limits.  I embraced barefoot running as a way to connect with nature. I love the feeling of mud, bark, soil, and grass under my toes. It goes back to that child-like freedom of running wild, with no cares in the world. It brings me back to that place of bliss.  Running, writing and living in a trailer are all things that I love, so in that sense they are inter-connected. I don't think I will always live in a trailer. I can just as easily live out of a backpack, or a van. What matters is mobility and freedom. Writing and running I believe will always be a part of me. 

Sometimes people on the trail are surprised or impressed to see me running barefoot, but I rarely receive any negative feedback. I think that has more to do with the fact that I very rarely surround myself with proper society.  I'm in the woods, and there aren't very many norms in the wilderness.  When I'm running, I think the same things that I do when I'm not running: writing, nature, people, ideas, projects, among other things. The furthest I've run in an ultra marathon is 100 miles. The shortest is 50K. I always run for pleasure, though not every mile in a race is pleasurable. I usually start feeling it after 50 miles, and always when it gets dark. 

My goal for the future is to run across El Salvador next year. I was born in El Salvador and I haven't been back for years. This will be my way of coming back, making my mark, and reconnecting with a community long-forgotten.  I have a love-hate relationship with my cultural upbringing that drove me to separate myself from Hispanics in the past.  I was raised to be submissive and subservient, always sacrificing my own needs for the men around me. I was also raised to depend heavily on men, both emotionally and financially.  Going back to El Salvador for me would represent a re-birth and a coming out. Kind of like facing an old bully that tormented me for years. I want the country to see who I am and to see that I have become so much stronger than they thought I could be and I have bigger balls than most of the men by doing something none of them have dared to attempt. I also want other women and girls to see an example of female strength, courage, and independence. I want them to know they can do whatever the hell they want with their lives.

When I am struggling on a run, I ask myself whether there is anything else I would rather be doing, and the answer is usually no. I ask myself whether I would still want to be doing this if there were no race, if my finish didn't count, if there were no medal, or if nobody could see me. The answer is always yes. Those questions remind me that I am doing something that I love. There is no pressure and nobody I need to impress. I am doing it for myself.

You can buy Vanessa’s first book The Summit Seeker here; and you can follow her adventures on her blog, Vanessa Runs.  If you enjoyed this article, please share it. X


  1. "I want the country to see who I am and what I have become–that I am so much stronger than they thought I could be and I have bigger balls than most of their men by doing something none of them have dared to attempt. I also want their women and girls to see an example of female strength, courage, and independence. I want them to know they can do whatever the hell they want with their lives. "

    love love love

  2. What an incredible lady, I would love to read her story. Heather x

  3. What a lovely lady! I remember an acquiantance who also loves outdoor activities. I'm sure the RV she and her boyfriend own is really of great help in making their jetset life easier. In any way, thanks for sharing that interview with us, Katie! Kudos and all the best to you! :)

    Liza Pilon @ Prairie City RV


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