By Nick Littman
My wrist is bare—watchless—when I arrive at the start line. This feels strange, as though I’m not quite prepared for what is coming. I slide in on the side of the road next to 300 other bodies—focused, bouncing, anxious bodies—and return to the deep exhalations I found in the car just before jogging here. I repeat my mantra for the day:
You know how to do this. Run by body, run by landscape.
I can’t remember if there’s a gun crack or a megaphone siren but at 8 o’clock we heave off the line in an enormous release of energy like water that launches from a cliff and realizes it’s momentarily flying. Right away we’re climbing steep stairs through a redwood forest. The girth of the trees is reminding me to be patient. Return to the breath. Is it easy? Not quite. Slow a bit—walk. Find the inhale. Drop your shoulders. Notice where you touch the ground. Better.
As I crest Windy Gap my stride discovers flight and I marvel at how my legs can place their feet where they need to go in vertical and horizontal space. A half smile--the same contented smile the Buddha was said to wear perpetually--finds my lips. I let it linger.
I cross Redwood Creek in Muir Woods at Mile 2. I know the climb ahead— Dynamite—will be the first place I will need to resist my body’s memory. My body is long on memories here.
Our musculature, the circulation of our blood, our neural pathways—they all attune to memories of place. A return to a nostalgic childhood home can be accompanied by a bodily sense of euphoria, freedom, and safety. A return along a section of trail of weighted expectations can be accompanied by heaviness and fatigue.
These aren’t simply emotions that come and go. They’re physically felt in the body: seratonin release, increased or decreased heart rate, the relaxing or tightening of muscles.
Of course these bodily memories of our landscapes can be changed. Everyday the air, the earth, the plant and animal matter shifts its composition, its feel—what philosopher and writer David Abram would call its mood. But this external mood is only accessible if we allow our internal selves to be open to it:
“…the terrain enters into us only to the extent that we allow ourselves to be taken up within that terrain,” Abram writes.
Running has always been my way of feeling the pitch—the rise and fall, the mood—of my home place. When I began running at age 10, I remember how certain parts of the trail would pull me along and other parts would push back. The push and pull didn’t always correspond with an uphill or a downhill—it was dependent on the mood of the landscape and the mood I brought to it.
When, at 10, I first raced this course, the famed and fearsome Dipsea course—the oldest cross-country race in the U.S. (7.1 root and rock-filled miles from forest to sea)—I remember feeling an ease, not that it was easy, but there was a confidence in my body, a presence within my surroundings that buoyed me along.
Each year the Dipsea seemed to get harder. Competition and expectation layered into my running vocabulary. It was hard to go for a run without wanting something from it, without thinking about how this would help me (or hurt me) in the next race.
My original motivations for running didn't disappear but they became obscured. Over 12 years of competition and obsession, more and more focus landed on the results and less on the interplay between body and landscape. Then, after college, due in part to an overworked ankle and in part because I wanted to probe at other parts of my identity, I took a break.
When I returned to running at age 26 I was living in Missoula, Montana and I had to re-learn how to do it.
Yes, my body knew very well how to run. But I wasn’t listening to my body. When I ran, my mind was often elsewhere, not on the beat of the breath, not aware of the shifting shadows around me.
Running became a practice of listening. The only training log I needed was an inner checklist: How fatigued am I in body and breath? How far and fast do I feel like going?
Most days I found myself pattering up the mountains around Missoula because I wanted to experience my home landscape that day. In winter, I’d find an open ridgeline and scamper, lizard-like up its spine, noticing how ridge and I both benefited from the sun. In summer, I’d wander the shaded creek bottoms alongside the cottonwoods and willows.
And yet the competitive tug persisted like a toddler who wouldn’t let go of my shirt sleeve. This was why I had returned to the Dipsea: to race in the same way I had re-learned to run, to inhale the place as it is now.
Photo by Nick Triolo
I keep my head up as I climb Dynamite. It rained overnight and has been lightly misting throughout this late-November morning. The California drought is dwindling.
Must from the bay leaves singes my nostrils with spice. The moss is prolific, the sword ferns have sharp edges, and the path is clay—later it will turn to mud. The trail is steep but I remember I have done this many times before, all I need is a steady jog, a tapping on the earth like two fingers playing “Chopsticks.”
I’m on a path to the ocean. Somewhere—in my long femur bones, or my ring finger on my right hand, the one that always tingles when there is vibration—I can sense a rhythmic tumbling.
At Cardiac, the high point of the course, the recollection of bagpipes lifts me from the forest. The ocean beckons me with its full, tidal mass. When I reach it, I’ll turn around and run back towards the redwoods, encouraging everyone I pass and noticing how there is a shared body of movement crossing the mountain today. We’re each exchanging with the place in our own way. And together, we’re taking a pulse.
In Mill Valley, I’ll turn again for two more crossings—four in all. On the last time down the stairs approaching the finish, even though my calves are tied in unsolvable knots, my smile will turn to a laugh as the rain pelts down, and the stairs become a cascade I’m falling with. I’ll finish realizing I’ve never had so much fun in a race. I did know how to do this.
I raced by body. I raced by landscape.