The Trail Runner Diaries N°2
Every spring I can not help but think back. To see how what I am now relates to past springs; how the adventures of today are inspired by those of the past.
15 years ago a walk on a path was started with fear trepidation and a heavy dose of romantic excitement. Eager to wander in the mountains and live under the stars, I filled my pack and stepped on to a trail that would forever change my perception of the world, mostly for the better, and alter who I was moving forward. All things would now be thought of as pre and post through-hike. A benchmark created and notched into the timeline of my life, dug in deep like names etched into the soft bark of a beech tree. It was my birthday, just like planned. I really had been wandering for a while at this point. So the walk began just as easy as that, and the wandering in many ways stopped.
Leave what I know. My comfort of regularity and the norm. Trade it for something uncertain. Some grand idea. Something that I am not sure if you can do.
What followed was months of movement often thought of now as if watching an old home movie. The grainy nature of an old vhs tape juxtaposed with the clarity of emotion and raw and primal feelings the memories inspire. The love of moving forward was planted much earlier, but cultivated by no other experience so strongly.
The love of moving forward.
The purity of covering ground on foot, carrying only what you need and giving your accute attention to this act itself. Feeling fully. Embracing this beautiful and shockingly amazing world and just moving forward. Whatever difficulty arises, whatever obstacle is between you and the horizon must be embraced, respected and calmly approached. The struggle of climbing each hill, of taking the next step, of shouldering a pack is preparation. Preparation not only for the task itself but preparation to apply these skills to the everyday. To embrace the beauty of the everyday with gratitude even when faced with insurmountable odds, to see that within each struggle there is growth. There is the propensity for progress. The iron embraces the heat of the forge knowing that it is a critical step in becoming a useful tool. It is not mere acceptance. It is not understanding. It is gratitude for all that arises. The good, the bad, the mundane are all part of the process.
I continue to seek and to find ways to continue down this path. To follow the blazes down a trail whose horizon I do not yet know. Each step I take is built upon all that I have taken before, their supportive foundation admittedly not always seeming so. But the love of adventure and inability to just be here continues my momentum and I am left with no choice but to move. To set out. To explore. And to hopefully find something within that will make me a better version of myself. Something that will remind me to face each step with appreciation, grace and a healthy dose of gratitude.
I run to explore different places while traveling and the parts of towns left off the brochure. I run to explore the urban fabric which surrounds us and the stories that are told in each historic building’s façade or brick lined alley. I run to explore our climate by experiencing all the seasons with or without gloves. I run to explore myself and the ways I can develop both physically and mentally. I run to explore each day’s cognition and the thoughts concealed in every conversation. I run to explore my emotional growth and the feelings aroused by personal relationships. I run to explore the extent which my legs can handle and honing in on the location of their breaking point. I run to explore the strength of my lungs and how they have transformed over the last three years of consistent effort. I run to explore my brain’s capacity to process suffering and how it can be harnessed. I run to explore what this all means and where do I fit in. I run to explore why I continually push myself.
In the end, I explore by running.
I saw him the previous summer carrying a tarp covered backpack. His skin had the color and consistency of an old Dale Murphy edition Rawlings baseball mitt. He wore a beard that would make Sam Beam jealous. He wore the hell out of it.
He had a little paunch that only the good living of summer can give a man on the move. I'd see him twice a week or so- him in his faded, cut-off Levi's and me in my running shorts. We were both showing a little too much thigh and much too much belly. We'd done the obligatory respect nod for months as I would come running up the Widow-Maker at the end of my runs.
I was training for my first trail race and that meant running through the hills of Vista and finishing up on the dreaded "Widow-Maker". The "Widow-Maker" was the unofficial name for the end to most of my training runs that summer. I’d ran steeper hills but this one was just a long grind that usually had me contemplating darting in front of a car by the end. Hence the name.
Toward the end of my longest run at the time, I was probably looking rough coming up that hill and was quickly scanning the ground for enough loose change to allow me to catch a bus home when I looked up and saw him. He turned and saw me and set down his pack and began doing a “Rudy” slow clap for me. I couldn't be sure but I thought I saw a faint smile under his whiskers. We usually only nodded but I guess he felt I needed something extra that day. After that, he’d always clap as I passed or at least throw me a fist pump. This went on for a few more months but as the race neared my miles increased and my route didn't always cover his turf.
I still ran that route weekly in hopes of seeing him, to see how he was doing. As the seasons changed, we both put shirts on but I see he was slimming up some. He looked seasoned enough to weather the cold but I still worried about him. Our relationship was never one where I could offer food or where he would accept it. I never even really thought to ask and I'm sure he didn’t either. He was never the guy asking for change or holding up a sign explaining it was tough on the streets. No, he was out minding his business trying to make it just like the rest of us. He just chose a different definition of making it.
Those days when we would pass each other it wasn't someone with a home and job passing someone without, it was just two guys doing what they needed to do. I think eventually the nods weren't just of acknowledgement, but of an equal respect.
Without running, I would have never met that man.
As a college student, your life is filled with bullshit. The worst part is that you let that bullshit get to you. Exam scores, social interactions, internship interviews; they have the uncanny ability to chip away at your confidence. I run to rediscover that confidence, and to remind myself that bullshit is nothing more than what its name suggests.
I run fast to release frustration. I let the pressure building inside my head release down to my legs as they aggressively stride. I’m not angry when I run, rather determined to come out relieved and rejuvenated when I hit the stop button on my watch, after miles of trail or road.
I run slowly because my brain is unorganized. Running has the unique ability to solve problems, arrange my priorities, and provide me with clarity when the hundreds of text messages and emails on my phone cannot. It is a pace that can only be described as refreshing, and makes me feel as though I could continue on for days.
I sometimes run just because I can. I run and can see the often-unappreciated landscape and beauty of my hometown, that isn’t recognized with headphones in while treading a dreadful path to the library. I can see dogs lying in the grass and enjoying the first glimpses of summer, while the world passes them by. I can see people engaging with other people, for better or for worse. I feel lucky to know I can run for this reason; for no real reason at all.
Bullshit can cloud my mind, and leave me narrow-sighted and inadequate. Running, on the other hand, brings me back to the person I am underneath it all and lets me know that confidence still should engulf me, and allow me to define myself however I’d like to.
As a thinker, as a trailblazer, as a runner.
There is this unabashed wild woman that resides just under the surface, at the tip of everything - tongue, fingers and toes. It’s trail running that serves as my flume for all the wild energy that builds during the civilized parts of the day. My skin itches until it’s stripped of proper work clothes and placation so this naked native girl is exposed - fast and loose, intuitive and unapologetic.
It is on account of this untamed sister’s constant desire to move and breathe fresh air that we find ourselves on long weekends in the woods. Sometimes hiking and hugging trees with a hammock, sometimes taking short strides up steep hills and pounding down the other side. But on this one Fall weekend, she insisted on this one place for what I thought was another long run on loud leaves.
And it was that. A stunning and soul feeding 93 miles in West Virginia's Appalachian Mountains of that. What I did not know is it was also about a bearded man in short shorts. We smiled and chatted for moment at the start. Ready, set, don’t pick wildflowers, go! 32 miles today, 50 miles tomorrow, 13 miles the next.
Although we had both run plenty of ultras, and I know he could have bounded off at any point, for some reason he stayed. He sang to me when I felt nauseated by the climbs (turns out this fellow is an extremely talented musician and artist), strained on single track the way trail runners do to listen to stories and sat on a tree stump next to me to laugh and appreciate our absurd exhaustion. Never once did I have to inhibit, and I felt nothing but understood completely.
Through this adventure I finally understood what all my life this running wild child had been trying to teach me. This trail me, is the real me and if I choose to be authentic in this, it can be met with love.
We finished together and haven’t taken many steps without each other since. I had always run to isolate what seemed like these extreme animal impulses and take them to the woods, but now I run to share in them and that is so much better.