It’s not JUST trail running, and if it was, I probably wouldn’t do it. Wait…..what?! Calm down and let me explain. Have you ever been getting your gear ready the night before a particularly long trail run and found your brain wandering to that persistently dreamy space of vibrating excitement and anticipation? Completely absorbed in what the next day’s adventure will bring, while packing up your trail map, first aid kit, and too many gels into your hydration vest, your mind floats to those oh-so-good feelings you know are coming: triumph at making it up a particularly long and steep climb, pure joy as things click and your feet glide through the distance with ease, and the exhausted contentment that you have found nowhere else except for at the end of a long cathartic effort.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not always like this. In fact, sometimes trail running is frustratingly difficult when the run is not going as planned. You know what I am talking about: those times when you can’t seem to find your groove and you’re walking up every hill, the bugs attack with ferocity, or you tweak your ankle on a particularly nasty root. But that is a different topic, for a different day.
Right now, I wish to focus on those feelings that keep us all coming back for more. For me, long runs have become almost something of a transcendental weekly occurrence that ignite a furious craving, and longing, to be out the door and into the forest. Long trail runs are grand snack-filled adventures, which I plan out with excitement days ahead of time. My favorite trail has become a legendary place of transformation that I seek out on a regular basis. Trail running is my time, and it is sacred.
From those first few glorious steps along the dirt path until the last sweaty kilometer of my adventure, I have been moving through space and time to become a different person than I was when I started the run. It may sound grandiose and hint at signs of over-the-top motivational speaking, but I really believe we do transform into an updated version of ourselves.
Think about it. Sometimes runs take hours to complete and give you a lot of solo time to reflect, ponder, and sift through all those thoughts banging around in your head. Alternatively, you can shut things off entirely and just simply be. You finish the run in a different mindset than when you started. You’ve had time to think, daydream, evaluate, and strip down your priorities. By the end, not only have you tossed a few more coins in the ole’ training bank, but you have also learned more about the surrounding world, and explored more about yourself and what you are capable of. Minor though they may seem, these small revelations and subtle changes accumulate into the ever-evolving definition of you.
Trail running can be a form of meditation and therapy. It’s a pause where you can strip things back to the basics of a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other mantra. It is a collection of moments carved out just for you when the surrounding world is endlessly vying for, pushing, and demanding your limited time and energy. At the very least, you are so distracted by trying not to trip over roots and rocks that you don’t have time to stress or worry about anything else. You can chose to be in the moment of movement freedom, participate in your surroundings, and explore your personal abilities and limitations. Trail running allows for a shift in focus to something more basic, something simpler. And, in a world of chaos, is simplicity not one of the best things we can seek?
To move yourself over long stretches of trail, all by the momentum of your own body, is a powerful and beautiful thing, not to be taken for granted. Although you are running, and let’s be honest, sometimes shuffling, you are doing so much more than a displayed act of movement. You are participating in a strong community of collectively varied personalities who all share the same love for trail running. On a certain level, we can all bond over this shared appreciation for running while expressing gratitude for how much natural spaces give back to us. After all, time spent outdoors is a vector for learning and caring about environmental conservation; it’s experiential education in action one step at a time.
These feelings, I argue, are exactly what makes trail running more than just a simple physical activity, a pastime, or a hobby. Sure, the serotonin boost you get from any form of activity is beneficial and impactful in a positive way. But there is just something so intangible, so hard to describe, about intentionally placing yourself in the wild and putting down kilometers in a naturally beautiful place. Trail running has a unique meaning and impact on each of us, so it’s hard to capture this emotive range in one sweep. But, my years of being on trail have brought me so much happiness, confidence, and enlightenment. My gratitude for this sport and this community is extensive. It really is more than JUST trail running.