One of the most common questions for a runner – “why do you run?” I’ve honestly never thought about it. I have been running for 43 years and it’s never crossed my mind as to why. But I do wonder, what do other trail runners think about while they run? Now there’s a question with as many answers as there are trails to be run.
There’s something hypnotic about running of course, but there’s something mind-altering about running trails. I have solved some pretty sketchy situations in my life while trail running. I have begged for forgiveness and I have cussed the universe. What is everyone else thinking about while tripping, falling, and laughing on the trail?
Some trail runners have admitted to hearing their inner child screaming, “I don’t wanna do this anymore” at mile 3. Mile 1 is reserved for regretting the decision to run or the clothing selection or wondering how to stop to pee. By mile 4 many runners talk about drifting into a pre-hypnotic state with thoughts such as, “I shouldn’t have said that,” or “Why did they say that?” We replay the ugly words we said with each crunching leaf and twig or we relive beautiful moments the winding trail stirs in our memory. As the miles stack like cards, some of us sort through how to fix what we have broken or those we’ve wronged with intermittent seances of gratitude. The trail is a mystical place of alone time and clarity.
Trail running is not a peaceful transition into the mind, not by a long shot. The trail is sharp and jagged, steep and loose, thick and fast, reminders to watch every step. But somehow, sometimes, our feet touch so lightly we navigate the terrain with confidence and intuition. But, trails change quickly under our feet. Our feet swiftly glide to the trail only to have a rolling rock or a tree root quietly reach up and remind us we are simply visitors here.
Most of the time I am thinking about falling, actually forcefully tripping and faceplanting, then rolling myself over, assessing the broken sunglasses and the f-bombs that bounced out of my mouth. But gratitude that I can still run musters itself up between the dirt and the gnarly roots. Sometimes I think about finding a million dollars, like maybe drug dealers dropped a bag of cash and somehow I will stuff it all into my shorts and bra. Then I spend the next 6 miles dreaming of how I will spend the million dollars – it’s called manifesting. Sometimes I remember people I love or dogs that have passed on and I spend the next few miles pretending they are with me or that they are watching me and we are having a full on conversation. Sometimes I think about how badly I have to pee or I think about what I’m going to eat when I get home – usually both of these thoughts share a loop in my head.
I asked a few trail sisters what they thought about when running trails. Most of the answers were similar to many female runners. Depending on age, runners’ thoughts can be compartmentalized. What do other women think about while trail running? With zero hesitation, Lydia said, “If I fall I’m not getting up.” That’s the spirit!
Trail running for some equals isolation and with it peace often resides. Beth said she missed the bursts of creativity and problem solving while running but also battled the voice of “how much longer is this going to hurt?”
“When I would get on the trail and into the woods away from everyone I felt like I didn’t have to run for anybody else. I was just running for myself.” Maggie said, “I think about running in nature and how it would allow me to just be by myself.”
Sometimes I think about how far I’ve come. I don’t mean kilometers or miles. I don’t mean literally, today, on this trail. I came from a really long story that wound around and through a lot of chaos and unknowns but most of all the remote outdoors. Forty five years ago cross country and trail running wasn’t a thing, but when Coach Shipley looked at me and said, “well kid lookin’ forward to seeing you on the high school team next year.” I was so excited but not for expectations, for the unknown. I wondered if it would be like hiking the bluffs and creek beds on our ranch we had left behind. I think about that a lot while running trails. Coach Shipley to this day says, “I ran on the track and kept thinking it would be over soon so keep going.” I think about that on the trail now, the hard stuff, the sad stuff, the confusing stuff will be over soon so keep going.
I have run trails in every nook and cranny of my home state of Oklahoma but also Florida, Arizona, and Colorado. Trails are like people some smooth, clear, and easily navigated to technical, surprising, and winding. Trail running remains a constant or similar vein through us, space to think, time to sort, and challenges to keep us inspired. We don’t have to leave the trail with all the answers, but hopefully some clarity.