The path is dirt, the sun is dancing shadows through the leaves and the familiar dappled pattern of sun rays on wooded trail is full of promise on the short stretch you can see before it is eclipsed by a rocky corner.
It does not matter if you woke up heavy hearted, if you didn't really want to get out of bed, if your last few runs weren't quite what you wanted, if you're starting off for your first run in years or ever. Today all that will matter is you and the trails, the relationship between your vision and the roots, the rocks, the inclines. Today you will embrace the gift of downhill recovery. You will get what you need on the trail. Maybe it will be through a mix of walking and running, maybe through your pushed limits and tomorrow's screaming quads, maybe through the turning of a corner to reveal a breathtaking view, maybe through a brief moment of clarity.
I run for different things on different days, sometimes I run for answers. As I pound pavement I take moments to focus on my shoulder movement or my breathing, I ask myself about my life, checking in on personal and professional goals, replaying conversations, going over the outcomes that could have been or most likely will be if I can get the words out. I touch in on my joy or on my pain. I miss, I love, I celebrate my friends and my community, I pray for the safety of my family or for increased understanding of a situation. Or I don't let those thoughts creep in and I just listen to the cadence, one foot in front of the other.
On other days I'm here for speed. I'm here for seconds and minutes, I'm here for progress and feeling powerful. To bounce back from an off interval, to push through meter after meter, lap after lap, as the lactic acid preys on my fear of commitment to the hurt. On those days when my lungs gasp for air, and I feel each curve of the track pulling me and I break across a finish line and stagger through a few steps trying to regain a degree of composure, at least enough to see straight, I am here to prove something.
But on these trail days, I consider how my body feels. I focus on thinking about nothing, on being, on reinforcing my relationship with each muscle.
Trail running is glorious. Instead of running to finish up back at home or end up at a favorite taco spot, trail running is about each moment of the run. As safety necessitates you must pay attention to each step, learning the terrain as you go, thinking about how your foot will land on the ground, making sure to miss roots, to land well on rocky terrain, all while teaching yourself to embrace the feeling of your body flying down a downhill. Or pushing yourself up an incline that feels endless, even if you can see where it tops out ahead.
A quiet mind is a triumph that I work towards on occasion, but meditation has always been a challenge. Learning to stay when my mind prefers to wander is not something I've yet figured out. On these runs at least my thinking is focused, it is not the final goal of not thinking, but my thinking is clear and singular and I feel like I can celebrate each rock, each root, each creature and it's place in the world around me. My environment is not manmade and thus it is miraculous and soft and all birdsong and flower buds. At least that's how I feel while running through it, even though the trail itself reveals human intervention.
The experience of running in Yosemite National Park recently was thrilling. My first run was the Four Mile Trail that leads from Glacier Point to the Yosemite Valley Floor. I started heading down and felt the wide smile across my face overtake me, become the feeling of the day. The terrain is strange in places, steps have been put in to help and gravel is scattered across the path in layers, this is great for sure footing but hard when you're moving quickly so I had to adjust, learn how to turn the corners, how to hit the stairs, when to walk. It's a popular trail and I saw many people coming up and down, but no one else running. There's community on the trail, encouragement and of course warnings. "There's a bit of work up ahead," " Good morning, great work!" "Be careful!!!!" There's camaraderie because we're all out in this beautiful place together, there is no office, no pending payment, no ill relative, no overwhelming personal or professional relationship in these moments, there is simply Yosemite in all its wonder.
In the valley, I take a deep breath, turn around and start the trek back up. I'm immediately struggling. As a newbie to longer distances, I still think of distances in stretches of meters, 200m, 400m. For sections of the run I just try to keep my feet moving for 400m and I can't. I walk. I stop and suck in the air. I'm barely moving. I run along a stretch that's flat, passing by some folks from the National Parks Services who I passed fixing a path and dragging boulders on the way down. It's a long stretch that leads into an incline, I run until I turn the corner and can't be seen crumbling against a large rock. A 3000 ft change in elevation was one thing on the way down, quite another on the way up.
On this day I'm running on my own but traveling with a group of hikers, as I near the halfway point of the trail I run into them again and I'm so happy to see them. We have lunch on the valley floor that afternoon and I turn and hike back down with them.
I do not run the whole trail up and down on this day, and normally not completing a run would feel like failure, but that's the thing about trail running, it all feels like success somehow, it all feels like an experience in something different. It all feels like an accomplishment.
I get six more miles in on the valley floor that afternoon, passing by Camp 4 and its famed community of climbers. I run by a recently burned meadow, part of the parks services return to traditional techniques once practiced by the tribes who inhabited the valley and maintained its health before previous governmental policies, that focused on ignorance and greed more than the protection of land or people, kicked them out. The soft trails through the valley are scattered with falling acorns, from Black oak trees the NPS is now also trying to protect. The smell of the recent burn is beautiful.
Running down here in the valley provokes thought, with softer terrain it's easier to drift away without fear of twisted ankles or skidding down rocky segments.
Running out here I feel lucky, both connected and disconnected, both a part of something new to me and a part of something ancient.
Just one foot in front of the other.