Saturday, August 16, 2008

on trail running

On weekend mornings, before the sun gets too hot and the air too heavy, I like to visit my personal temple, the trail. When I discovered trail running, back when I was living in Colorado, it was like a revelation: how wonderful to be able to marry my two favorite activities, running and hiking. It added to my running a spiritual dimension, as I have always felt closest to "God" in the woods and on the trail. There's something so invigorating about the feeling of mud on my calves, of leaves under my feet, and something rejuvenating about the mental challenge of negotiating roots and rocks and streams without any time to plan my next move.

The solitude of the trail is much like the solitude of the temple: it gives me time to breathe, to contemplate, to meditate. When my brother Michael died, I was very pregnant with Dylan, and so trail running was out of the question; however, I took long walks in the woods of Brooksvale Park, and often, during my rambles, I could feel Michael's presence beside me. Sometimes I would cry, sometimes I would smile, and sometimes I was simply complacent as I experienced this closeness, however real or imagined.

Since Dad died last month, I have muddled through my runs, forcing myself to put in the miles because I know I'll feel worse if I neglect my routines. But with the New Haven 20k on the horizon, this morning I awoke and said, "12 miles, baby, whether you want to or not." I fed Sasha and we headed to Brooksvale. Midway up the first hill, I thought of Dad, thought of how the woods will always bring me closer to Dad because he loved being in the forest, especially when it included sitting by a campfire with his family. Once, after we had quarrelled, he wrote me a long, beautiful letter in which he said that the crackle of a fire always brought him back to the camping trips we took in our younger days, and went on to say how overjoyed he was that his children had inherited his love of the woods.

Of course, thinking of Dad made me cry, but it was a cathartic cry (which made my nervous dog throw her ears back and look at me sideways), and in my grief I could really appreciate the time that I did have with my Dad. I was grateful that he had gotten to take at least one camping trip with my children (and two with Dylan), even if it is likely that Alexa's memories of him will be muddy at best. Such remembrances don't really make his passing any easier, but they are a welcome distraction from the sadness.

Lately, I've been reading Thich Nacht Hahn, the Buddhist philosopher, who says, to paraphrase, that if you accept that all things are impermanent, you will be able to fully appreciate them while they grace your lives. He adds that thinking deeply about this concept and embracing it as part of your consciousness will allow you to "smile through your grief." Now the last part feels a little farfetched to me, but I have been trying to focus on the memories rather than the loss.

Okay, so I've digressed a bit from my original topic--trail running--but it was the run on the trail this morning that brought me here.

I've also been re-reading Wordsworth, one of my old favorites, and I stumbled upon a poem I hadn't read before, one I found slightly amusing: "To a Young Lady, Who Had Been Reproached for Taking Long Walks in the Country." It called to mind 18th and 19th century novels, where women often "take ill" because they dared to walk a quarter-mile in the rain and their soaked layers of clothing (petticoats, bloomers, stockings) brought on a "deathly chill"(likely a pretty good case of hypothermia) . I considered how I would have appeared to a 19th century gentleman at the end of my run today: sweat-soaked shirt and bandana, socks and shins covered with mud, face red with effort and exhilaration. Surely I would have been reproached. Would Wordsworth have spoken up for me, or would the horror of such an image have caused him to faint?

In typical fashion, the poet lets his emotions overflow, and idealizes the daring young lady in his passionate pastoral:

Dear Child of Nature, let them rail!
--There is a nest in a green dale,
A harbour and a hold;
Where thou, a Wife and Friend, shalt see
Thy own heart-stirring days, and be
A light to young and old.

There, healthy as a shepherd boy,
And treading among flowers of joy
Which at no season fade,
Thou, while thy babes around thee cling,
Shalt show us how divine a thing
A Woman may be made.

Though I sometimes find Wordsworth a bit overdone, I've always felt a kinship with him for that very reason: in all honesty, I, too, am about as sappy as they come, especially when it comes to my emotional reactions to nature. When I first visited the Grand Canyon, I wept; same thing happened when I stood beside the Colorado River in Moab, Utah.

So, it makes sense that the trail is my temple. I'm thinking of becoming a "religious fanatic" and forsaking road races for trail runs, but I'm sure the racing bug will return, as it always does. And trail running doesn't always necessitate solitude: at least once a week, I'm joined by my running pals, most of them female, and the sense of community, too, is a wonderful thing. In fact, it seems as if more and more of my running friends are putting aside their fears of broken ankles and coming to appreciate the wonders of the trail.

In wildness is the preservation of the world.--Thoreau


Elizabeth said...

Tricia, I loved this post. I am doing some training for a long bike ride right now and suddenly the isolation of it is wonderful.

Can I tell you? There has been a massive amount of grief in my life in the last few years and only recently I have come to notice exactly as Thich Nacht Hahn says: that I am often smiling through my grief. Why? Because grief is as true and real a part of the beauty as happiness and joy are.

When I was sad and broken and alone in London, that was when my mind and my heart seemed to be at their sharpest and most attentive.

Is it wrong to say, "Enjoy this time?" to you? If so, then I'll say it softly so no one will hear. You will never get this time back, so take it as a gift. Accepting this, even this grief, as impermanent, your vision for life (the life your Dad gave you and shaped with you!) becomes sharper and lovelier. Because of this, you can feel pain and see beauty, all in one breath.

You are doing everything right and I love you!
Peace, sister...


Shannon said...

I, too, share your deep love and connection with nature. It's very interesting to read different people and their takes on their clarity of thought once in natural surroundings ... from Native Americans, to Taoists, to Jesus himself and the solitude he took in gardens and the wildnerness. Sometimes, if I remind myself to worship the Creator and not the creation, it gives yet another perspective and deep sense of awe.
When I lived in Fort Collins, I had a "crying tree". I could probably find it today on the northeast side of Horsetooth Res... I used it frequently and received solace at the base of this tree. Maybe you could find your own crying tree - one to unleash your grief on... I could imagine yours would be 12 miles away from any trail so that you'd punish/make yourself work to get to it.