SUMMER SUNDAY: Zen and the Art of Mountain Trail Running

SUMMER SUNDAY: Zen and the Art of Mountain Trail Running


photo(65) I am a pretty finicky runner—I will only run on mountain trails or the occasional dirt road. Never pavement. My husband says that this makes me “high maintenance.” He’s probably right, but I don’t care what he thinks. I don’t care about much of anything when I’m running, except running.

That’s because running is so meditative. I don’t do it for the exercise. You can get exercise by running on pavement, or running on a treadmill, or in a gym. I don’t do it for my body, even though it’s good for the body. I do it for my mind. Some people clear their heads with real meditation, but it’s truly difficult—sitting still when you have eight million other things you are supposed to be doing is too hard for me.

Trail running isn’t meditative in the beginning. The first half hour is pure pain. All I can think about are the eight million other things I am supposed to be doing, or that my legs hurt, or that I can’t breathe, or about how slow I’m going. Then my mind wanders and I start thinking about life, not in the eight-million-things way, but from a more elevated perspective, some deeper thoughts. And then it clicks. And suddenly I’m not thinking about anything at all. My feet find their rhythm on the trail, my breathing gets steady, and I can hear the birds chattering and the creek singing softly beside me. I’m completely focused in the moment, and everything else falls away. I forget about my old, Master-Yoda.opt_.2torn running shoes, my even older running bra, and my weary legs, which are far older than the shoes or the bra. When you are running on a trail in the mountains, you have to stay focused on what you’re doing. If you don’t, you’re going to stumble on something and take a very humbling fall. I’ve taken my share of falls, and every time I end up splayed in the dirt I feel like Luke Skywalker in the swamp, with Master Yoda grinning at him and croaking, “You must unlearn what you have learned.”

Is that what it is? Unlearning? Maybe, or something close to that. It feels more like unraveling, as if the initial pain of the first few miles has tugged on the strings and the giant knot inside of me has untangled. It’s a pure high, and that’s why so many runners call running a “drug.” It is addictive and you do go through withdrawal without it. But if it’s a drug, it’s the perfect one. No hangovers, no dealers, and no foggy brain—running makes me lucid and calm. For a while, anyway, until the euphoria slips away again. Then I’m back to worrying about the eight million things, but the most important one is trying to find another couple of hours when I can escape into the mountains to get my fix again.

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