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Bliss on a Dirt Path: What Trail Running Taught Me About Intention

When I was in my late twenties, thousands of miles into my life as a runner, I was dogged by recurring injuries: stress fractures in my shin bones, a tight tendon along my outer leg yanking on my left knee, sore arches, tight hips.

I’d arrived at those injuries through about 15 years of counting and timing: how many strides between hurdles at a middle-school track meet, how many seconds around the curve in a high-school relay, how many calories I burned up and down a hill near my college apartment. During graduate school I created a computer spreadsheet to calculate my weekly training schedule for the New York City Marathon. I had a fancy watch that timed my splits — how long each portion of a training run in Central Park took me — and a running partner I sometimes regretted committing to because our natural paces diverged. She just wanted to finish, she said, and have fun. I nodded, but what I really wanted to do was kick some ass.

One thing about kicking ass is that if you’re not paying enough attention you might kick your own. My approach to running wasn’t without enjoyment, but often I was more concerned with the end than with the means. In that space of mental determination, I stopped listening to my body’s signals and needs. As I approached my thirtieth birthday, I was aching, the remedies of Western medicine proving useless for my running injuries.

Then a massage therapist recommended that I run on earth trails instead of on pavement. The different terrain might help, she said. Earth is a softer surface with less impact, and the technical aspects of navigating a trail call for lateral movement — hopping left to avoid a rock, jumping up to get over a tree trunk — that makes for less repetitive strides.

I was excited about the idea, a new way to do an old thing. Trail running sounded fun, like playing instead of exercising. Indeed, I found a bliss on remote dirt paths that wasn’t just about moving but about the spaces I was moving through. Within weeks, my injuries cleared up and never returned. I bought different shoes and joined a trail-running group. Eventually I often lost the shoes altogether and ran barefoot on Kansas grassland, grasshoppers bumping against me as they had when I was a child. Somewhere along the way I stopped counting things.

Global Running Day was last week, one of those officially designated dates that definitely benefits retail businesses but might well benefit the rest of us too. We’re a thinking species that sometimes needs to be reminded to get off its bum, and last week it did. According to organizers, the worldwide, kid-focused event involved two and half million people in 177 countries running a collective 9,250,443 miles — enough, the official website pointed out, “to run the distance from the Earth to the moon and back 19 times.”

That is a lot of running, and it’s great. No doubt many people privileged with the ability to move their legs did so when they otherwise would have been sedentary. Participants new to running were encouraged to bang out a single lap around the block. As with so much of Western culture, though, the event was heralded and reported in quantitative rather than qualitative terms.

Collectively we ran to the moon and back, then 18 more times, with runners of my disposition probably saying, You’ve got one more in you! along the way. This approach to an endeavor, as a conquering expedition, is about how much, how many, how far and leaves out the more textured question of simply how.
There are, it turns out, many ways to run.

Image by GORE-TEX® Products/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

Athletic exercise of any sort is a curious habit among my family members, many of whom do physical labor all day and thus find it absurd or undesirable to push the body for five miles after work. I can hear my farmer grandpa, amused by the new “jogging” phenomenon reaching our parts during my 1980s childhood:

“Why such a hurry? Damndest thing to run if you ain’t trying to get somewhere.”

I think he might have understood trail running, though, which involves a lot of critter sightings and mud and what I call “off-roading,” borrowing a term from my upbringing on Grandpa’s farm among dirt bikes, jacked-up pickups, and three-wheeled all-terrain vehicles.

There are many ways to do anything, of course, if not in approach or style, then at least in feeling. The quality with which we take any action — the care and intention behind it, our experience of it in the moment — is often revealed in its outcome. The obligatory run after work might, in its thoughtlessness or even sense of self-punishment, later be felt as a pulled muscle. An anniversary card given with a sense of obligation is likely to be recognized as a hollow gesture rather than a true gift. A withered houseplant’s struggle might not be about too much or too little water but about the water’s temperature, the pot’s drainage, the type of soil, its placement next to a vent in the floor.

Since taking up trail running, I’ve scrambled and splashed across many corners of this country: up mountain boulders and through prairie creeks, along desert roads and among thick pines, through West Coast canyons and on Gulf Coast sand. When I don’t have time to get to a trail, though, I still run on paved roads and sidewalks.

Now that I’ve stopped wearing a watch while I’m at it, I have a decent time whatever the surface. I sometimes think it wasn’t the pavement that once hurt my legs so much as the way I drove them up streets like machine parts. The longing of a country girl for rural landscapes might have had something to do with it, too.

If there is something in your life that’s having poor or painful results, consider that the best solution might not be to stop doing it or do it more, but to do it in a different way. A cheerful heart is good medicine, goes the Proverb, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. If there is a way that brings you joy, that’s the way.

Experience Tour: All-out trail running in the Dolomites! Image by Kelvin Trautman/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

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