If you follow me on social media, you know that I have recently gotten in to trail running. It’s a fun mixture of two things that I have enjoyed for many years: running and hiking. One of the side benefits of trail running has been a lot of thinking and reflecting. As has been my habit, I think and reflect and never get to the computer to blog about it. The following has been bouncing around in my head – probably literally and figuratively – for a couple of months.
On Valentine’s Day this year I ran my first trail race. I had only been trail running for about a month and a half at the time and really not qualified to race. It was a free event so I went for it. The Mt. Tom Challenge isn’t a race as much as it is, as the name implies, a challenge. A challenge, in trail and ultra running parlance, consists of a loop trail that you attempt to complete as many times as possible – or want – in a set amount of time. Mt. Tom is a little different than most challenges because it is crazy steep and is held on what is traditionally the snowiest weekend of the year. The 2.6 mile loop starts out with an insane 1100 feet of elevation in just over three quarters of a mile. That’s hard to hike for most people. You have two hours to do as many loops as you care or dare.
With that slope and at least a foot of snow on the ground, I set off up the mountain with a group of people that apparently had lost their sanity as well. Also, it was cold! I thought I was going to pass out before I got to the top of the slope. Think of climbing that slope – very little running going on at this point – while also sliding down every other footstep because of the heavy snow. It sucked bad. Normally the light at the end of this tunnel of pain is a flat or downhill portion. The next section of this run was about a 3/4 mile flat stretch. That should be a relief except that the foot of snow was a little crusted on top and it turned out to be easier to walk than to run for the rookie me. At this point I am at around 1.6 miles of the loop and still looking for the pay off. The payoff comes soon enough with a one mile drop back to the start. Whereas the rest of the course was single track, the downhill portion opened up onto an old jeep road. Think fresh powder on a ski slope and then think about running down it! It’s worrisome at first but then it is just downright, freefalling, crazy! The finish was the original part of the uphill climb. I finished one loop. I didn’t die. No one had to helivac me off the mountain. I was grateful.
Then the crazy thing happened. The mad-as-a-hatter, out-of-one’s mind thing that prompted this blog post. I DID IT AGAIN! I drank some water, ate a handful of gummi bears and headed up that beautiful, funereal mountain once again.
Why! I don’t know. There is something that happens between drudging up a mountain and flying down one that changes your mindset from ‘this sucks’ to ‘I got this.’
I’ve often said that the hardest thing about running multiple loops is running by your house or running by your car. Starting the second loop from your ‘safe place,’ the last bastion of comfort, takes more than a modicum of fortitude. Starting back up a mountain after a handful of gummi bears! Same but in the ‘you’ve-last-your-damn-mind’ kind of way.
Because this is what I do and why I write this blog, I reflected on this behavior and whether it translated into other parts of my life. I know that I don’t always go for one more loop in all of the things I do. Sometimes it is easy to stop at your safe place. Many times I have stopped at my car and drove off rather than leaning into a challenge. There have been times that I accepted the challenge and pushed forward through whatever pain or mental anguish was ahead of me but probably more often than not I succumbed to a weak mindset.
I had a professor once who had a theory or a belief that when Sisyphus reached the top of the hill with that rock, for at least a brief moment, he felt joy. Until the rock rolls back down the slope and the monotony of his life is renewed. I would add to my professor’s theory that the trip down was renewing and refreshing as well. At least it is for me.
I think the answer to my question is that we need to mix the Sisyphean nature of our lives with things that bring us joy. I swear, when I run down a mountain, through trees and rocks and sometimes mud; when I bound through shin deep snow trying to touch the ground as few times as possible with my shoulder and hips rolled forward, I feel as alive as I did when I was ten years old. No cares! Truly the Joie de vivre! That joy is enough to carry me through one more loop.
Trail running then becomes a microcosm of our life. A way has been found to experience great pain and great joy in one loop. Obviously we can’t live a life in 45 or so minutes but we can begin to pause to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment when we are at our height, enjoy the refreshing, rejuvenating exhilaration of returning to the bottom of our climb and leaning into that feeling, that joy as we face the next climb.
Those climbs are everywhere. Those climbs happen every day.
Joy is everywhere. Find it. Lean into it. Climb again.