I can still remember the first time I ran on a trail. Well, I can remember a time I ran on a trail that might have been the first time. I was depressed and hiking on Auxier Ridge. It was probably 1994. I was twenty years old.
Back then I ran in hiking boots. Oh, not the kind old Sierra Club members wear when they hike the Pacific Crest Trail with two layers of thick wool socks and a fifty pound backpack. No, I always hiked/trailran in light hikers. Of course I never called them “light hikers.” They were just my hiking boots. I wore them with white athletic socks and never got blisters.
The first time I hiked out to Courthouse Rock I was alone. I was suffering from what I believed to be lingering teen angst. I had dropped out of college early in my third semester. I had decided it was preferable to stop racking up so much debt and just get a job. I was stupid then. That angst has never really gone away.
I distinctly remember writing in my journal: “I’m going to buy myself a hiking rig and spend the next year getting to know the Gorge.” That’s exactly what I did, except a year turned into twelve or so. Then I moved west. Then I moved back. And so now I’m getting reacquainted with the Gorge after twenty years with twenty more years’ worth of baggage.
As I neared the end of Auxier Ridge and Courthouse Rock was almost visible through the trees I could perceive that the narrow ridge was running out. High cliffs were on both sides and they closed in on me as I hiked on toward Courthouse Rock. Off to my left I saw a red-tailed hawk flying along with me. It moved slightly faster and was going to pull away. I picked up my pace and matched speed with it as we both neared the end of the ridge. I kept my eyes on the magnificent bird. I ran.
The tiniest thought entered my head: what happens when we reach the end of the ridge? I answered myself: maybe we keep running.
Instead my survival instinct took over and I came up short as the hawk sailed on over and beyond Courthouse Rock. I took my time descending the steps at the end of the ridge. I climbed up the crack/gully on the east face of Courthouse that day. That’s a cherished memory. I’ve visited Courthouse and Auxier Ridge many times since then.
Another early trail run I took was on Rock Bridge Loop. My family had moved back to Kentucky from Ohio when I was a sophomore in high school. My good friend Shane came down to visit and we went hiking in Red River Gorge.
He was recovering from shoulder surgery as a result of a wrestling injury and was supposed to take it easy. As we descended the rough asphalt trail toward Creation Falls Shane took off running, and I followed. As we lost elevation we picked up speed. Just above the falls Shane stumbled. He went down hard on his stitched up shoulder. Shane—being Shane—hauled himself back to his feet, brushed it off, and continued down the trail.
Shane was tougher than me. He was in the Order of the Arrow, and I was too chicken to face The Ordeal. Shane was a Navy SEAL, and I was scared of boot camp. Shane ODed last year because he couldn’t deal with his pain.
I started seriously trail running sometime after his death. I know how to deal with my pain. I obliterate it through effort and good wholesome self-abuse. In long trail runs I finally found my drug and my therapy. I don’t dwell on his death, but when I think of it I have the perfect dosage: four and a half miles. Auxier Ridge and return on Courthouse Rock Trail. I’ve even raced a hawk or two this past year.
Running doesn’t have to be about escaping your demons or chasing answers to life’s difficult questions. It can simply be about finding a groove and reveling in the movement of your limbs. It can be a vehicle to enjoy nature. It can be an excuse to do something good for yourself. It can be a selfish pleasure.
For me running is most often something I make myself do because I know it’s good for me. It’s not like eating brussel sprouts. It’s more like…well, running. It’s good for me, but I enjoy it even when I’m not in the mood.
Of course there are too many days when the last thing I want to do is run. My body aches and is stiff. I feel fat and slow. Rain, cold, wind, dark, heat, ice…demons, phantoms, memory, and pain…there are days I would rather curl up in bed and sleep. But when my brain is most exhausted from the mundane stressors of life I know that is the best time for me to go push myself down a trail with whatever legs I find myself dragging on that day at that time.
Maybe a mile passes. Maybe two. But then blood begins coursing through my limbs and mind and body loosen up. I don’t think about that red-tailed hawk. I don’t think about Shane. I don’t think about weakness, or laziness, or the end of any ridge out ahead of me. It’s at those times I’ve found what I seek in life: balance, flow, and peace. A bad day running (and to be fair a bad day cycling as well) is better than a bad day doing anything else. When I’m moving at least my brain is functioning and the worlds seems to be in its proper place. I solve problems and answer life’s mysteries when my body is moving through space. The downside is that it’s hard to write while running or mountain biking.
These days I run mostly to stay out ahead of depression. I don’t suffer from it. I simply stride over it and keep going. What I regret are those times I let the gravity and darkness keep me planted on the couch when I could get out and provide for myself some free and proven therapy.
I can say with authority that a strict regimen of anarchistic exercise will keep you happy and sane. While there is definitely the danger of taking it too far (because I am an obsessive personality) it seems as if I have better balance than I did when I was younger. It seems as if I have enough control to keep my proprioceptive pursuits from becoming destructive.
It was a year ago December 16 when Shane responded to me in a discussion about writing:
"My advice to you is, write as though you don't give a damn if anyone ever approves of your work or not."
This past year that became my silent mantra. It may not appear as a visible thread in what I've written here, but that advice has resulted in a rough draft I think I'm going to be proud of...though I may have to publish it under a pseudonym.Shane was dead within a week of our discussion. He had given me a piece to read that was full-on self-destruction and pain. I believed it to be simply artistic expression. I didn't realize he had been acting the story out and maybe he was telling me how things really were for him. There are times I ponder the sparse conversations we had in the twenty years since we'd really known each other--like brothers we were close--and wonder what I might have heard if I'd been listening.
I don't mourn anymore for my friend. There's no benefit in mourning him. I don't try to find meaning in his words anymore either. When it comes to searching for enlightenment maybe I'm more the expert than he was. So I'll trust in my own intuition in that department.
But I can't help hanging on that scrap of advice. I can't help thinking in all of the turmoil and pain that he cast upon the world that maybe there was one shining bit of treasure in there. At least I won't completely discredit it until I see reason to otherwise.
The past few months have been good for me. I've dreaded going into the holidays and into the winter months, but maybe I'm finally beginning to keep on top of things instinctively. I know that being around people is good for me even if its not what I have programmed myself to do. I'm not as anti-social as I would have the world to believe. Awkward and pathetic at times...but not necessarily anti-social.
Running has been much more beneficial to me that cycling ever was. I get a lot of bang for my buck. I think that's why I want to excel at it. Running is an activity that has given me a lot through the years. I didn't appreciate it until now, but looking back I can even see my stint in cross country as a freshman was the most socially rich era of my teenage years.
So I will keep running.