An autumnal wind dances through the sagebrush and hillsides of wheatgrass. The sunflowers and asters glow in the slanted evening sunlight, casting long shadows across the winding path. The familiar sound of my feet striking the ground reverberates into the back of my mind, and my brain is lulled into an alluring calm, like a child being rocked in its crib at night. Fall has arrived in the foothills of Boise, and I am running. Today’s run takes me to the nearby trails of Harrison Hollow, where I aim to keep the intensity easy. As I work my way up the switchbacks towards the top of my favorite hill, I find myself reflecting on my recent rediscovery of running.
Running is an activity that I started exploring in 2017 in the White Mountains of New Hampshire during my days off between leading wilderness trips. I was drawn to its simplistic nature. No heavy backpacks full of gear, no students – just a pair of running shoes, some water, and an eagerness to see as much nature as possible. Since then, running has taken me through countless fields of wildflowers, lush forests, and mountain passes. I’ve run to (and jumped in) the chilliest alpine lakes of Wyoming, and down to the steamy depths of the Grand Canyon. I’ve shared innumerable miles and memories with friends, and spent entire days alone with nothing but my thoughts. I’ve experienced days of strength and immense joy, and days where I’ve pushed myself beyond exhaustion and my own mental capabilities.
One day, during an ultramarathon in eastern Idaho, I found myself deep in what us runners call the 'pain cave'. I had raced well for most of the day, and was situated in 8th place with one more climb and descent to go before the finish line. The heat of the day was bearing down on me, and I could no longer stomach any food or water. I tried to tell myself, “Do what you can”, but found that I couldn’t access any more strength. I felt completely empty. I laid in the grass for a long while on the final summit trying to fend off nausea, and watched all the runners pass me by. I eventually got to my feet and stumbled slowly down the mountain. Flies buzzed all around me, and I questioned everything. I couldn’t find an answer to “Why are you doing this? Why do you put so much time and energy into running?” At the next aid station, I decided to drop out of the race, having run 48 of the total 54 miles. I drove home alone, and came to the conclusion that I would take a break from running.
I rationalized this decision by acknowledging that I had a nagging injury with my left achilles, and I could use a long period of rest before doing permanent damage. I slowed things down dramatically, and sought more variety in my life. I picked up the guitar, brought home a dog, and found new ways to spend my free time. I initially enjoyed this new pace of life, but as time wore on my screen-time increased, my mental health struggled, and my desire to spend time outside waned with each passing sunset. Running soon faded from my identity. I’d occasionally lace up my shoes and head out for a jog, but never quite found what I was looking for.
After a couple years living this more sedentary lifestyle, running found its way back into my life. It kept hinting at me, like the first signs of spring after a long winter. This summer, I spent a month in New Hampshire with my close friend, Owen, and he motivated me to join him on a few long runs in the White Mountains. We ran among the rocky ridges and peaks where it all began for me, and shared hours of good conversation and laughs. I quickly remembered why I love traveling through the mountains in this way. I found out that another friend of mine, Alex, was training for his first road marathon in Jackson, Wyoming. It had been a dream of his that he expressed to me when we were just teenagers starting out in college. Alex seemed happier than I could ever remember, and I found myself inspired by his dedication to the training.
So when I moved to Boise, Idaho and discovered the robust systems of trails within a mile from my house, it seemed fitting to pull out my running gear that had been neglected for so long. What a sweet reunion it was! I started slowly, and began running most days after work. I took to the trails with a fresh perspective, and decided that these runs would serve as a way to refresh my day, with a goal of finding mental clarity. After pushing through the initial soreness and lethargy that comes with a high volume of any new aerobic activity, I felt motivated to ramp up my training for something specific.
I’ve participated in a couple trail races this fall, and have my sights set on a full year of training and racing in 2024. Each morning I wake up excited for the training ahead of me that day, and each night I wonder what nooks and crannies of nature I might find myself in next. On days where I’m exhausted from work, and question whether I want to get outside, I try to channel the energy of the Sunset Crew. The Sunset Crew (a name which I give them in my head) are an older married couple and their dog that live in my area. Every evening, without fail, the Sunset Crew hikes up to a nearby ridge, sets up their camping chairs, and takes photographs of the sunset.
What I’m coming to understand is that it is important to develop a healthy routine and relationship with the activities you love. For me, this means finding a bit of time each day to get outside, breathe in the fresh air, and engage myself in the natural world. Running does this for me, but for other folks, it is crocheting, reading, cooking, photography, painting, playing an instrument, gardening, volunteering, or walking the dog. Find something that forces you out of your daily monotony, and gives you the opportunity to be creative, personal, and reflective. You’ll find that time passes differently, and each sunset becomes as memorable as the next.
As I continue upward, I barely notice that I have reached the high point of my run. I snap out of my thoughts and back into the present moment, and stop to take in the view. The sounds of the city and neighborhoods below rise up to greet me, and I take a few sips of water from my flask. Behind me, the foothills stretch infinitely onward. They are a combination of reflected sunshine and smooth shadows, and remind me of a soft sheet draped over a pile of pillows. I take a quick photograph with my phone, and begin moving downhill. My thoughts fall away like stones rolling down the steep hillside, and my body surrenders to the pull of gravity. I speed around the loose sandy corners, leap over rocks and trenches in the path, and find a rhythm that is fast yet fun. I reach a smooth section of trail, and close my eyes for a short moment. I feel the wind against my chest and the setting sun’s kiss on my face. A warmth crawls into my heart, and for these few seconds I am in total bliss. I feel grateful that I have found my way back to running. Coming back to running feels like coming back to myself again.