A 5:30 alarm would often result in a battle of wills, the adventuresome me against the still sleeping me, but this morning’s alarm was met with a prepared energy as I hopped out of bed, hit play on the stereo and found my way to the coffee maker. The night prior, just a few minutes before going to bed, I decided I NEEDED to go to Brown County State Park – my preferred trail running grounds – for little reason more than taking advantage of the weather prior to the coming storm and to experience the environment that has become more a part of me (or I’ve become a part of it) than any other identity I continue to hold. The alarm going off under a darkened sky was intentional, getting me to the park just as the sun would be halving itself on the sea of trees. I was hoping to get some decent photos to share.
The skies had different intentions though and an overcast light dulled the ground. No matter. I made my way around the park to do a little exploring via vehicle, then pulled into the empty parking lot at my favorite trailhead, figuring I’d get in a little hiking. Starting down the trail I found myself experiencing an awkward sensation, of needing to move faster, but held back by an unconscious force, creating a wavering tension in my body. I knew right away, my body wanted to run. It wanted to leap over and crash down upon the trail instead of precariously picking my way over bicycle tire rutted ground. It wanted to breathe heavily, not just inhale and exhale without necessary rhythm. It wanted to sweat and exert and light up the mind like a house on fire, rather than press against tired eyes and a heavily cloaked mind. This was unnatural to me.
Further down the trail I kept walking, my senses waking to the controlled effort, unwillingly brought into an alerted state by the chemo pain on the soles of my feet. I wasn’t sure how far I would walk with my feet in this state, and at this pace, but figured I would know when best to turn back. Here and there I stopped for photos, paused to look around…and began to notice something. Or things. Little things.
I saw bits of green foliage struggling against the carpet of dead leaves and broken twigs. I saw hallowed out tree trunks big enough to squeeze an adult body inside. I saw accumulated scrapes from mountain bike chainrings upon rocks unlucky enough to be embedded in the center of the trail. I saw trees uprooted far above, yet broken across the worn dirt below. I saw dangerous drop-offs. Cliffs just mere feet from the trail, where a rolled ankle and a tumbling body could easily end up in death.
I saw all this, newly, because I had never seen them before…despite running these trails over and over again, tallying countless numbers of miles. The difference this time was pace, a painfully slowed pace that allowed my eyes to rest on the details in the forest, to survey wide swaths of the area, to concentrate on abnormalities amidst the foliage chaos that I once ran by in a blur.
I had never walked the trails at this pace, and so had never absorbed this manner of understanding, and even appreciation, of the forest’s nuances. All my running on this stretch of woods was..well…alawys running. Fast. Very fast. I couldn’t look out into the woods, gauge how far a hillside dropped, and not worry about a misstep that tumbled me to the ground and ended my run. I couldn’t notice the stories of scrapes on rocks as I leaped over looking for stable dirt. I didn’t see hallowed out tree trunks, signs of spring, or any subtle change in foliage as everything became blurred in my peripheral vision, my focus resting squarely and only on the 5 to 10 feet of dirt stretching out before my spinning legs.
My pace was about effort and stability, not sight-seeing.
I pondered this a bit on my hike and realized the same change of pace occurred in my life as well. I went from walking a tightrope of responsibility, speeding through each day’s accomplishments, to being pushed into an operating room just a few weeks after diagnosis. My life went from a record setting marathon, a downhill stretch of trail, to a glycogen depleted, rolled ankle stop without warning. Suddenly my slate was wiped relatively clean, and where I had to speed through each day’s obligations – run, eat, commute, work, eat, prepare, sleep – I was left stunned, halted in my tracks, physically immobile. My greatest effort was counting down the hours until I could take my next pain pill.
And then, I could stop and look around.
I started noticing things in greater detail. I saw attitudes, both destructive and exemplary. I saw life intentions and the need to pursue them without abandon. I saw honesty, encouragement and friendship. I saw the value in stripping away greater and greater amounts of excess. I saw so many wonderful details, but also, like a discarded soda bottle or broken toe clip left in the woods, I saw a lot of sadness and desperation too.
But without being forced to slow down, I might not have seen them in such focus. I knew they were all there, but as i sped through each day, it was hard to focus on each one and evaluate it’s value in my life. Now, with a pace still dictated by the toxic meds flowing through my system, I see the details I was missing and am better able to let in the positive influences and keep out the negative ones. This change of pace, no matter how much I once resisted it, is infused with an immeasurable, affirming ability.
But…It’s not that simple. Just as we can’t always run through life, we also can’t always walk.
There was something else I noticed on my walk today. I was missing out on a unique EXPERIENCE. And it is that experience that always brought me back into the woods, despite the darkened skies, despite the weighted legs, despite the 5:30 alarm. When I was tearing through the woods, unable to focus on the details around me, I was also leaping over rocks, pumping life-giving oxygen into my mind and body like a high-powered machine, powering up hills with complete abandon, feeling the strain and relief exchange in my body like waves, igniting my mind like the sticks of dynamite that set the house on fire. The experience of running, absorbing myself in the environment this way, triggers a complete mind-body connection that is unparalleled, that although speeds me past the nuances hidden amongst the forest, also affords me a different way of understanding and appreciation that not everyone is privileged to have. It takes a certain pace to get there.
Of course, every run is exhaustive, and at some point we must walk. We must slow down. We must change pace. And that is what I came to understand today…that our lives are most valuable when we avoid the confinement of extremes, when we seek out the excitement of experience, but also look for the subtleties and details. There is a great understanding and a great appreciation developed when we live with abandon, but also with restraint. This, mind you, is not calling for a middle road life of safety and uneventful boredom. Goodness no. I suggest you DO live with abandon, pushing your comfort levels, dabble in danger…but don’t stay there, in that state of stress and tension. Look for those quiet moments too, where obligations are invisible, influences are absent and sleep comes easily….just don’t stay there, comfort to the point of stagnation.
There is so much to understand in existence, and just as much to appreciate, but it will take moving at all speeds to take the most in. Explore the world at your own pace, but change it enough to see what else you might find.