Finding the Flow: A Trail Runner’s Journey

 

What calls? What beckons?

What primeval invitation is answered when the comforts of modernity are exchanged for dirt, rain, and rocks?  A better body? A more enviable digital platform? A belt buckle? Bar room bragging rights? For sure each of those things have their appeal:  the ego is a force to be reckoned with.

Yet, stripped of pretense, weathered, worn, and removed from the Wi-Fi and screens, all posturing and presumption is rendered mute. In the hills the hurt is real, the miles are long, the climbs are steep, and one’s physio-psycho capacity is the only currency that holds any value.

Rocky ridge lines of the North Cascades. Photo by Abram Dickerson

 

The mountains have long been the inspiration of climbers, hikers, and backpackers. The beauty of the wild has inspired legions of adventurers who’ve turned their passion, creativity, and physical capacity to the remote, the wilderness, and the unknown. Today more runners are taking to the hills, bringing a different style—and new eyes—to what’s possible in the mountains.

Running is simple and yet, like all arts, its mastery is full of complexity. Running is arguably woven into our human anatomical and evolutionary DNA. For generations, our ancestors used their legs and lungs as transport while hunting, gathering, and commuting across the landscape. Our upright position, large glutes, skin that sweats, and neurological adaptations have all been tied to the act of running. Yet today we hunch over our keyboards, stare into our screens, and slay our dinner as it sits packaged, preserved, and wrapped in plastics on grocery aisles.

To run is to forsake the trappings of modernity, to exchange the comforts of tangible things we buy for the intangible things we earn. For many, running is a sport. It’s measured, marked, and defined by distances and time. However, outside of the race, running has other meanings. It is a practice, a discipline, a meditation. It is movement unto itself. It is freedom. To bring that quality of running into the mountains is to return physically and psychologically to a more raw and rhythmic state within nature.

When running in the mountains the terms are clear: light, fast, and exposed. Conquering them is an illusion, but the journey to the edge of our individual/collective human capacity blurs the line between sport and spirituality.

Cloudscape over Mt. Rainier. Photo by Abram Dickerson

 

Initially, the miles are easy and one can move swiftly on wings of anticipation and fresh legs. The trail is familiar and well trodden. However, as the day lengthens, and the miles accumulate, the margins of the familiar are reached and surpassed, giving way to uncertainty. This is the liminal state, the threshold of the senses where we leave determinates behind and embrace the unknown: terrain, weather, how far will our legs carry us? Here the rewards await.

Deep in the wild, every ridge crest, summit, and turn in the trail is a revelation. Running becomes a state of perpetual unfolding, a return to a child-like state where everything is captured in itself. One can remain in that eternal present so long as the intrusion of thought can be resisted.

Listen! In this space one can hear the universe: the sounds of creation unfolding in the cascading streams, the wind moving through forests, and in the echoes of time unraveling. Here we receive both the gifts… and the questions the wild holds for us.

This state of flow, of course, is an ideal. It is the culmination of careful physical preparations embedded in the context of a beautiful trail and is conditional upon preserving a state of mind that lives in the moment. There are plenty of ways for this ideal to go awry, chief among them, judgment. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the run must be about pushing speed or distance. Far too many times I’ve heard runners qualifying their experience with “I only ran for X miles” or “I would have been faster but…”

The splendor of wild country surrounds runners in the North Cascades. Photo by Abram Dickerson

 

These self-depreciating qualifications stem from external comparisons that assume a certain distance, speed, or effort is required for a run to “count.” Here the intrusion of our insecurities, our concern for personal presentation in the social milieu, and the skewed expectations that arise from comparing our efforts with others can rob us of our connectivity and the joy of the hills.

Sometimes a run is simply hard. When returning to activity from an injury or hiatus, the work of recovering fitness can be punishing. Some days the fatigue, the effort, the climbs, the rain, the loneliness of it all can be overwhelming. Moments when everything hurts. No worthwhile effort in the mountains is without hardship. Sacrifice and the inevitable questioning of the decision to subject ourselves to the suffering are woven into the calculus of the experience.

Runs in the hills are journeys and each has a story. When we leave the sanctuary of the trails and return to a polarized, commoditized, currency-driven, digital world, we choose how to narrate our experience.  We all have an audience. Our family, our friends, our colleagues, and most importantly, ourselves.

When we tell these stories will the emphasis be about how we conquered or cried? Will the story glorify the suffering or reflect finding solace in the hurt, beauty, and sublimity of it all?  Will the story be defined by statistics or will it describe the process of becoming unburdened, accepted, connected, and embraced by the wild? What attitudes and relationships to the wild will our stories perpetuate?

The mountains don’t care. Compared to our brief visit to this realm, they are eternal. In our lifetimes, we write our narrative on the mountain’s face and project our egos against its rock, all without so much as leaving a scratch. Our footprints evaporate against the geologic rhythm of glaciers dancing with the climatic shifts that carved the valleys and ridges.

Summit clouds from the top of Church Mountain. Photo by Abram Dickerson

What then of our story? What consequences do our travels and travails hold? Herein lies the mystery and the motivation. The mountain is the altar. Our elective and arbitrary objectives are our offering. How will we define these experiences and how will they define us?

The best way to find out is to run. Identify a peak, a ridgeline, a lake, a place deep in the hills where the trails are narrow, the views are promising, and the difficulty lies just outside of what’s reasonable. Find the place on the map that calls to your creativity and to your sense of adventure. Hold to the vision, the inspiration, the uncertainty of what lies between here and there and give yourself over to the mystery.

Mt. Shuksan and the Curtis Glacier. Photo by Bacchus Taylor

Abram Dickerson loves the mountains. He’s found that running is the easiest way to get into the hills for an adventure while balancing the demands and joys of parenting. As the founder of Aspire Adventure Running, he shares the challenge and beauty of the mountains with runners of all abilities. Check out their trips at www.AspireAdventureRunning.com

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