On the 8th Day of Christmas, Running Gave to Me: The Great Outdoors

Raspberry OutdoorsI didn’t start running expecting to have any sort of epiphany about my place in this universe, or even to learn lessons about resilience, confidence or ego. I started running to be a little more healthy, and because I thought running a marathon sounded cool. True, my life needed a little shaking up, but I didn’t realize it at the time. What I realize now, seven years after my first marathon, is that running a marathon is fun, but that’s only just the beginning. It’s cheesy, yes, but ‘tis the season: running has changed my life.

As other Saltines have written, running has given me community, strength, and perspective, but as I reflect on a weekend of fabulous trail running, a Saturday morning half marathon in the sideways rain with a great friend and a Sunday morning “church” run on my favorite trails with my favorite people, I’ve realized that the greatest gift running has given me is a sense of wonder, appreciation and adventure in the outdoors.

Running has given me a connection to the natural world, a feeling of being most alive outside in the wilderness. Turns out, I’m a nature girl, a tree-hugging, sun-saluting, granola-eating, stereotypical born & raised Californian. Who knew?

Running Outdoors as a Path to Mindfulness

For a homebody like me, becoming a runner required that I spend more time outside. And in the outdoors, I discovered mindfulness and the ability to quell bouts of anxiety. When I’m running on the trails, my thoughts escape my own noisy mind and refocus on the world around me. When I run, I pay attention to the changing seasons: when the creek is flowing and when it isn’t, the color of the grass, the softness of the dirt after a recent rainstorm, if there are salamanders or banana slugs crossing the path, or if the fog is lifting or settling in.

I observe the turkeys, the deer, the wild boar, and the rustling in the trees that I am always certain is a mountain lion, but actually is just a squirrel or the tree branches on a particularly windy day. I notice paw prints, bee hives, and scat – so much scat. With so much to notice and pay attention to, my mind can be quiet.

Sometimes, on a particularly frustrating day, I climb up my nemesis hill, sit on a bench overlooking the valley as the sun begins to set, and bask in the stillness, the chaos so very far away.

A Gateway Sport to Other Adventures

As someone who is averse to sports, running has introduced me to other adventures I never thought myself capable of. What started out as a one time marathon to see if I could do it turned into a second marathon an hour faster. That turned into a sub-four, then a Boston Qualifier. The obvious next step was trail running and ultras. At the same time, I got into cycling, backpacking and rock climbing. That led to off-trail backpacking. I’ve recently grown interested in winter sports, including snowshoeing, backcountry skiing, snow camping… And the list goes on and on. If not for running, I never would have known I was capable of pushing my limits in the great outdoors.

An Opportunity to Learn History

RaspberryI’m a 6th generation Californian, but I’ve never been much interested in my history. Running has sparked a curiosity to learn more about my home and my surroundings. During runs and hikes, I stop to read placards about various rock formations and wish I had paid more attention in my college geology class. In the mountains, I stare at giant carved granite and consider the massive glacier that used to be in my place. I’ve learned how to read a topographical map and use a compass to find a route. I’ve discovered the headwaters of California’s precious waterways, and have learned to identify wildflowers by name.

I’ve picked up books that used to bore me. I’ve read stories about how the early California explorers pushed their wagons up and over Emigrant Pass, the highest point along the Western States trail. Stories that taught me about the Mormons who fought the Mexican American war in exchange for religious freedom and who forged a trail East across the Sierras to reunite with their families. I’ve learned that the trails that so many runners train and race on in the Sierra foothills were built by miners who were told by the California governor that they could murder any Native American who slowed their progress. I’ve been most fascinated by the women like Helen LeConte who traveled alongside their husbands as they climbed peaks to claim as their own, and for whom many mountain lakes are named after.

A Chance to Give Back and Protect Outdoor Spaces

Lastly, running has encouraged me to support organizations that give back to the world that I value. While there are many organizations worthy of support, I make sure that I give to the local parks that I frequent the most. As a trail runner, it is my responsibility to support the maintenance of the trails, to ensure that erosion is controlled and animal habitats are protected. In the spirit of the season, and if you’re looking for a perfect gift to honor the nature lover in your life, here are a few of the organizations that running has introduced to:

  • Bay Area Ridge Trail – For San Francisco trail lovers, help to maintain a trail that circumnavigates the entire bay area. For everyone else, I encourage you to find an organization like an open space district or a land trust in your region that you can support.
  • Pacific Crest Trail Association – One of the longest and most beautiful trails with a significant human impact. Besides donations, they often host workdays in which you can help to build trails. REI also hosts trail building and other volunteer events across the country.
  • Access Fund – Not specifically related to running, but I admire that this organization gives back specifically because it recognizes the impact overuse has on the environment that we love so much.
  • Patagonia – If you want to buy yourself or your sweetie something cozy and nice while also giving back, in collaboration with various other companies, Patagonia donates 1% of their proceeds to environmental grants awarded to nonprofits of all sizes.

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Seven years ago when I bought my first pair of running shoes, little did I know that this was where the gift of running would lead me. I’d like to think that being an outdoor adventurer and nature lover has always been a part of me, buried beneath the surface, waiting for its opportunity to define me. Now, during this most wonderful time of year of happiness and gratitude, I am currently considering my goals for 2017. Whatever they end up being, I know they will be filled with trails and more trails.

Has running helped you appreciate the outdoors? 

A teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area who loves trail running, backpacking and cycling. Having grown up in the Sierra Nevada foothills, I secretly aspire to run Western States 100 someday. Realizing it might not be as crazy as it sounds (maybe it is), I am currently training for my next ultra.

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6 comments

  1. love this! while I don’t trail run much due to my schedule, running takes me outside most days which is fabulous for an office worker like me, and has led to a love of skiing, snowshoeing and cycling.

  2. Trail running is a treat. You’re so right — the outside world fades away, the to-do lists are forgotten. You can just be present in the wonderful, amazing world we get to call home. My first running memories (I should save this for a post!) are running through the woods on our farm, and the woods and trails are where I go when I need to reset.

    Also! Funny you mentioned Patagonia. I listened to the “How I Built This” podcast episode with the founder last week and wanted to basically quit my job and go work for them. Worth the 30 minute listen! http://www.npr.org/podcasts/510313/how-i-built-this

  3. I like to think of trail runs as recovery runs for the mind. I so enjoy a run on trails, especially in the summer time. It’s a nice escape from the heat and the trails are in great shape for flying! Also, I just love getting outside and traveling around all over and viewing nature. I live by a river and my road runs along its path. I head out and often see great blue herons or deer in the river. Sometimes I see coyotes or foxes. I often encounter beautiful song birds or squirrels playing on the roads or trails around here. It makes me so happy! And my Sunday runs in nature are definitely my church runs. How could you not feel close to God, the universe, goodness in that peace?