I used to think that running was for people who were trying to achieve something or trying to be better than someone else. I used to wonder why you would put yourself through such an uncomfortable thing if you weren’t competitive or athletic. But here I am, the world’s least competitive person, putting on my shoes and telling my begrudging body that it’s going to enjoy running up this hill (in just a second maybe).
At first, there’s the usual uncertainty. Maybe it won’t be nice this time, maybe I’m too tired. Maybe since the summer is over, I just don’t have any more energy. But, in just a few minutes, it doesn’t feel like that anymore. Maybe the pain in my legs has gotten so strong I am forced to ignore it; maybe it’s endorphins. Whatever the reason, climbing up to this ridge starts to feel… fun. In some ways it’s easier than walking up it– I’m skipping from rock to rock with the needles of this evergreen forest whizzing by. Sometimes a squirrel runs by me and it feels like we are running together. I’m listening to upbeat music, and sometimes it’s less like I’m running and more like I’m dancing alone in my room. Climbing rocky steps, I’m surprised by how quickly I can figure out where to put my feet on difficult footing. Crossing streams is easier when I use my momentum. I’m running so hard my diaphragm starts to hurt, but I’m not even trying to push myself. There’s no part of me that’s telling myself I have to run anymore, if I have to do that at all it lasts about the first five minutes. In fact, a few minutes may be the limit of the length of time I can sustain that attitude since it’s just so counter to my normal personality. It’s just momentum and joy that is carrying me. So it isn’t too hard to run all the way to the top of this long climb, but when I get to the top, I am more than content to run downhill instead.
The downhill part of the hike is the easiest to idealize. On one side is old growth forest and on the other is the crisp outline of the cascades, interrupted by the occasional wisp of cloud. I am running on a gentle downhill grade at first, with some beautiful ice on the rocks next to me and perfectly crisp, cool air that’s just comfortably cool when I’m moving this fast. I’m sure the “runner’s high” phenomenon is contributing to the mood. While it already feels like a fairytale landscape, when I’m moving quickly it just feels impossibly whimsical and adventurous. I can’t believe this is my backyard, only an hour or so from Seattle. And the downhill is objectively more fun. It’s an almost impossibly agile dance of skipping between rocks and avoiding obstacles, dodging under or over fallen trees.
But it can’t really happen without the uphill. Sometimes, I don’t really manage to run the whole time, due to steepness or terrain, but somehow just deciding to go fast makes the hike more playful. Play is a difficult thing to find on purpose. And for the longest time it seemed to me that trail running was the opposite of play, that trail runners were unknowable Type A people. But then I realized it was a mistake to imagine they were somehow doing something fundamentally different from me, that there was something fundamentally different about them. Maybe some of them, too, just hiked faster until they were running. (I had a conversation with a vendor at a farmer’s market who asked me if I was a trail runner, and I said “Maybe? I run when it is fun. You?” And she said “That makes me feel better. I run a lot, but also only when it’s fun.”) I also thought that people who ran on trails were almost sacrilegious, that they couldn’t possibly see everything. And that’s probably true. When you run you probably don’t see every mushroom or worm. But there’s something else that seems to be invisible at slower speeds, some kind of collaboration between the runner and the mountain.