A View from the Top
Finding the Soul
Newcomers to running are enticed by enjoyment of one kind, while experienced runners seek more sophisticated pleasures. What begins as a fitness quest, ends as a quest for joy*
The Mountains To Sea Trail from Highway 74 to the Folk Art Center and back, is not an easy stretch of single track trail. It isn’t long, maybe no more than 6 miles, but the trail is either going up or going down, sometimes steeply, and there are few level stretches. Rocks and roots predominate and you spend more time looking at your feet than at any eye candy that might surround you. Too bad.
I count my breaths, an inhalation and an exhalation every four steps, when I run at this definitely not effortless pace. I find that an easy way to lose myself or at least to lose the Monkey Mind that chatters endlessly in my head, is by disassociating during the run. Counting breaths is as primal as it can be for the runner. It is all about the next breath. We all take that next breath for granted as we should. Come to think of it, I am not certain if that is really disassociating during the run. Perhaps counting breaths is heavily associative and takes us deep inside. Is there anything more important than the next breath? So, I am thinking these things and then I realize that I am neither associating nor disassociating, Monkey Mind has snuck back in and is unleashing the inner chatter again. We think too much.
I suddenly recognize that I am out from under the high tree canopy and within a tunnel of rhododendrons. For several hundred yards they form a thick canopy above the trail and block out the sun and what was previously a sun dappled clumsy dance (of sorts) now seems more quiet and muffled. And dark, but not a threatening dark. More like a comfortable and secure womb. I think that I feel safe in here. Whoa, I didn’t know that I felt unsafe in the first place. Why am I thinking that at all? That damn Monkey Mind again…
The inner athlete becomes the enduringly real athlete. Whether the body is injured or running strongly, our attention drifts over the years to running’s inner lessons . . . *
There is an open field in front of me and a faint memory is picking at my mind. How do I know this place? The grassy field is under a high overpass of the Blue Ridge Parkway, it isn’t but about 150 yards wide and instead of a well worn dirt brown single track trail, there is a subtle but recognizable foot path worn in the green grass. Upon reaching the grassy path it suddenly is 15 years ago, when I first passed this way one lonely morning. There is a herd of horses in the field. In caution, the mares and colts scatter to the far end and to the fence line, and out of what they apparently perceive as harm’s way. A big bay stallion comes over to investigate this trespasser. He effortlessly takes up station beside me, and guides me across his field to the other side. Graceful, powerful, confident. My guide is also my protector I think or feel, perhaps foolishly, but he never once shows a threat of any kind. In retrospect he was born to run and he is, I now understand, the “enduringly real athlete.”
But today, sadly, the field is empty and I traverse it alone. However, the memory has stayed with me all these years, and makes me smile, both inside and out.
Moving back along the trail now, I realize that on this run on this day, there is no pressure to perform, I can go as long or short as I wish, no regimented requirement to run fast or slow. Just be. There was something about the field and the memory of that stallion that opened my ears to the singing birds, and my eyes to the brilliant sun and my heart to the mountains upon which I tread. Is it a runner’s high, can your running heart sometimes open to let in the world that surrounds us, that is otherwise walled out?
Remaining miles pass almost effortlessly and I can recall little or nothing of them. But, for the third time in my life the wind passed through me as if I wasn’t really there. Was I?
. . . lessons that bring deeper joy than our fleeting outward successes can yield. The runner gradually ascends from the body, through the heart, to the soul.*
*George Beinhorn, The Joyful Athlete (Crystal Clarity Publishers, 2015).