The snow is in that half-frozen, half-thawed state, and grooved as far as the eye can see from the snowmobiles that have plowed through here in the past few weeks, taking advantage of a pounding of late winter snow. On this trail, in southern Vermont, high up above civilization, above private roads, where the only signs are to either direct snowmobilers (“Sharp right ahead”) or ward them off (“Private shooting preserve”), the woods look the same in every direction: bare, gray-brown pines and rolling white ground.
The woods also magnify sounds to a surprising degree, something you’d expect in a valley or in a deep forest but not at the top of a mountain. When I let out a sound, in frustration at my uneven footing as my feet try to grasp either the ridged snow, or the slush in the sunnier parts of the trail, or the thick, soft mud in the middle of it, I am glad to hear echoed back a sound loud and weird enough to deter whatever animals might be moving silently and invisibly around me — mountain lions, coyotes, black bears. Then I remind myself again of this trail’s main use, snowmobiling, and decide that any animal that might want to come up here doesn’t.
I am doing this — obsessively plotting out the elevation of my surroundings on a computer, and then running up the roads and paths with the biggest elevation gains and, ideally, most dire conditions — in an attempt to add something meaningful to my daily life. This something must be challenging and healthy, not just ritualistic (tea-drinking), superstitious (working at the same table at the same coffee shop every day), or necessary (tooth-brushing). In January I devised a work routine, and I have stuck to it, but the calcification of this routine, its surprising resilience over the course of four months, has convinced me that I’m ready to add more to it, to push the mind and body to accommodate even more regularity, even more purposeful monotony.
I have run competitively since I was 14, but I haven’t been “a runner” so much as I’ve enjoyed running almost enough to be one. At least, the self-flaggelator in me has a hard time taking my post-collegiate efforts seriously. About once a year, on average, I am inspired enough to train for three months for a big race, do well in it, and then lapse into inertia until the next surge of motivation overtakes me. During the inert periods, in which I may run a few times a week or a few times a month, I do, it’s worth saying, enjoy running for running’s sake. Each run sticks out in my mind, because there aren’t that many of them. But after each of these runs, dread sets in, and an old refrain speaks: If you enjoyed that so much, why are you going to wait another 17 days until you run again?
Training, as distinct from running, has a mind of its own. It is siren-like, adored and feared. To prove this point, I have clicked away from this document several times in the past two hours, not to go on Twitter or check my email, but to peer at the various measuring tools I have bookmarked on my browser in order to figure out, and then perfect, the route I’ll run today. Running has, once again, become the focal point of my day. I’m in training, or so it seems. I’m on the wagon, though really it feels like I’m off the wagon, because training feels like an addiction, whereas intermittent, leisurely running feels like sobriety. Or rather: the easy lifestyle of someone who’s mastered moderation, who’s never had to be sober because they’ve never known addiction.
Is there moderation to be found within addiction? Can the monster be not slaughtered, but trained — domesticated? These are the questions I’m trying to answer now, after years of surging and stopping, overdosing and withdrawing. A benefit of getting older is that recklessness and thrill-seeking start to be tempered with practice and self-assessment. We reverse-engineer. Ideally, we stop looking so much at what others — a vast assortment of others — are doing, and we look more at what we are doing. We whittle down our idols to a few truly relatable people. We examine who we want to become not relative to what other people are trying to become, but relative to what we have done. A history amasses, and hopefully, we stop trying to change ourselves so much, and start trying to work with what we have — to tweak, improve and enhance the prototype.
A few things about my prototype: prefers to work alone, has an overactive imagination, tries too hard to please everybody, and thinks that the closest thing to nirvana is found at the intersection of exercise and nature. This last realization only came recently. Running has always been there, harassing me. It’s a perfect match to my personality, but that doesn’t mean it is always easy, interesting or fun. But I know it well; it’s an old friend. A fate found me, and the more that time wears on, the harder it is to reject it, to not keep giving in to it.
Nature alone, I have learned, isn’t enough for me. Exercise alone isn’t enough either. I don’t love either enough on their own to make them a daily feature of my life. But I decided to remove myself from flat concrete and tarmac and show my body real challenge, real pain, not the pain of running dull, flat miles down polluted, crowded streets fractured by traffic lights, and suddenly I got somewhere. This is trail running, or, in its most challenging form, mountain running, and for me, it results in some feelings that regular running has a harder time evoking, namely: curiosity, awareness, respect, gratitude, and euphoria.
Off the roads, in the hills or mountains, you are not forced to block out noise with noise. Your knees don’t crunch as much as you hit the ground. You are not fighting other people for space. You may grimace more, or even scream, in frustration or pain at the terrain lying before you, and you may get lost, emerging with soaking shoes, scrapes on your ankles and mud streaked up the back of your legs, but you will also emerge less human, more animal, cleansed of some of your vanity and stripped of many of the thin notions that might have made you run in the first place: I want to lose weight; I want to look better.
This time on (or off) the wagon is different for me: that awful purgatory between not-running and running, those hours or sometimes days that elapse before I get myself outside, is now a treasure hunt, since trails and hills are so much harder to find than roads. Each run is an adventure, not drudgery. The data involved is also easier to stomach, easier to deal with on a daily basis, since in this particular subfield of running, pace and distance do not matter nearly as much as elevation gain and time. Run for an hour, say. Gain a total of at least 500 meters. Easy enough.
A bad day of trail running looks very different from a bad day of road running. Why am I slow today? becomes the much more reasonable Why am I tired today? These less critical questions prompt us to be nicer to the body, to respect the body, to listen to it, instead of punish it or become quickly defeated. A bad day of running in the woods can actually be alleviated by another run in the woods the following day. Nature is entertainment, nature is a reward. It’s the greatest remedy for both an aching body and an impatient mind.