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On The Trail To Sobriety

Both trail running and sobriety require focus. Not just a little focus, but a lot of it.

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Trail running is much more challenging than simply dropping one foot in front of the other on endlessly smooth asphalt. It is that distant mountaintop with a thin line of singletrack that seems to disappear somewhere into the sky. It’s scary, but even if we just throw on a pair of shoes and start to walk up that trail we begin to see the possible in the impossible. And what started out as a walk turns into a run. Sober October provides the same opportunity to lace up that pair of boots and start a journey into new territory and face the unknown challenges that sobriety can offer. But it, too, starts with 30 days of baby steps.

Both trail running and sobriety require focus. Not just a little focus, but a lot of it. Trail running isn’t the unconscious, rhythmic slapping of footfalls on certain terrain. It’s hopping over fallen trees, navigating rocky terrain and slipping up 15-percent grades that simply don’t exist on pavement.

Sobriety requires the same intense focus that trail running does. When we stop drinking, even for a month, we become fully aware of our lives and begin to face the challenge of making those changes that we planned for “someday.”

Sobriety is not falling onto your couch after a long day with a glass of wine and “vegging out” in front of that soul-sucking box called your television. Sobriety requires the same intense focus that trail running does. When we stop drinking, even for a month, we become fully aware of our lives and begin to face the challenge of making those changes that we planned for “someday.”

If breaking the self-imposed limits of ending every day with a drink sounds appealing, Sober October is a great first step. And if your running has become a chore, grab a pair of trail-running shoes and jump into the wild. At the end of 30 days you might be a little banged up, but what you will discover about yourself will make it all worthwhile. I’ve listed a few insights from my own journey to hopefully makes yours even better.

A strange thing happens to our brain when we run. Endorphins, the chemicals that reduce the perception of pain and trigger a positive feeling, are released. This is more commonly referred to as the “runner’s high”. When we stop drinking our brain begins to crave these endorphins, specifically dopamine. Running counteracts this craving by giving the brain what it’s looking for through an alternate route. A running route.

Dr. John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychology at Harvard, for years prescribed the lace-em up cure. His studies, mostly conducted with children afflicted with ADHD, showed that running provided the same benefits to the brain as the drugs being prescribed. His book, Spark, the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, goes into much greater detail on the benefits running can have on the brain.

Along the same lines, some people may experience an increase in stress and anxiety once they decide to forego the nightly cocktail. I would venture to guess that most people today experience these emotions pretty regularly. The good news is running can help. When our heart rate increases, the brain chemistry is changed by increasing the availability of other anti-anxiety neurotransmitters such as Gaba (often referred to as the brakes of the brain). It slows it down. Not surprisingly, most people feel calmer after heading out for a run. The effect is even greater if you are running outside and greater still if you are running on trails where your brain is needed to pay attention to the varied terrain.

Trail running also provides a great way to practice mindfulness. Any runner will tell you the hardest part of a run is often getting out the door. Those first five or 10 minutes into a run can feel downright unpleasant. But then something begins to happen. We connect with our breath. We notice the rhythmic turning over of our legs. It becomes a moving meditation. We are able to let go of the chatter in our brains and just be. We enter what is referred to as a “state of flow.” If we focus on one thought or mantra, over the miles we can begin to synchronize our breathing with that thought. The following passage from Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run describes this state perfectly.

“Relax enough [into the run], and your body become so familiar with the cradle-rocking rhythm that you almost forget you’re moving….You have to listen closely to the sound of your own breathing … and ask yourself, honestly and often, exactly how you feel. What could be more sensual than paying exquisite attention to your own body?”

He also said, “If you don’t have answers to your problems after a four hour run, you ain’t getting them.” Trail running gives you both the time and space to redefine your limits and determine what your values truly are.

Let’s talk goals. There is nothing quite like having a goal to get you through a difficult or challenging time. Whether it’s a race or a personal goal you set, the benefit from setting and reaching this goal is the same. If you are new to running, always start small. Do not sign up for a half-marathon in two weeks if you’ve never run farther than a 5K before. This will only lead to discouragement, injury or both. Build off your successes and celebrate them, just not with a glass of wine or beer. Treat yourself to a new pair of running shoes or a massage.

Is it worth it to leave the comforts and safety of the mundane to explore trail running and sobriety? Why even try trail running? After all, road running keeps us in good shape without the risk of the occasional sprained ankle. Why even try sobriety? After all, it not like your job is in jeopardy because you enjoy the nightly cocktail. Trail running and sobriety are worth the effort because they both offer the new and unexpected around every turn. You will see things that you would otherwise miss. You will see things that you will never forget. You will see an orange and pink sun explode over a mountain top before the rest of the world is even awake. You will exchange knowing glances with a bobcat before going your separate ways. You will see clearly the pure joy in your daughter’s face as you walk her down the aisle on her wedding day. You will simply see the limits that you’ve placed on your life wash away with every step.

Margaret Ward is the owner of Recovery Run Adventures.