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TRAIL STOKE: Trail Running Is Our Therapy

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“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.” — Thich Nhat Hahn

Lace up your shoes and go run on a trail today.

Trust me, it’s the best thing you can do for yourself today. Every day.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but I’m feeling maxed out and just trying to share the good juju for those of you who might be similarly stressed. Amid the crazy times in this world, going for a trail run—of any distance, at any level of difficulty, at any pace—is one of most effective ways I know to reduce the stress, angst, unknown and unrest I tend to inadvertently collect from all that’s going on in the world.

Amid the crazy times in this world, going for a trail run—of any distance, at any level of difficulty, at any pace—is one of most effective ways I know to reduce the stress, angst, unknown and unrest I tend to inadvertently collect from all that’s going on in the world.

No matter what your views are or how you’re been personally impacted by the post-election turbulence and its divisive residue, the perilous new rise of the Covid-19 virus throughout the U.S., the teetering economy or any of the many other personal challenges you’ve been experiencing in this dreadful year, going for a trail run and engaging your physical, mental, emotion and spiritual self in the natural world will help soothe your anxiety and stimulate hope.

That’s obvious, right? Yes, I certainly hope so. But there’s also plenty to be learned from leaning into that basic advice, too.

I’ve offered up very similar guidance in a column here before, but that was years and years ago in what now seems like a calmer, gentler time. However, reflecting on those previous hard times can remind us that the most calamitous moments always seem to be the ones we’re presently in—and they might authentically be quite horrible—but hindsight gives us the perspective that we’ve been in similar places before and somehow found a way through it.

What we think are the worst and most challenging moments of our lives don’t typically look quite as bleak in the rearview mirror. No matter what the challenge is, there is almost always a way through it and, almost always, we’re better off having experienced that turmoil because we wind up stronger, smarter and more stable on the other side. That, of course, also applies to how we benefit by getting through a challenging section of a run or hard race.

And that’s the benefit of being a lifelong trail runner. Trail running can be an immediate balm for just about anything. It doesn’t have to do anything with training or even your relative fitness at the moment. It’s about the simple art of being “mindful” as you run, even though, yes, that term has been bastardized and commercialized quite a bit in recent years.

If you can find a way to be present in the moment as you engage in the natural world—recognizing and appreciating the soil below you, the wind in your face, the trees in the distance, the complex ecosystem that is perfect alignment all around you—you’ll realize you’re moving through time and space and engaging obstacles in similar but different ways as everyone else.

If you can find a way to be present in the moment as you engage in the natural world—recognizing and appreciating the soil below you, the wind in your face, the trees in the distance, the complex ecosystem that is perfect alignment all around you—you’ll realize you’re moving through time and space and engaging obstacles in similar but different ways as everyone else.

When you trust and rely on running for all that it can bring to your life, it’s more effective than any drug and it works every single time. Never once in my life have I gone on a run and returned feeling worse or less than I did when I started. Truth be told, I haven’t actually solved or changed anything on any of those runs, but the act of running—and all of the physical, mental and spiritual sparks it produces in so many interactive ways—has consistently served as the impetus for very minor to life-altering transformation in my lifetime.

Some people drink alcohol to ease their stress, use THC as a medicinal solvent, rely on religion as their saving grace or do yoga to enhance mind-body connection into a meditative state. And I engage in some of those things, too. But when times are tough and the stress level is high, I hit the trails with regularity.

I vividly remember some of the specific trail runs I did to manage the stress and anxiety of 9/11, losing my mom to cancer, the economic downturn of 2007-2008, the tragic death of one of the best friends, the unexpected loss of a job and numerous other tumultuous moments. In each of those scenarios, trail running was an integral salve that helped ease my pain and apprehension through a boost of endorphins and the increased dopamine production in my brain, relaxing my mind enough to gain a slightly new and more positive outlook.

I vividly remember some of the specific trail runs I did to manage the stress and anxiety of 9/11, losing my mom to cancer, the economic downturn of 2007-2008, the tragic death of one of the best friends, the unexpected loss of a job and numerous other tumultuous moments.

Sometimes I purposely run alone, just because I know I am my own best friend, running partner and therapist. No matter if my IBU rating is sky high or I’m happy as a clam at the start, my mood, my disposition and my vibe all wind up improving, stabilizing and trending forward during the course of the run.

But I also appreciate running with friends who I know I can engage with in a variety of ways, no matter if we share similar value systems with nuanced differences or are polar opposites on certain subjects. Yes, sometimes that means stewing about the dark realities of the world, just to have the ability to let it all out or hear a different opinion. But other times it’s the random banter that can have a more immediate efficacy. And there is also value in knowing it’s not just how those interactions are benefitting me, but how they are aiding those alongside me.

The bottom line is that trail running is so much more than a physical act of running over hill and dale. There is a very distinct overlap between the physicality of running and the churning of my soul and the realization and reinvigoration of my spiritual self.

At best, trail running can be a magical pixie dust to a new perspective, a way to both calm your mind and heart and also a way reinvigorate you on your path through whatever is in front of you. At worst … well, there is no worst.

Happy trails!

Brian Metzler was the founding editor of Trail Runner magazine and now serves as a contributing editor.