What Woodworking Taught Me About Trail Running

Deep in the throes of the post-race blues, one writer found herself craving a creative craft.

Photo: Cavan Images/Getty Images

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In the height of early pandemic lockdowns, the routine of training for a 50K race provided much-needed structure in my life. While the race was ultimately canceled, I still ran a 50K around Central Washington’s Snoqualmie Pass with two of my closest friends. It was the perfect collision of place, people, and purpose. 

Post-run, however, was more a slow burn of injury and ennui. Niggling pains prevented me from getting back into training and, in the absence of a new, tangible goal, I found myself slipping into the purposeless abyss of the post-race blues. 

No one foists this sport on me. But day after day I willingly choose to enter the lung-searing, quad-burning, heart-pumping pain cave that is running. Why is it that spending a few hours each day trying to move somewhat quickly through landscapes (the more mountains the better) makes my heart soar? And why was I finding that, in its absence, I felt so unmoored?

In this uncertain space, I discovered woodworking. 

I’d grown up watching a family friend and accomplished woodworker, Phil, shape wood into sweeping curves, confident lines, and sturdy forms. I always wondered how rectangular chunks of wood could become rounded, and I envied the calloused hands that are indicative of days in the woodshop. I was eager to have something to pull me out of my post-race malaise, and Phil was kind enough to bring me on as an apprentice. 

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The Woodshop 

I fell for woodworking with a force I couldn’t have predicted. Amidst the woodshop’s light cedar scent, my arms strained against the weight of heavy logs, my forearms tensed to steady the buzzing of a jigsaw, and my fingers filled with splinters, becoming rough and calloused.

The work was hard and humbling but it was also fun, like the problem-solving required for a crossword combined with the spatial challenge of a puzzle. In contrast to the abstract intellectual work required by my liberal arts education, woodworking was refreshingly concrete. I relished its realness. 

Woodworking, I learned, is mental, physical, and goal-oriented. The materials are simple but the possibilities for creation are infinite. Phil and I spent a week building an intricately designed barn door, a day piecing together a set of shelves, a few days preparing massive downed trees for a timber framing project, and a couple weeks constructing a sauna. 

Successes and failures in woodworking are palpable and indisputable. The shelves hold or they don’t; the barn stands or it doesn’t. One day, I cut wooden beams the wrong length, which is not a mistake that can be undone or covered up. An error like this required starting from scratch or adapting the project to the remaining materials at hand. There were days where I felt like I only moved backwards. But I kept showing up. 

Woodworking grounded me in a tactile world, demanding that I engage with the textures and forms around me. My hands learned the shapes of different tool handles: the hilt of a Japanese chisel delicate beside the imprecise heft of a set of table clamps. And I began to recognize wood by its grain patterns and characteristic colors: the light reddish hue and smooth grain of cherry bright beside tight-grained, dark hued walnut. Woodworking pulled me out of my brain and into my body; it required that I not just think about and perceive my world abstractly, but that I touch and feel this world. 

Woodworking grounded me in a tactile world, demanding that I engage with the textures and forms around me

One day, while waiting for glue to dry, I wandered among the tables and machines scattered throughout the woodshop’s open floor plan, my hands tracing the rough edges of cedar beams, fingering the exposed corners of a roughing gouge, and hefting a live-edge walnut slab that would soon become a table. This tangibility brought me into closer relation with the world around me and, in doing so, grounded me. 

Was this what I had been missing in the absence of running?

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Running Again 

As I slowly began to return to running, I was eager to get back on my favorite trails. In my first few runs back, my feet navigated the familiar rocks and roots of home trails, my quads protesting as I explored my favorite mountains. I liked that I was not just seeing but feeling the environments I was moving through. I realized that, while I had missed running, woodworking had become a fitting replacement that both reminded me of, and expanded my understanding of, running. 

Running is a unique alchemy of breath, muscle, mind, and place. As I resumed training, I noticed that I was playing with the different components of running: mileage, pace, terrain, and our ever-dynamic bodies. Some days I would do short runs with hill strides thrown in, other days, I would float along a trail spiraling into the mountains around my home. While the ephemera of a special trail run is different from the permanence of a finished wood project, each run provided an opportunity to create a new experience from the materials at hand. 

This didn’t mean that I loved every run. There were days where my legs felt heavy and my lungs small and inefficient. I bailed on some runs and confronted pace goals that I simply couldn’t achieve. Some days I just couldn’t seem to cut the beams the right length. With every run, I felt my strengths and weaknesses and had to adjust accordingly.

I love the realness of running in the same way that I relish the tangibility of woodworking. As I traverse routes over mountain trails, along city streets, and beside river banks, the act of running puts me in communion with my surroundings, ensuring that I don’t just observe my landscapes, but that I embody them. 

Sports we craft, crafts we sport 

Woodworking gave me a means to embody thought and creativity in three dimensions. Similarly, running invites me into conversation with my surroundings, demanding engagement from my senses and heightening my perception of the world around me. 

Together, woodworking and running are now in dialogue, each one informing and enriching the other. As I look back at the funk I was in when I first came to woodworking, I’m actually grateful that I was forced to step back and consider why I love trail running, that I can now bring the awareness I discovered through woodworking into my running practice. 

Together, woodworking and running are now in dialogue, each one informing and enriching the other

Recently, I woke up at 6 a.m., downed a cup of coffee, pulled on some layers, and then hit my local river trail just as the sun was rising. As I traced the river’s bends and curves, the trail precariously close to the fast-moving water, I noticed that the colors had changed. Freshly-fallen leaves made the trail soft and springy. The wind blowing off the water had texture, like its own woodgrain, and smells of burning wood piles wafted nearby. This woodcraft, this running craft – here they were, talking to each other again.

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