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Trails Through Time

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What do you do to make yourself happy?

Runners, by nature, have a propensity to seek happiness in the measurement of things. …

Illustration by Kevin Howdeshell

Runners, by nature, have a propensity to seek happiness in the measurement of things. In the beginning, you might say you ran to the end of a trail and back in about half an hour, and you’re thrilled. As you train more, you might run four miles in 29:30, and you’re happy to break 30 minutes. When you become more competitive, the measurements multiply. Now you run six miles in 36:06 at a 6:01 per-mile pace, you finished at 9:20 a.m., the temperature was 50 degrees and there was a slight headwind, but you don’t think you’ll be happy till you break 6:00.

And then you win a race and happiness seems within your grasp, but the course record is 38 seconds faster than you ran, so you train even harder.

Measuring gets obsessive now, because shaving every second counts. You study food labels for fat and calories, cholesterol and sodium, carbs and fiber, sugars and protein and vitamins A to zinc. You measure how much fluid you need to complete a required run, how much sleep you need, how much time you need to eat your meal before a race. You measure the effects of all your meals right down to bowel movements in preparation for race day.

You measure your weight and the weight of your shoes and gear. You count situps and pullups and squats and lunges. You know to the tenth of a mile how long every road and trail is within a 12-mile radius of your home and how long it’ll take to run there at a slow, medium or fast pace. You might measure heartbeats and body fat and VO2max. You measure how many miles you’ve run per day, week, month and year and check the average pace for each one.

And then you break the old course record, but someone else beats you by five seconds and happiness slips away. You convince yourself you might really find happiness if you can run six seconds faster, or a sub-five-minute mile. And when you do that, you’ll say you won’t be happy till you can average sub-five’s in a 5K.

It’s never enough. Happiness is fleeting or always just one measurement away.

If you’re really lucky, though, one day you might see that some of your greatest runs have little to do with measuring anything at all. You might see that you have been running away from, rather than to, a place of happiness within.

Some of my best days are when I practically forget I’m running and just enjoy the sights, sounds, smells and the beauty of the world I’m in, like I did when I first started.

According to the University of California researcher Sonja Lyumbomirsky, PhD, about 40 percent of our happiness is influenced by what we do deliberately to make ourselves happy. Several studies have indicated that simply running is a potent mood elevator. One study even found that 30 minutes of exercise was more effective than drugs in relieving depression.

Simply put, running can make you happy. Some people call it “flow.” Flow can be defined as a form of happiness that emerges when we become so immersed in an activity we love that time seems to stop.

Beyond all the assessment that might lie between a 4:59 and a 5:01, there’s a place where measurements are forgotten and you run to experience the sheer joy of running. All you need do is leave the watch at home.

On a recent trip to the Utah desert, I found the flow I’d seemingly lost obsessing over measurements of time. I’d planned on going to this secret location for years, having once seen a photograph of it in 1993. It took me 14 years to find its location, and two more years to get there and explore. (But who’s measuring?)

In the stratified layers of petrified dunes, I saw geologic ages unraveling before me, from dinosaur tracks to petroglyphs to footprints in the sand. A span of a million years passed underfoot in a matter of minutes.

I ran through the layers like I was climbing a ladder through time. I saw things so beautiful I just had to smile. For a moment, I found happiness.

But moments, like grains of sand on a dune, eventually get buried or blow by on the wind. When you reset the hourglass, a new measurement begins. Time to set a new goal. In the pursuit of happiness, trail running can get you there. The trick lies in knowing to pursue it all over again tomorrow.

Bernie measures time and finds flow near Silt, Colorado.