I'm an expert at changing in the car. Push the front seat back, take the shoes off, get into running shorts. Squiggle a jogbra up the legs and into place, scan the enviornment for peeping Toms, and do the shirt switcheroo. Socks, shoes, hat or headband, and I'm out on the trail. Most days I run from my home in downtown Mill Valley, but some days the change of scenery is necessary to keep me engaged, and I'll throw a bag of gear into the car to catch a run before or after errands. A few weeks ago on one of these runs a fact of my life hit me: I've made every major life decision involving location based entirely upon access to running trails.
I started running at the age of twelve, when my stepfather invited me out for one his runs. That day we glided over Florida's sandy back roads and I became addicted to this sense of exhilaration—the heart pounding in a chest of expanded lungs. I kept running on my own through the back roads of New Hampshire that summer, and in eighth grade I competed with the high school cross-country team. I became captain in my senior year and we won the state championship. At Middlebury College I managed to make the varsity cross-country team, and in the off season ran through the farmlands of Vermont; in the winter, the snow; in the spring, the mud. Junior year, when all my friends headed out to one of Middlebury's schools abroad, I chose to stay stateside, afraid that I wouldn't be able run in Madrid, afraid of the lack of trees, afraid of the leers of Spanish men.
When I moved to San Francisco (chosen for its weather and access to nature along with a reasonable amount of career opportunities) after a two-year stint in Boulder, Colorado (a hotspot for professional runners who wish to train at altitude) I chose the where to live based on proximity to trails. In the Richmond district, I could be in Golden Gate Park OR the Presidio after less than eight minutes of pavement pounding. During difficult moments at work, I would silently remember my morning's run, where I might have been splashing through puddles or watching waves break on Baker Beach. My running shoes smelled like eucalyptus. Now, just across the Golden Gate Bridge in Mill Valley, I run on trails that give me views of the city, the ocean, Mt. Tam, or all of the above.
Here's a photo from a run on the Hoo-Koo-E-Koo trail on the side of Mt. Tam. It's easily accessible from a trailhead that's a seven-minute drive from my home. San Francisco peeks out from beyond a hill in the distance.
It is indeed this connection to nature that forms the basis for my running. Yes, running is good for the body, and I have the muscles and low body fat, low heart rate, and low blood pressure to prove it. These are nice side effects of what for me has become more of a spiritual habit. When I finally did join a gym and start using a machine when it was raining or dark outside, it became clear that while gym exercise is good for the body, it does almost nothing for the soul.
Just the sheer awareness of the factors at play on an average run can boggle the mind. Not only is there the consideration of the body: how does it feel today? There's the weather: temperature, sun, fog, wind rain. What to wear? The awareness of bodily sensations: How does it feel to run in humidity versus dry weather? What time of day: early morning steam rising off the grass, direct noon sun, or slanted sunset rays? The condition of the trails: mud or slippery dry gravel? The ground covered: will it be exposed or forested? Steep or flat? Sometimes it's all of those, but deciding where to go can make or break one's run. On hot, windy, or wet days, I'll run in the canyon for the protection. On dreary days I might run above the coast for the sense of spaciousness. While my occupation keeps me in front of a machine most of the day, I believe this awareness of surroundings grounds me on the earth and keeps me connected to its natural cycles.
When I move to or visit a new place, I gain a deeper sense of place by running. I explore city streets or parks, discovering unknown pockets of houses or shops, meadows or waterfalls. I'll set out after a quick glance at a map or discussion with a local—no phone, no map—with the confidence that I'll make my way back. It can be thrilling to find a loop where you didn't know there was one, but it's never disappointing to turn around and see what the road you came in on looks like in the other direction. Perhaps I'm lucky to have an impeccable sense of direction; perhaps this internal compass developed as a result of incessant traveling and hiking with my family through my childhood, along with lots of running practice. In any case, the exploratory drive never dies; I'm still finding new trails after two years in Mill Valley, and was still finding new routes and route combinations when I left San Francisco after 12 years. Even when the route is the same, the weather conditions and body conditions make each run different.
There have been times in my life—long periods even—when I didn't run or couldn't run, due to injury or schedule or other interests. The other activities I've tried—swimming, yoga, cycling, just plain hiking, and gym workouts—haven't come close to the sense of exhilaration and peace I get from running. Whenever I start up again, there's a sense of return, return to my center, return to me. What had been a nearly imperceptible sense of emptiness is immediately and overwhelmingly filled with a sense of belonging; an aliveness of my being, a sense of purpose for my existence upon this earth: to experience its bounty, natural and man-made, in this body.