It’s more than what it might be
Why do I love running, trail running in particular? This is not a question I usually ask myself. If you’re passionate about something you just do it. No need for analysis or explanation. It’s the things you don’t love that are more likely to prompt those why am I doing this moments. Still in the spirit of trying to share the love and to see if it is possible to put it down in words, here are some reflections on the why.
Energetic connection to nature
Wellington is an absurdly attractive city something you notice in great detail and from all possible angles, perspectives and paces if you choose to run this town. There is nothing half-hearted about the landscape or the weather. Wellington is a beautiful collision of coastlines, steep hills, vertiginous gullies, lush rainforest, alpine scrub, huge swathes of green belt, farm parks and forest parks all jumbled together. There are even a few mountains that occasionally get coated in snow and glimpses of the upper South Island alps are available from various south-facing vantage points. We have kilometres of marvellous ridgelines just waiting to be linked up by long runs. The earth, sea and sky change constantly with the seasons and the time of day. Everything is big and moody, particularly the hills and the weather. There is no room for complacency. Adventure is probable. Hypothermia or sunstroke are conceivable. Boredom is out of the question.
Lauris Edmund described Wellington in her poem The Active Voice:
“You have to do and be, not simply watch
Or even describe, this city of action,
The world headquarters of the verb…”
Wellington is the perfect place for enjoying an action orientated activity. Big changeable weather, big terrain combine with a compactness so that nothing is very far as a bird flies. There are roads of course but also excellent trails – official walkways or the spectacular mountain bike tracks that are shared by bikers, runners and pedestrians alike. You can follow established trails or invent your own routes. The opportunities to be creative are endless and there is no need to drive for ages to reach scenic off-road running spots as you must in other cities. You can quickly and easily access trails by running, biking or public transport.
I’ve lived in Wellington for many years and only scratched the surface of what’s runnable. Every few weeks I discover new trails to supplement old favourites or stumble across a great riff on an existing favourite. I love the accessibility, sense of exploration, possibility and uncertainty of not knowing where I will end up and what will happen along the way. Often if heading out for a run by myself or with friends we will travel in an intentionally haphazard way selecting trails at random just to see where they take us. I love getting lost and then finding my way back home again, to my car or even better, a pub or café where I can use up a few Fat Boy Credits.
One of my favourite pass times is to meet a friend and have them show me some of the micro local routes in their particular patch of Wellington. Every runner has their own secret stash of favourite trails they combine into their own personal running menu. The best chefs possess a full recipe book to suit every mood and energy level. Running forges energetic connections with nature and fosters an enhanced sense of place. It’s a great medium for exploring your backyard and beyond.
All good things are wild and free
New Zealand has a relatively small population concentrated in the main urban areas and an abundance of publicly managed land of tremendous scenic, ecological, recreational and intrinsic value. Some of this land contains tracks, routes and huts and much of it contains no amenities whatsoever. We live in a trail runners’ paradise. Trail running with its focus on wilderness, exploration and adventure is the holy grail of running as far as I’m concerned. I got into running to run trails and I’ve stuck with running trails cos they take you to beautiful wild places. As Henry Thoreau pointed out “All good things are wild and free.”
Running trails is different to road running. It’s the culinary equivalent of the slow food movement. Quality ingredients, locally sourced cooked at a slower pace, experienced more deliberately or mindfully if you will. Every step is an arrival rather than a means for getting from point A to B as fast as possible. Getting from point A to B fast is generally not possible. Trail running requires more effort, greater focus and the most direct route is not necessarily the one to take. You use your muscles in different ways. Balance, co-ordination and core strength are important as is experience. You need to use your head and consult a map. You need to think ahead and pick a line much like you do when tramping, climbing, mountain biking, skiing or boarding. Your line won’t be straight either and nor will it stay the same during the course of your run or next time you visit the same place. Trails and routes change often with the weather and the season, more often than runners change and way more often than roads change.
I do not mean to bag road running. It is pleasant enough but I’m not in love with it. Trail running hurts. You get dirty, battered, scratched, cut and bruised as well as working up a sweat. You will stumble, trip, fall flat on your face or rear end. If you are particularly lucky you’ll experience all of these things. You’ll get scars, stings and mud stains to show off and provide endless entertainment for your running companions. In New Zealand you’ll get to wade through rivers and snow, hop across rock beds or bash through bush or scrub. Some climbing will feature. You’re unlikely to encounter much flat terrain rather plenty of up and down and up and down. New Zealand roads can be quite interesting and undeveloped but they lack the intensity of experience – the big highs and the big lows that you encounter running trails.
When running trails you need more of the stuff you need on roads. Food, water, clothing, and equipment are required in greater quantities. Taking a head torch? Best take some spare batteries because who knows if you will get back to where you started in the time you estimated. Generally more planning and risk management is necessary. The terrain is more difficult but the views make up for this. You are unlikely to get run over by a car but you could drown or fall off something. Time flies. As someone who has always tramped and climbed in remote places I’m sold on the way trail running takes you deep into wilderness but still lets you go home at the end of a day (or two) for a shower, a comfy bed and a cold beer. You can run some of our classic trails (Great Walks) without having to pay for and book accommodation at a pace that means you’re able to relish the flexibility of tailoring your adventure to the weather windows as well as saving money and avoiding the tourist crowds. Walking trails like the Milford and the Heaphy is a great experience but the sense of wildness and freedom experienced while running will stay in my heart forever.
Change agent and space creator
You know how Clark Kent hops into a phone box and transforms from mild-mannered geek into Superman? Leaving aside the fact that phone boxes are in short supply these days going for a run is more or less identical. I love the transformative nature of running. It does not matter what state of mind I’m in before I don my running gear and lace up my trainers by the time I come to unlace said shoes run complete I will be in a better state of mind than before I set off. If I haven’t saved the world exactly I’ve probably saved myself. Sure I may feel more physically tired but it will be a pleasant tiredness and mentally I generally feel uplifted. Running is a good way to clear your mind, to relax and refresh. If I have a problem or issue that is bothering me the act of running helps me to think things through and sort out the rubbish from the useful stuff and figure out what is important. I return with a clearer head and a renewed sense of focus. I’m more chilled out, less stressed out. It is a cheap anti- depressant and stimulant all rolled into one.
You can also use running as meditation in motion. To think about nothing except putting one foot in front of the other. To enjoy your surroundings, the feeling of moving forward, the cool air on your face the sweat trickling down your neck, the sun on your hands. Every sense engaged in the present moment time passes very pleasurably and you finish refreshed mentally and pleasantly tired physically. Mind, body and spirit recharged. Running is a change agent and space creator.
There are no limits only possibilities
When you’re a kid you just do stuff and you make millions of mistakes but you don’t care and it doesn’t stop you getting up and trying again. You don’t have expectations and you don’t make judgements you just get on with living. It is easy to lose that sense of exploration and possibility as you get older and start to take way too much stuff way too seriously. As a relatively late convert to trail running it is an activity at which I am learning to get better at through making mistakes. It feels like I’m improving the more I do. I’m getting faster, more consistent and I’m constantly enhancing my technique. I’ve adapted to running with other people including people who run at a different pace. I can run much further now than when I started. Endurance and I have a good relationship. Years of tramping have helped me to develop the muscle memory and route finding skills that make trail running a natural fit. It’s an activity through which I’ve been able to recapture the “mistakes are irrelevant” mentality we start off with and sometimes lose.
A life free from the prison of expectations and judgements is a life well lived. It’s not a life free of pain, disappointment and frustration – that would be a pretty dull life but it is a life relatively free of regret. We can all look back on our journeys and recall vividly moments in time that changed us forever. For me one of these moments was attending a Bushcraft course in the Tararuas. As we practiced our navigation a group of runners passed us by. They were running the Jumbo-Holdsworth trail race. I was astonished, unable to get my head around how anyone could run such a steep and gnarly trail. I had tried to tramp it a few times always to be turned around by bad weather. A few years later and I was one of those runners completing the 24km course with relative ease. Later I entered the Kepler Challenge which involves running the 60km Kepler Track. I was well down the wait list and unlikely to get in but encouraged by friends who had scored a place I arranged to head down to Te Anau anyway and managed to get entry the night before the race. With minimal training uncertain whether I could do it I set off. It was tough, especially the last half which is relatively flat favouring people who can run fast but I finished it in one piece and felt pretty good. Earlier this year I entered the 60km Tarawera as part of the High Five-0 Challenge. In the back of my mind I thought I might try the full 100km to see if I could do it. I ended up switching to the full 100km at registration the day prior. Turns out I can run/walk 100km.
Running has reinforced for me something I learnt on tramping and climbing expeditions – anything is possible. Running is good for your mind. The act of deciding to go for a run and executing on your resolution builds self-esteem and self-confidence. The more you run the more you discover about what you are capable of and the more alive you feel. With running, if you keep at it you will experience the best of times and the worst of times and come to see that both are transitory experiences. A great experience today will be gone tomorrow though the memories will live on. One of the reasons I take a load of photos when out running is because I like to capture images that will trigger memories of great times experienced. I can replay these for comfort during less great times. Running reminds us that limits are all in our heads.
I Got the Power
In a world where so little is within our control we get to be the boss of our running. You can choose when you run, where you run, what you wear, what equipment you take, how long you will go for, whether to go by yourself or with a group, what weather you go in, how much time and money you will devote to it. It is all down to you. You are free and in control. You do not need special skills or equipment. It is not necessary to join a club or any other institution or to fill out any paper work. You can make it as easy or as hard as you like. You can fit it round your numerous other commitments. At its heart running is really very simple.
But you can make it complicated. For me the navigational challenge, the research involved in picking a route, checking the weather, the planning and deciding what to pack are all big attractions. I love selecting the team and organising the logistics. I love exploring wild places and not knowing for sure whether what I’ve planned can be done by me. I love the uncertainty and taking on a degree of risk. The challenge makes me feel alive.
As we run the layers of routine, responsibility and identity we have gathered in our lives, the nine to five job, the regular bed time, the sensible eating plan, the role/label of father, mother, aunty, sister, lawyer, teacher, Black Caps supporter all fall away and we are left with the raw human being underneath.
We were not born to sit at a desk, read newspapers, listen to music, watch television, or even to drink coffee or beer, which is not to say that these activities aren’t fun in their own right. I just reckon we are born to live a wilder existence. We are designed to detach so we can get connected. It is only by getting away from the day-to-day structure of our lives that we get in touch with ourselves and who we really are. During and after a long run everything seems right in the world. Everything is simultaneously peaceful and exhilarating. A friend put it like this: “I do it for the feeling you get when you think you could keep running forever”. Running represents freedom and control.
All You Need is Love
Running is not just a fast track to self-awareness it’s also a great way of meeting like-minded people and quickly developing a tangible, deep sense of connection with others. While running can seem like a solo activity if you are on the outside looking in, long distance running in particular is a team activity. Behind every runner sits a support network of people who help make any achievement possible. During events or social runs the people running with you or picking you up and dropping you off or staffing aid stations or minding your kids or pets will contribute to your endeavour. No man is an island. This sense of relying on others – vulnerability or dependence in combination with the independent mental and physical strength required to do long distance running is part of what makes the experience so special.
The running community, particularly the trial running community is very supportive and friendly. Runners compete against themselves more than against other runners. One runner’s victory is everyone’s victory. Faster does not mean better it just means faster. Personal bests are the focus or personal goals. You meet people from different backgrounds who you would not meet if you just socialised with work colleagues or family. This helps you learn about other life experiences and perspectives making you a richer person. You can of course also feel free to unleash your inner running bore and indulge in endless discussions about running stuff. Discussions that would earn you a big sigh accompanied by eye rolling if you tried it with your non running friends and family.
Watching or helping other runners achieve goals that seem if not impossible then extremely difficult is inspiring. It is rewarding to support others in their endeavours and to be a role model. If more people ran the world would be a better place in my humble opinion. There is something reassuring about striving towards fixed goals, measuring your progress in numbers that are not open to interpretation, but stand as unambiguous achievements in an otherwise confusing world. Yet really these numbers are so arbitrary as to be almost meaningless. As soon as they are achieved another target is thrown out. Times or personal bests are just carrots along the way that help motivate us to try harder, get better, push limits. We runners are always moving on to the next goal, the next project, the next run. Running gives us a reason to get out of bed in the morning and a sense of making progress.
Sometimes we runners get injured or ill and running will be a struggle or we will need to focus on other things. Every time I go running I’m grateful that I can do so because I don’t take it for granted. Like most keen runners I’ve had to cope with setbacks which have temporarily stopped me from pursing my passion. One of the best lessons running will teach you is that running does not change who you are it just provides a mirror for you to look into and if you don’t like what you see you have the opportunity to do something about it. If you do like what you see you feel a sense of gratitude. Self-worth does not come from running or any record it’s derived from your faith, your family your friends, your values, how you treat yourself, how you treat others and what you give back. You finish a run nothing much has changed, same friends, same job, same bank account total (unless you entered an expensive event of course). The sun will still rise in the morning if you can’t or don’t run.
Running makes you a better person on many levels. If you do much of it you quickly come to realize that the journey is more important than the destination. Running teaches you about balance, empathy, perspective, patience and persistence. I sometimes wonder how much it teaches you about balance admittedly but running injuries will eventually teach balance even for the slowest learners. It teaches you that being right is not as important as being a good listener and gaining self-awareness and self-control. Running is hard, it requires effort and after all the pain you usually end up right back where you started.
“We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.” Ernst Hemmingway.
As well as changing how you think running will change the way you look and the way you feel. For many people including myself, it helps you sleep better and gives you mental strength. You will probably lose weight and come to appreciate food as fuel that keeps your hard-working muscles going and fatigue at bay. Your body sends a very clear message about what it wants to eat and drink. A message you ignore at your peril. Running is both great fun and great therapy. Running can save you. Chris Knox was right. It’s more than what it might be.
“cos it’s you that I love
And it’s true that I love
It’s love not given lightly
But I knew this was love
And it’s you that I love
And it’s more than what it might be”.