Lose Yourself on the Trails


I’m a creature of habit and routine. (As are we all.) The only way things work in my life is if they find a way to fit into the routine. That goes for writing, obviously (which is one reason I haven’t written much lately: because the school year is almost out and that’s basically like tax time for an accountant). But it’s true for running, too.

Any exercise routine needs … well, it needs routine if it’s going to work. You can’t just squeeze it in when you get the chance, because who ever really feels like running three miles just because? (Well, aside from lunatic runners like myself.) The routine is what keeps you honest on a day like today, when I shut off my alarm and laid my head back down instead of getting up to go run, and then 15 minutes later the guilt took over and I suited up for a couple of miles anyway. And my routine works because it’s simple and accessible: I just step out the front door and go. If it wasn’t that easy, I wouldn’t be a runner.

And I live in the suburbs, so the runs are routine, too, even if I change up my route. There’s no danger of getting lost. No chance I’ll be unable to find my way back. When you’re in town, even one that isn’t familiar to you, there are landmarks everywhere marking the safe path. Buildings. Street signs. Rusted out shopping carts in the ditch. You can see these things and construct the path that brings you back.

Which is awesome, but let’s agree, pretty boring, too.

Which is why every runner should take it to the trails every once in a while.

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I could go on about the physiological benefits to running on trails (dirt is softer, ergo easier on the legs and feet; the uneven surfaces force you to recruit more stabilizing muscles and result in a better workout; the roots and rocks in your path force you to be present and focused on what you’re doing), but that’s not why I like trails.

I could also extrapolate on the mental benefits of the trail (studies show that proximity to nature confers clearer thinking and reduced stress levels; the smog is replaced with the flowery, earthy scent of nature; and let’s not underestimate the value of not having to dodge traffic), and those are great, but they’re not my favorite thing about trails.

I like trails because you could get lost out there. Even on the well-cultivated, clear-cut trails at the parks and preserves near my house, there are side trails and detours and twists and turns not marked on any map that, were you to ignore good sense and plunge in unprepared, could turn your one-hour excursion into a two-hour one, at the very least, or a three-day-weekend surprise-camping-trip at worst. Landmarks are few and far between if they exist at all. What you’re left with is a boundless sea of green all around with a tiny ribbon of dirt that swerves off into the thicket. Not much way of telling where you’re going, nor of telling where you’ve been. One tree looks much like another, and when the canopy grows together over the top of the trail (as it does on most of the trails I frequent), you don’t even have the sun to help you navigate.

You’re lost, except for the blind trust that you’ve read the map correctly (which, let’s be honest, you probably haven’t).

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And this is the best part! Because this is when you realize that for all that humanity has tamed the world and the wilderness, there are still great stretches of it everywhere, just waiting to swallow you up. Which is — wait for it — just like writing.

You start your project with an idea. Maybe you map it out deliberately and painstakingly, or maybe you just jump in and start writing. One way or another, you take those first steps off the well-cultivated road and pretty soon it’s nothing but identical trees in every direction but for the tiny scrap of trail disappearing behind you and stretching off into more trees ahead. And your cultured, educated brain tells you that it’s not so far ahead that the trail should jerk hard back around to the right — the way back to civilization — but all of a sudden the path dips and bends off to the left.

Was that the way? Or are the woods playing tricks on you? Suddenly you’re filled with uncertainty, and you think you’re heading in the right direction, but all you really have is your hope. That, and the tiny bit of story you just wrote and the tiny bit you can see from where you stand. Every now and then you break through — the canopy parts and you can see for a stretch down the river or across the valley — but in moments, it’s all swallowed up again in the green maw of the forest.

As runners, I think we have to leave behind what we know and go get lost every once in a while. Partly for the benefits it confers, but mostly because running is one of the few sports that encourages us to enter and explore the world all around us in its natural state.

And as writers … well, I think as writers we should maybe spend more time lost than found.

Happy trails.

Running and Writing: Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together!


It’s been a long time since I had a running post, and I wondered if I was done with them. After all, this is primarily a blog about the writing of novels and the tribulations of a writer of novels learning that he doesn’t actually know very much about the writing of novels. What does running have to do with that?

Well, a lot, actually.

I take a bit of a Dirk Gently approach to life, always trying to keep in mind the interconnectedness of all things. A hummingbird flaps its wings in Taiwan and creates a hurricane in Florida, or an angry old man sends back soup at a deli and the next thing you know, skinny jeans are going out of style and cats are scooping their own poop.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing, it’s that it’s hard. Really hard. I’ve called it a Sisyphean effort before, and that’s not hyperbole: take your eye off the work and it can backslide on you, rolling your project and your will to work on it all the way back down to the bottom of the hill you spent five months climbing. And that’s when the wind is at your back, when things are going your way and you feel really truly in touch with what you’re writing.

But those are the rare days.

A lot of writing (the biggest part of writing, of late) is writing when your heart isn’t in it, when you fear the work is crap, that you’re crap, that every idea you’ve ever had or will ever have is crap, and that the paper that might have been used printing out your manuscript would be better used as paper that’s actually designed for cleaning up crap. Authorial self-doubt, the fear of rejection, an inability to find the time to focus or the right circumstances to concentrate… all these can add up to make the prospect of writing as daunting as an ant deciding it wants to cut a tunnel through the Rocky Mountains. On those days, you really have to be clearheaded, you have to train your mind to block out all that negativity and self-sabotage.

Which is where the running comes in. Say what you will about the dubious benefits of prolonged cardio exercise or how bad it is for your knees (or better yet, don’t, because I will just laugh at you), but any activity that gets the blood flowing to your body proper is by its very nature going to get the blood flowing to your brain. All that fresh, hot, oxygen-laced, endorphin-riddled blood hitting the brain is like a cool breeze in the middle of a Georgia July, like stepping into a heated storefront after being out in a New York winter, like the first pop in a fresh roll of bubble wrap. It gets you focused, it gets you clear-headed, it gets you calm.

Add to that, of course, the fact that with running in particular, it’s just you and the road (or trail or track or whatever) and the low, rhythmic shuffling of your feet. If zen masters advocate focusing on the simple infinity of the “om”, then there’s a wealth of universal truth to be found in the relentless slap slap slap of your feet on the pavement. There is no better way to get some alone time with your thoughts than to lace up your sneakers and go out for a few meditative miles.

If you’re a regular reader, you might know that I’ve been struggling with a foot injury for the last year and a half that’s made it difficult for me to fully enjoy my runs. It’s been impossible for me to cover long distances or to push my pace much above a brisk jog without setting myself back something horrible. But I’m muscling through, perhaps idiotically so (especially if you ask my wife) because of one thing:

I write better on the days when I exercise than on days when I don’t. I write better on days that I run than on days when I “work out”. I’m clearer, more at peace, less stressed, less consumed with doubt. If I can start the day with that one accomplishment under my belt, it makes any other goal — from writing a few hundred words to grading a stack of horrible essays — seem that much closer to my grasping hands.

Problem is, there’s only so much you can say about running, right? I mean, sure, every run is different: the melodies of the birdsong, the low lullaby of the cars rumbling past, the poemic abuse from passing motorists weaves itself into a unique symphony every time you step out. But by the same token, of course, every run is pretty much the same: laces on, one foot in the other, tromp stomp tromp stomp, have a shower, go on with your day.

So on the one hand, I hesitate to write too much about running, because I fear it gets monotonous. Then again, I wonder if I don’t beat the writing about writing horse to death, as I fear I may have done of late.

Nevertheless, running, as I said before, is a part of my process. Which means it belongs here.

Oh, and: I went for a run yesterday. It was good. Probably go for one tomorrow. I think that one will be good, too.

Image from Avicii’s Levels music video.