In the Woods

(Originally published December 2011)

Today I celebrated the 2nd anniversary of the day I fell in love with trail running.

It was December 5th, 2009 and though I’d been running for about a year I’d never ventured onto the trails. I was deeply depressed because in a two week period I’d gone through an unexpected and extremely painful break-up and found out that I was losing my business due to the economy. I woke up that day, which was my birthday, and all I wanted to do was stay in bed, drink whiskey and eat chocolate. I felt sad and pathetic and alone and mad at myself for taking a chance on a relationship and a business and seeing both fail.

But for some reason I dragged my pitiful self out of bed and resolved to try the trails. My best friend had been encouraging me to go check out the Wildwood for months but I’d put it off as I focused on my fall road races. I’d just completed 3 marathons in 61 days to qualify for the Marathon Maniacs and my body felt as beat up as my heart and soul did. I thought, might as well go check out this Wildwood, just so I can say I did, and if it sucks, well I’m already miserable.

I went to what I thought was the Wildwood trailhead, but later found out was the Birch trail, and immediately headed down a steep hill. I picked my way slowly through the mud, feet slipping in my worn out road shoes, and willed myself to keep moving as I intersected with Wildwood and headed into the woods. I ran slowly, scared to death of falling on the uneven, muddy trail and as I ran I cried, I cried until I couldn’t cry anymore.

Then a funny thing happened. As corny as it sounds, I felt like I was reborn that day. It took a while for the peace and beauty of the woods to seep into my soul but when it did, it washed over the hurt and the pain like cream on a burn. I felt comfort among the trees, listening to the birds, breathing in the fresh cold air and I realized that that although I was in pain, I was strong and I would survive. There in the woods I resolved to keep moving forward and make some changes in my life.

When I tried that first trail run I’d never spent much (or any) time in the woods, though I’d lived in Oregon for many years. I just didn’t think of it. We didn’t have woods growing up in Chicago and I didn’t realize the appeal. Since that first time I ventured out to do a few miles on Wildwood I’ve traversed all 31 miles of that trail, and many other trails throughout the area. I love the trails and feel fortunate to be so close to so many incredible places I can run.

Running through those woods I feel happy, I feel like a child. I didn’t have the privilege of a childhood, living with fear and neglect and poverty, but in the woods I’m the child I wish I could have been: young and carefree and light and happy. In the woods I feel alive.

One year later I recreated that first trail run, re-tracing my steps, and today I did that again, my annual homage to that “special day” that for once really was special. I run not only to commemorate that fateful trail run but also to celebrate another year of life, another year of being active, another year of evolving and growing.

During my first trail run I vowed to eliminate the negative people from my life and only surround myself with people who treated me the way I deserve to be treated. I resolved to work less and play more. Today I find myself surrounded by a wonderful circle of friends who share my interests and lead healthy lifestyles. We run together, go to classes, have a beer. We laugh, we share, we spend days cooped up in van doing a relay. And while I haven’t found love again, I’m open to the possibility that it can happen, that it will happen some day.

Before that first trail run I didn’t find a lot of joy in my running. Although I was thrilled to have qualified for Maniacs I started each race with an anxiety attack and grim determination to not embarrass myself. I had a secret fear that someone would realize I was an impostor and ask me to leave the race. I finished my races feeling only relief, no sense of accomplishment or joy, the negative voice in my head criticizing my performance. Today I start a race excited, usually surrounded by runners I know, and even when I finish last I’m thrilled to be there and actually enjoy racing. Where I used to be embarrassed by how slow I am, now I proud that I can do it. In the 2 years since I found myself on the trail, I have run farther and longer than I ever dreamed I would go, farther and longer than most people ever go. I’ve dug deep into myself to find the determination to keep going no matter how much it hurts, no matter how tired I am.

I’ve changed in other ways as well. Today as I ran I saw someone I know on the trail. Now I hardly ever go for a run or to the gym without seeing someone I know now. The old me had a very small circle of acquaintances, the new me is blessed to be a part of a large group of some of the most kick-ass women runners in Portland, to have lots of real and virtual friends on DailyMile and lots of buddies in the Maniacs.

The old me would have been embarrassed to run with people faster than me, worried they had to slow down so much. Now I regularly run with people who are several minutes a mile faster than I am. The old me wouldn’t reach out to people to make plans or try new classes or go to events or attend a group even, but the new me puts herself out there.

As I ran today I reflected on all the positive changes in my life, and I felt content. I also thought about a colleague who died this week, and how fleeting this life really is. I thought about friends who have had the gift of running taken away from them, betrayed by their bodies, and I thanked my body for hanging in there with me for 44 years, even though I haven’t always treated it the best, or always appreciated what it can do. I don’t have the perfect body, I carry around much more weight than I should, and eat too much crap, but my body still gets me through a marathon – and farther. There are steel rods in my spine and other various issues that cause me pain, but my body perseveres through long runs and yoga and all the activities that make up this active lifestyle I love so much now.

The forest was quiet today. It was a beautiful day, cold but dry, the fog low in some places on the trail, like a children’s fairy tale. Today I ran without a watch, without a thought for speed. I ran when I felt like running, I walked when I felt like walking, I stomped through puddles and up and down hills with joy. Today, like the forest, I’m alive.

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