Chasing trail

I recently discovered the joy of trail running. Although, to be honest, I only started running for pleasure in November. Which, now that I think about it, could’ve been a way to procrastinate. 

You see, I write for pleasure. Opinions, short stories, challenging flash fiction with stringent word limits, and lots of haiku. I’ve also somehow managed to draft a mini novel of about 30 something thousand words. Now I wonder if running was my way to run away from editing the damn thing.

It may have been one of the reasons. The other is, of course, people telling me it’s too hard and I couldn’t do it.

Well, I can. Charged by my inner egomaniac and a metaphoric hair flip, I now run every day to prove to myself that I indeed can. And it was on one of those days, that I realised I like running on a hard hiking trail more than on a sheen of supposedly-seamless foot path. 

It was a fine day in the height of summer—about two or three weeks ago—when hundreds of volunteers were still battling raging bushfires in every corner of the country. I’d woken up late. So when I stepped onto my usual route, the foot path, it was so hot I couldn’t stand the heat. (I know, how ironic that I can’t tolerate 26 degrees when I grew up in a 30-degree country. Celsius.) That’s when I noticed that the mildly-raggedy trail that ran parallel to the foot path, flooded with the shade of gum and other trees I’ll never remember the names of.

So I took to that instead. As I started off, much slower than my regular pace, I felt the obvious difference. The ground didn’t throw back the stubborn resistance of the concrete-laden foot path I’d become accustomed to. It was more giving, in a sense, and forgiving as I lurched myself on to it. I felt the gravel and sand flex underneath my feet, and even though I was often stepping on uneven surfaces, I soon learnt to navigate through it.

Now I enjoy every moment of the experience. 

Of course, I’m no expert. I’ve only run on two different trails so far, but I’ve been doing it enough of times to know I wouldn’t give it up.

The reason?

Trails are amazing personalities. Not only does a trail pave an albeit challenging way, for the runner, but it’s also a constant reminder of how entwined we are with nature. 

When I run on the foot path, I run over well-laid tar and concrete that’s meshed and designed to satisfy humans. It’s such an engineered path that we take it for granted—it has to be perfect and entirely accommodating to our needs. 

The trail, however, is wild. We’re not the master there—the roots of a hundred-year old tree is. In the trail, you don’t kick aside a twig or cut down a tree so you can have your own  way. Instead, nature forces you to swivel and adjust and hope that the harsh realities of the terrain don’t give you sore feet or a broken ankle. When you’re on a trail, you have to respect nature. 

Even the little things, like Sweetgum nuts can roll underneath your shoe and prick their way in to your sole. Or a broken piece of branch that looks deceptively frail can twist your ankle harder than you can imagine. 

On the flip side, on a trail you are slow. Like an overweight dog, as you waddle your way through the wilderness, you notice… everything. Flowers smell more sweeter than before, ants strut ahead of you, and screeching galas crowd overhead clouding your vision of the clear blue sky for just one moment. It’s pristine, and you have an unmatched sense of engaging with nature.

That’s why trail running is so appealing. On my now usual route, I run over the roots of a few ancient trees. They pop out of the ground, like an angry, pulsing vein, with space enough only for four-five toes between them. As I gingerly tip toe over the roots as thick as my fingers, a rush of affection to nature engulfs me—how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things! 

That’s enough to squash any egoistical maniac. 

Of running

When I arrived in Canberra about ten months ago, I was stumped at how much physical activity people did daily. I stood baffled at people huffing and puffing, running regardless of the weather changes—the chilling breeze, the falling leaves, the sweltering heat. Along with them were bikers, dog walkers, pram pushers, and general walkers. Not to mention the pre-teens skateboarding, rollerblading, and scooting away, laughing at their jubilation, sneering at friends falling behind, and a few stopping midway, waiting for their mate to join them.

As someone who does yoga and exercises within the closed comfort of my room, it was new to see everyone else getting out and about, showcasing their muscled arms, toned calves, and rock hard abs. Reservedness is non-existent. With AirPods nestled comfortably in their ears, people seemed to know where they were going and what they wanted to achieve in their workouts. As if they had a goal and an immense motivation to keep at it.

I was motivated, too, of course. I’ve been following my routine for over three years and was quite pleased with myself. Except, watching others made me feel quite small.

As I went about my life, I came upon conversations about the difficulties of running and the incredible power of those who run 10 km every so often. Celebrations and congratulations rained when someone hit a milestone.

I felt intimidated. As if everyone did something noteworthy, and all I ever did was stretch for a while every morning. It soon became unnerving and annoying to be the only one in a discussion whose proudest achievement was often walking 12 km a day.

I’d had enough. So I started running. Without any experience or an official trainer, I took to the street, stamping my way down the footpath. For the first few weeks, I ran three short sprints, of about 200 metres each, on a 4 km route.

Most runners I’d spoken to didn’t enjoy the process. They ran, nevertheless, because they liked the rush afterwards. That was weird to me. When I ran, I enjoyed it—I loved looking around, observing the trees swaying, sidestepping the lines of ants carrying meals on their heads, and smiling at the brave birds flying across my path, so low that they’re on my eye level.

Then I told myself: I’d never stop running because I had to. If I stop running on a particular course, it’d be because I wanted to. That’s how I’d avoid it becoming a chore. For as long as I had fun, I’d wake up wanting to run that day.

It’s been just over two months. And now, I can run longer distances, and even after crossing the 10 km milestone, I keep running. Because I want to.