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The Running Bostonian: My Favorite Place

Posted by Joe Allen-Black  May 1, 2011 04:58 PM

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Part of a series about a running enthusiast who participated in last year's Boston Marathon.

On May 7, I'm going to run a 50-kilometer trail race. That's 30 miles of treacherous terrain, up and down mountains. (And that's mountains, plural.)

Really, it'd be more accurate to say that I'm going to struggle my way through the course, running some, walking some, and resting some, all the while sweating a lot, scratching a lot, and aching a lot. With aid stations only every five to six miles, I'll be on my own for long stretches, hoping I've packed enough water and energy gels and praying I don't break an ankle or tear an ACL. And whether I finish first or last, I'll get the same medal. The only people there to cheer are friends and family whom I'll see only at the beginning and end.

The best part? I couldn't be happier about it.

There's something about trail running I find that just satisfies my soul as does nothing else. I've read some of the Dali Lama's writing on the Art of Happiness and I've tried my hand at meditation and breathing exercises. This is all nice, but still doesn't quite do it for me. I find that running around the city eases stress and anxiety, but I can never fully let go of the the crazy world around me. Ditto for long walks to work. (Though the new spring weather is nice.)

But trail running. Wow. It blends the best attributes of my two favorite outdoor activities--the care-free zone and exhilaration of running and the serene beauty and exploration of hiking--and yields an experience that's at once physically exhausting and spiritually enlightening.

Indeed, there's a mental state I've attained only in logging long miles along trails. There's something about focusing inwards, checking in on my energy and fatigue, as a well as analyzing my form and negotiating each step, that brings me to this, well, nirvana. I've long since given up my clunky running shoes, striving to attain a more natural, fluid running style. And it's been ages since I've plugged myself into an iPod. And while running the streets of Boston has become more pleasurable the more I devolve to a more primitive form, making this final transition to a more primitive environment transforms me entirely. I'm not the same person strolling down Newbury Street as I am running in the Blue Hills. I've found a deeper, more pure me.

Imagine easing into an effortless rhythm as stones and roots begin float by, almost as though they were mere clouds. Pacing and timing become inconsequential; the world just flows. This rhythm mental. The brain clicks into "smooth," a gear in which modern life--with its endless bombardment of challenges and frustrations--rarely allows us to cruise. This is a glorious place. My favorite place.

This is a place well known to ultrarunners, those fringe individuals whom society dismisses as mere masochists and adrenaline junkies. But what society fails to recognize is that these people are the truly enlightened. To run ten, twenty, thirty, fifty, or a hundred miles of trail promises neither fame and glory. Leave that to the Ryan Halls and Paula Radcliffes of the world.

No. From what I've worked out thus far, it takes mental fortitude and boundless compassion. Extreme focus is important, both on the environment and oneself. As focus gives way to physical and metal fatigue, injuries and failure can creep in. Love is indispensable. Negative thoughts about oneself, others, or the environment will be a greater burden than the heaviest backpack. Love all and be rewarded.

I'm no sage. I'm merely an aspiring practitioner of the lost art of running. The Scott Jureks and all the thousands of lesser-knowns who regularly reach down into themselves and extract greatness are the true masters. This first trail race is simply the first thirty miles on my lifetime road to enlightenment.

And so while I harbor no illusions that these thirty miles of rugged trail will be a stroll in the park, I look forward to it with all the enthusiasm another might anticipate a quiet weekend on a tropical island. Because for those seven to eight hours, I'll be in a paradise of my own.

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