Run Steep, Be Humble

The beads of sweat were pouring off my nose and chin into the dirt with such force, they were actually kicking up dust.  I broke my running cadence for the first time since the trailhead and fell into a hands-on-the-knees power hike, glancing up the looming mountain in front of me and it’s vertical mile still waiting to be gained.  Quickly shifting my focus back to the next few feet to be climbed, I noticed that the beads of sweat hitting the dirt were falling at such a rate that they were blurring the line between bead and stream. 

I was fighting the urge to cease my forward progress with every step.  No matter how strong of a runner I might have thought I was, no matter how many times I had tagged the summit of this mountain before, I was once again being humbled. 

Anton Krupicka wrote a blog entry for Running Times a few years ago about, as he termed it, “Being Real”.  His post was grappling with maintaining authenticity in what he sees as an utterly inauthentic world.  He came to the conclusion that, ultimately, our actions are going to be what defines us as people.  For him, the only way to feel authentic, or like he was truly alive, was to get out of the human construction we call society, and find his place in the natural world. 

I couldn’t agree more.  We’re all living in a world of artificial construction.  The actions that we take within this world lack a certain level of perspective.  We are continually caught in our own little bubbles, trapped by ubiquitous distraction, most of the time viewing the world through the windshield of our cars, or even worse, through the screen of a computer or phone. 

People used to grow all of their food in a garden, spend endless hours caring and nurturing it; pick it, clean it, cook it.  They were actually working to create something.  Now, people go to a restaurant, sit at a table, pick something off of a menu, wait for it to arrive at their table (completely uninterested in the process that brought it there) and then proceed to take a photo of it and post it on Instagram and expect people to be impressed enough with the food they ordered to “like” it. 

Like it or not, all of this is inevitable to a certain extent and we’re all tied into these mechanisms in one way or another.  It can’t be escaped.  It just needs to be placed in the proper context.  We need to realize what is important and what is superfluous.  For me, this understanding is gained through running up mountains.

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It’s hard to be a cocky asshole after climbing a couple thousand feet of vert.  The mountains help you realize how insignificant you really are.  They help you find your true place.  They strip you of false confidence gained through owning things.  They show you what is truly important.  They help keep you sane in a world gone completely nuts. 

I look back at my considerably brief mountain running career and the moment that stands out the most; finishing in the top ten in my first 50 miler.  I was perhaps the most elated I had ever been, a beautiful mix of hard-earned exhaustion, immense relief that I got to stop running, the sincere feeling of accomplishing something I wasn’t sure that I could do and the utter joy of doing it well enough to finish in the top ten.  It was like the perfect storm of emotion, something I may never be able to replicate. 

But even after accomplishing something so (for me) difficult that had cost me gallons of sweat and blood dumped in the dirt, I was completely humbled. I didn’t do a fraction of the celebrating a NFL player does after a mediocre tackle on a play that took less then four seconds.  I just wanted to thank the members of my crew and everyone that had been there to support me.  I wanted to let them know I could never have done it without them.  I wanted to let them know how much it meant to me that they were there. 

I finally reached the top of the steep section I was power hiking and straightened back up into a run, the stream of sweat slowing slightly as a cool breeze came cascading over the peak I had just crested.  I was hurting but I knew I would make the summit.  It would be a struggle, I would have to push myself hard, but I would get there.  I had gained the confidence to know that, to understand what I had to go through to achieve my goal.  It was a confidence born in humility.  It was, and I’m sure Anton Krupicka would agree, an authentic form of confidence.

Running – The Cure for Everything

Yesterday I was having a shitty day.  I woke up with all the makings of a head cold—feeling stuffed up, congested and extra drowsy.  My eyes were refusing to open.  Then I went running.  I got up in the mountains, sucked my lungs full of that clean mountain air, blew a couple hundred snot-rockets into the dirt and watched the first few rays of sunlight trickle down onto the Pacific Ocean.  Head cold averted.  Things were looking up. 

Then I got to work and my boss started bitching.  Why was I thirty minutes late?  Did I have a chance to do all that work that he asked me to do even though it was way outside the scope of my job description and he wasn’t paying me for it?  When was I going to cut my hair?  Any chance I could stay late today?  Was I really wearing sweat shorts at work?  I started getting a headache.  My stress levels were rising.  Cortisol began coursing through my veins.  I could literally feel the muscle fibers on the right side of my neck binding themselves together into a gnarly cramp. 

So I went running.  I ran away from everything and everybody.  I charged up the trail listening to the pace of my stride increase with every step.  My heart began pumping, sending large quantities of blood surging into my muscles.  They loosened.  My cramp was gone.   As a topped out on the summit, thoroughly exhausted from the effort, I glanced back down at the city street I had left far behind.  It seemed my problems had stayed down there too.  They couldn’t chase me up the mountain.  Unnecessary stress averted.   Things were looking up again.   

I won’t bore you with all the mundane details of the rest of my day, but by about five o’clock I had accumulated a little IT band tightness, some dry skin, an allergy-induced sniffle and what seemed to be a mild case of constipation.  I needed to go running. 

When I did, it fixed everything (especially the constipation, that was fixed with a vengeance).  And it came with the added bonus of allowing me to witness the sunset from about 2,000 feet higher than anyone else around.  Running had singlehandedly turned my no-good, very bad day into a pretty damn good one. 

Ok, so running may not be the cure for everything.  It’s probably not going to fix a broken toe or help much with a rattlesnake bite, but roughly 99.6% of the time, I choose to prescribe myself a good long run for whatever seems to ail me.  And I’m rarely disappointed. 

Rolled my ankle playing hoops?  If I go running for an hour after the game, the next day I won’t even be able to tell it happened. 

Fighting with my significant other?  After a run I’m ready to admit I was wrong, even if I wasn’t (but let’s face it, I probably was). 

Hung-over?  Just gotta get on the trail and sweat it out.   

The Lakers lost again?  Hill repeats. 

Feeling fat?  Time for a long one. 

Tired?  The mountains have an energizing effect. 

Depressed? Anxious? Broke?  Horny?  You get the picture.  Running; it’s good for… well, everything.