Over the short time that I've been running, I've run for many reasons. I've run for charity, for a team, to be faster, but over time my primary reason for running has naturally evolved into a drive to explore the natural world around me. I once wrote about identifying myself as a runner, but as time goes on I find myself classifying myself less and less as a runner and more and more as an explorer.
The past two weekends I have had two experiences that have firmly cemented in me that the primary reason I run is to immerse myself in nature and explore the scenic beauty of the wild as fast as possible under my own manpower.
Two weekends ago I ran a 20k race called After The Leaves Have Fallen in Lake Minnewaska State Park. The course is mostly on old carriage paths that take you around two mountain top lakes. I started out running fast and at the six-mile mark I found myself in sixth place, running in a tight group stride for stride with runners in the fourth and fifth slot. Suddenly, we rounded a bend around Lake Awosting, and I found myself in the midsts of a mini snow squall, with a thick fog hovering just inches over the lake, and true to the races name the leaves had not fallen yet. Beautiful red, oranges and yellows filled the distance as autumn and winter shook hands.
My heart was pounding as my legs grinded out 6:30-minute miles, but suddenly I was overtaken with a need to stop. Not a need to rest, but a need to stop and remember the moment. So I stopped, and dropped off the chase group and for a minute I stood there overlooking Lake Awosting taking a mental picture and letting the beauty of the moment really sink into the depths of my very being. Once I had captured the moment, I turned and headed back down the trail alone this time. I ended up catching and passing the chase group I was with and finishing in fourth place, five seconds off of the third place finisher. At the end of the race it dawned on me that I could have come in third had I not stopped, but having the experience and capturing the mental image of a fog covered lake shaking hands with both the brilliant autumn blow leaves and the falling snow was worth much more than any race results.
Lake Minnewaska before The Snow
This past weekend I synched up with some runners from Rockland Road Runners and ran from Suffern NY to Bear Mountain. Its a 24-mile journey on some gnarly root and rock-covered trail that never seems to be flat, and this time of year the trail is mostly empty. As a matter of fact, during the 6-hour journey I think we passed no more than five people out on the trail. Most of the run I was alone ahead of the three other runners making the full trek. Climbing up peaks, stopping to take in the views, and really enjoying the calmness and the stillness of the moments.
At one point in the trail I came across a deer laying down in the middle of the trail. I stopped and stood there for about five minutes talking to it, enjoying its company. He stood up and looked at me, and I looked back. There was an understanding between us that we were both in a safe place, enjoying the great outdoors. That we both were free to get up and skip through the branches and bramble and go wherever our heart desired. After awhile I continued onward, a new spring in my step. It was as if my spirit had been rejuvenated by the experience of sharing a moment in nature with a wild animal.
The route was incredibly slow going and the climbs relentless. But I've come to appreciate the climbs, because the higher you climb the more rewarded you are at the top. I've had to throw the notion of splits and pace out the window, and instead embrace the idea of exploring as much ground as possible as quickly as possible. Sometimes that means traveling at 7-minute miles, sometimes 20-minute miles depending on the terrain. Its a different mentality... its the mentality of exploring, of self immersion in the wild, of spending a moment to appreciate the beauty of nature.
I wish more people people would take the time to explore on foot the wild world that exists outside the safe confines of our concrete jungles. Not only does it make you feel more alive, healthy, and calm but it serves as a reminder of the world that exists out there that depends on us for its protection and survival.