By Brian Tomas
I recently heard an interview with a fashion magazine editor: “we don’t show people how to dress, we show them how to live.” Catchy, but I’d still rather read a trail running magazine – because trail running shows how to live, and science agrees.
Things are just things, and most things wind up as landfill. But experiences become memories, and even better, stories. Our stuff accessorizes us, but our experiences define us.
Experiences makes us happier than things. So say academic studies, led by psychology professors Thomas Gilovich and Amit Kumar. Sound advice, echoing across the popular media nowadays. And what makes some experiences special, makes them transformative? Trail runners – and mystics – have an answer.
Almost every run transforms your mood – from the hubbub of work or family, to worry about rain, wind, snow, or heat, to the satisfied joy of finishing. Other transformations take weeks, months, and even years: body sculpting, better health, and stronger bonds with your pack. For trail runners, just being in a forest calms nerves and strengthens the immune system; this is forest bathing, called shinrin yoku in Japan, where its study originated.
Trail running is more transformative per mile: core strength, spectacular scenery, and learning a big “backyard”. But awe is the big gun – a complex emotion combining dread, veneration, and wonder. Scientists started studying awe with the 2003 paper by Keltner and Haidt concluding: “Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways.” Later studies by Keltner find awe is much more common, and recommend looking for “daily awe”. Mystics already knew that: “The great lesson from the true mystics, from the Zen monks… [is] that the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, in one’s backyard” – A. H. Maslow.
After many years of running, it’s easy for me to overlook daily awe. But awe is contagious, and I’m lucky to run with two new trail runners, Vivekan and Stefanie; the looks on their faces and their exclamations are my awe radar.
Vivekan and Stefanie both took nasty spills their first year running trails. Vivekan was on antibiotics for 2 weeks treating a trail rash, and Stef was sidelined for 3 weeks with a sprained ankle. It’s a rite of passage. After a year, spills become far between; we remember, but don’t dwell – they live in and shape the backdrop of awe.
Stef is agile, and we push each other downhill. Hopping rocks and roots, shortening and lengthening strides, it’s more brain and eyes than lungs. I once told her I channel Keith Moon on the descents; without pause, she said she channels a gazelle. On these descents, our bodies are part of the awe.
Most of the year, we run at sunrise Sundays near Boulder, CO, up the local peaks – South Boulder, Bear, and Green Mountain. In winter, the wind can be fierce. The high ridgeline has the strongest winds, and the sweeping views: the continental divide west, the plains and Denver east. One winter day, climbing up Shadow Canyon, we heard the wind howling over ridgeline up above. On top, traversing through 35 mph winds, Stef yelled back: “I like that it’s so insane up here, you can’t believe you’re running it!”
Come summer, I talked up running in the Indian Peaks wilderness – the High Lonesome loop, with its signature 2 miles along the continental divide at 12,000’. Starting around 9,000’ it climbs up, up, up; the trees get smaller, then treeline and tundra. The last climb up Devil’s Thumb Pass traverses cliffs, and finally crosses a perennial snow cornice – tall, steep, and scary early in summer. In June, Vivekan looked at my last summer’s pictures, looked wide eyed at me, and said “man, I can’t do that.” But beauty trumps fear; by mid July we’d meet before sunrise to beat the afternoon thunderstorms on High Lonesome.
Summers are short on the divide, and we ran only 5 High Lonesome loops last season. And midway through every run, Vivekan exclaimed several times, to no one in particular: “man, it is so beautiful.” Another blip on the awe radar.
Over the years, I’ve found buckets of awe running the Grand Canyon, the Zion traverse, the Copper Canyon Ultra, or Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc; the running is hard, but the awe comes easy. To find awe on local trail runs, I get by with a little help from my friends.
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really
seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences
on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and reality, so
that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about.”
– Joseph Campbell
Photos Courtesy of Brian Tomas
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