In the face of great collective loneliness during the pandemic, spending time running on trails has offered a different kind of solitude.
2020 was a year of reckoning: with society, with our government, with ourselves. As we turned inwards to combat the pandemic, stopped seeing our friends and families, and dramatically altered our social habits, we’ve all coped in different ways. Unsurprisingly, many have begun spending more time outside, where fresh air means we are less susceptible to the virus and we can spend time with our friends – socially distant, with masks, but nevertheless, in the company of other humans.
For me, 2020 was the year I began running again. With my favorite pre-pandemic businesses closed or on limited hours, my friends and family in faraway places, and only so many shows to hold my attention on Netflix, I, like so many others, have turned outdoors. Ashland, where I live in Oregon’s Rogue Valley, has an immense network of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding, so I’ve taken to the trails.
I’ve always had an on-again-off-again relationship with running. Some years, I run constantly. I ran a half-marathon in 2014 and wrote about it on this blog. Some years, I fall out of it and don’t run for months. Starting again feels like the sputtering ignition of an old engine – cranky, heaving, out of breath. It can take weeks or months to feel strong again, and those weeks are as painful mentally as they are physically. Panting and cramping your way up a hill you once easily jogged is hard on both the legs and the ego.
The struggle to get back in shape hasn’t been any easier this time than in the past. But this time, something has changed in my approach to running. I don’t know if it’s a result of the isolation caused by the pandemic or if I’m more mature now, more resilient, better able to handle the pain of pushing forward into strength. But for the first time running has ceased to feel painful and has become peaceful, almost gentle. It’s become a space where I can recover, where I can get something back rather than giving something up. In terms of the flow of energy, rather than dumping energy into my runs and feeling drained or spent at the finish line, as I used to, now I feel energy returning, flowing in, rejuvenating me, when I’m on the trails.
I’ve been spending so much time on my runs – Saturday’s was almost two and a half hours – that I’ve started listening to podcasts to entertain myself, and that has brought its own kind of delight. I have several that I listen to on rotation, but my recent favorite has been The Glass Cannon podcast. It’s a group of professional comedians and actors who get together to play tabletop RPG games, and the stories they create are hilarious and entertaining. I’ve caught myself laughing out loud on the trails, no doubt to the surprise of other hikers, who are wondering why this crazy runner is cackling while she pants her way up a hill.
Krista Tippett, the host of the On Being podcast, noted in a recent episode that one pandemic phenomenon is that we’ve all grown to feel that our favorite podcast hosts are our friends, as we hear their voices more often than we do those of our actual friends.
The loneliness of the pandemic can feel immense, and that enormity has only grown as we’ve shifted into winter. To stay sane, we find new ways to cope. We carve out spaces that bring solace. The cathedral of the mountains, with trees for buttresses and sprinklings of rain for holy water, has been mine. Running is a form of prayer, of meditation, an experience that pushes you past your comfort zone and into something greater than the every day. It feels connective in a way that little else does – connective to the trees, to the trail, to the sky, to ourselves. It’s an exercise in solitude, in finding comfort in the act of being alone. It is grounding. Healing.
Before, when I would go for a long run, I wanted nothing more than to finish the miles, for the run to be over, to have my reward in the form of a milkshake or hot wings or a cold beer. This time, something different is happening. I can feel a change taking place while I’m on the trail. Some of the emptiness brought on by pandemic life is pushed back, kept at bay. Now, the miles are the reward. The miles are where I am replenished. The miles are where I get something back.
I do still want the beer.
Thank you for being here. If you enjoyed this post, I invite you to sign up for my newsletter (below), where I very occasionally send updates about my forthcoming books. I’ve written about running a few times before: my aforementioned post about running a half-marathon was a Freshly Pressed post and received over 1,400 comments. I also point out the similarities between writing and running in “Why I Run (Why I Write)” and “Writing and Running: On Triumph and Sacrifice.“