If you’re one of the estimated 65 million people who embarked on a run in the U.S. in the last 12 months, it’s likely at some point you’ve experienced the mental warfare that goes with the territory of being a runner. The mind is a powerful vessel – it can embolden us, but it can also defeat us.
Your running legs feel like lead or your lungs are achey. Maybe you can’t breathe or it’s just too cold, and as your mind acknowledges these horrible truths, the act of running becomes exponentially more difficult. This is why runners cling fiercely to their mantras. When I’m climbing the final hill after a long, slow 12-miler, there is but one thought that sits in my mind. The words echo behind each footstep. They sing together in a determined rhythm. My jaw is clenched as I recall, “Strength is within. Strength is within.”
I say these words, even though they haven’t always felt quite true. I say them because I know the power of the mind, I know that how we speak of ourselves matters. I know that the more you say something, the more it starts to feel true; when you believe strength is within, you can often find it therein.
There were years that I was a runner working to achieve fitness. I wanted to be faster, to go farther, to achieve a goal, to complete a race. But these days, my running is less about fitness and more about wellness. I’ve learned that running is the best gauge I have for my mental health. When I am able to run, I am able to feel well. And so I’ve made it a priority.
My wellness is tucked away in the fresh air I breathe as I my feet shuffle along beside a frozen creek. It’s in narrow footpaths carving passageways though rhododendron in the forest. It’s in the sense of flow that comes when my legs and my breathing and my mind all move together in a light and easy rhythm. It’s in the endorphins that circulate within my brain thereafter. My wellness and my running go hand in hand. It took me the better part of a decade to figure that one out.
Study after study outlines the benefits that exercise and the outdoors have on depression. Trail running offers a healthy dose of both so it’s no wonder I find myself drawn to it.
One afternoon last November, I set out running on Chestnut Ridge Trail with my friend, Mike. As I bounded downhill along a leaf littered trail, my toe clipped a root and for the briefest of seconds I was soaring through the air, arms stretched out before me in true Superwoman style. My eyes closed as my body collided with the hard ground. Mike was up ahead and reported that he heard me yell, “Oh shit,” as I went down. I was shocked I didn’t say worse. I opened my eyes and felt a horrible pain in my knee.
Often, the fall happens fast. It takes our breath away. We feel blindsided, incompetent, and frustrated by the course of events. Yet, these falls are an inescapable component of life. Relationships fail; expectations linger unfulfilled; we make terrible mistakes. There is unimaginable loss as we cope with death and illness. Falls abound.
There on the ground I rethought all I knew about trail running. I’m not sure I should keep this up. It’s beautiful, yes, but it can hurt too. What if I am really injured? Is trail running worth the risk?
I lay in the leaves for a bit and then surveyed the damage. It seemed that my right knee had collided with a rock. My shin was scraped and sore, my knee boasted a bloody gash. It hurt like hell. But we were on the back side of the loop and the farthest possible distance from our cars. The only way I’d get back was by using my own two feet. So I got up and ran onward, albeit quite slowly. Strength is within, a soft voice whispered.
I was shaken. The trail had lost some of its allure – each root and stone seemed less adventurous and more like an obstacle to overcome. Eventually, I made it back to the car, drove myself home and hobbled around my house for a couple weeks with a swollen knee. I took a little break from running to be sure all was healing well. Honestly, it was awful. I missed getting outside everyday; I missed running tremendously.
I decided the fall isn’t the important part of the story. Each and every one of us has our own formidable challenges. But what happens after the fall is quite significant. What story do we choose to write? Do we blame the trail or others or ourselves? Do we take responsibility for our actions? Do we find a way to bring forth the strength within? Do we rise and walk onward?
The trail runner’s dilemma is always with us. Watch the ground too closely and you will miss the beautiful scenery around you. Look up to admire the vistas for a second too long, and a root snags your toe and brings you down. I’m not so sure we can ever master this dance. Maybe all we can do is take in the beauty and make peace with our falls, knowing that more of both are yet to come if we are lucky.
My feet are back on the trails. My heart is as full as it has ever been. My mind is clear and well. There is no question of if I will fall again. I am quite certain I will. But I’ve fallen before and each and every time that small voice inside has countered, “Strength is within.”