My dad always says that “happiness is something you remember, not always something you experience”. While this may be true at times, during these past few weeks I EXPERIENCED complete happiness in the moment, which has also left me with wonderful memories which I will carry into the future. I am hesitant to sit down and write about my journey for fear of scaling the experience down to words and pictures. For what I experienced over these past few weeks cannot really be expressed in words or photos. The emotions, feelings, and lessons reside deep inside of my heart and soul and cannot be whittled down to words or images. This trip was a journey on many levels. This trip was a journey of spirit. A journey of self. And through the moments of pure solitude I discovered that I am never really alone. I rediscovered my connection with nature and the many ways that it speaks to us. I rediscovered my own heart and my own mind. In escaping from the trappings of this world I was able to listen to my own soul and my own body. In doing so all judgments were stripped from my ego and I began to experience a feeling of acceptance and belonging – not to anything or anyone, but rather it was as if I became one with my surroundings and saw myself not as a separate entity, but rather as a united element working in tune and with the beauty of creation. Most importantly though, this trip allowed me to experience God’s grace, love and faithfulness. I learned the true meaning of trust and surrender and experienced the peace that it brings. The question is whether I will be able to hold onto these concrete truths as the world slowly (or quickly) begins to encroach upon my peace. It is my choice however in how much space I let the world have in my life. It will take practice to incorporate the lifestyle I experienced so richly over these past few weeks into my routine. It will take time, and I need to be patient with myself. But I know that it is worth the effort. Part of me would love to head out ‘into the wild’ and live off the land, but in all honesty, I don’t think I could do that forever. I need to live in this world, but I don’t have to be controlled by it – that is my choice and that is where I need to exert my control. I think too many of us give in too easily to the idea that we don’t have control over what we let into our lives. We have somehow come to believe that stress is normal and should be accepted as such. I found it interesting that as I would recount to others the peace and joy I found being alone in nature for almost three weeks, most of them would respond with “That’s great…but that’s not reality.” Or they would say “Of course you found peace, you didn’t have any responsibility and you didn’t have to deal with people or any real stress”. They have a right to their opinions, but I believe that the REALITY is what I experienced these past three weeks. Life is simple. We have complicated it. My decision to go out in nature and just “be” and live a simple life is an example of me taking control, of me not giving in to the ‘rules’ the world has tried to force upon us. I will not apologize for ‘getting away’ and being happy. I wish that more people would realize that it isn’t about money, or time, or responsibilities. You CHOOSE what you make most important in your life. I have chosen to seek peace. That is more important to me than anything. Life, and its trials, will always be here, but sometimes we need to get away in order to gain new perspective on them. Life truly is beautiful…nature has a way of reminding us of this truth when we allow ourselves to become a part of it and simply admire its glory, its richness, its tranquility and its pure, unique beauty.
Trailrunnermag.com recently posed the following question: Can Trail Running Develop into an Unhealthy Addiction? In order to accurately answer this question, we first must define “addiction”. Merriam-Webster defines addiction as “the compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal”. Reading this definition may stir up different emotions in different people. Some devoted trail and ultra runners may deny that they are ‘addicted’ to running, describing their devotion to the sport as a healthy obsession that enhances and adds joy to their life. While this may be true, I know from experience, that this ‘healthy obsession’ can be the flipside of an unhealthy addiction. When things are going well, and we are able to log in the miles, experience the natural high and feel our feet lead us to peace as we journey down the trail, then we reap the joy of trail running in its purest form. This is what we live for. This is what makes this sport so ‘addicting’. For once you experience the joy it brings, you crave more. And if joy is what it gives you, then doing more of it must bring more joy and thus it must be a healthy obsession, right? Well, not quite. There is a fine line when it comes to balancing the gains and pitfalls of this natural drug.
Running to increase the joy and peace you experience in life is a positive thing. These by-products of running are amazing and have the power to enhance our lives in many ways. Yet, in order to really benefit from their rewards, I believe you must first have peace and joy without running. If you do, than I believe that your running ‘obsession’ can be a healthy facet to a balanced life. When you run to escape pain or to find peace or joy due to the absence of it in your own life, you may very well find it…but you also plant the seeds of addiction. For me, I found that when everything was going well and I was running strong, long and often, the addictive aspect of trail/ultra running was not noticeable. It wasn’t until I couldn’t run that I realized I had become addicted. For, addiction cannot always be seen until the thing you are addicted to is taken away…and you cannot cope without it. This is what happened to me. I became injured and I couldn’t run. I had placed everything I loved in running. I WAS my running. In my mind, I was “Shannon the Ultrarunner”. The two were inseparable. And so, without running, I lost the identity I had created for myself. I lost my joy. I lost my peace. Because I loved running so much I did not find it necessary to seek these things elsewhere. I did not learn to race the journey within, relying rather on the soiled trails to fill my heart with joy. But, without these trails I crumbled. I could not cope. It was at this point that I found out that trail/ultra running had become my addiction.
This realization forced me to re-evaluate my running. I had to learn to view it as just one facet of who I am and ask myself what it really was about trail/ultra running that I could not live without. At the core, I realized what made it so amazing was that it took me back to nature. It taught me truths that came in unspoken lessons and through painful, yet invaluable trials. But, the demands of this sport on your body and time are great. And the risk of injury or other obligation is always there. I knew that if I were to really find true joy in this sport, I had to make sure that I first had true joy without it. Running will always add to my joy, but I now know that I can’t let the absence of it, for whatever reason, lead to the loss of joy in my life. I see my inner joy as a baseline now. When I can run I experience more peace and more of this inner joy. But when I can’t run, it doesn’t take away from the joy and peace I have stored up inside of me. This is when you know that your running has a healthy place in your life. It is not a weight loss tool or an attention-seeking statement. It is not your identity nor is it a band-aid for some deeper pain. The purity of trail running is what makes it so healing. When you use it for no other purpose than to feed your soul you will find joy both on and off the trail.
As I am beginning to get back to training and putting in more miles, I am trying to heed my grandfather’s wise words: “Rest before you get tired”. So despite the gorgeous spring breeze and mild temperature I opted to take a rest day and let my body recharge. I am realizing however that what I love about running is the fact of being outside and just feeling the sun on my face or hearing the silence, punctuated only by the sounds of crackling leaves or the pitter patter of woodland creatures. I used to think that I could only experience this joy fully if I was running, but I now realize that sometimes I can experience it even more, or rather, on a different level, when I allow myself to just ‘be’ in nature. I couldn’t pass up a beautiful day like this. I had to discover its riches and just soak in its perfection. So I went up to Watchung Reservation and walked to a little bridge that spanned a tiny creek. I sat down and just listened to the water gurgling over and through the rocks and was struck by how gracefully it glided over even the largest obstacles. As I sat there just staring at the water, a moving meditation, I began to feel my thoughts moving freely, as if the water had entered my own body. It struck me that if only we could allow ourselves to take on the qualities that the water beneath my feet perfectly exemplified, life would be truly a thing of wonder. Whoever coined the expression ‘grace under pressure’ must have been watching water navigate its way down a rocky stream. There is nothing more graceful! If you take the time to watch its course, you will notice that it glides forward so effortlessly and is not deterred by anything that blocks its path. When it faces an obstacle it gracefully molds itself to whatever is in its way and continues on its journey undeterred. It accepts what is in front of it without question. It’s almost as if it welcomes the obstacles that break up the journey, as if they were just a chance to explore and test its agility before moving on to the next adventure. As I thought about this metaphor of water and life, I began to think about how often we fail to personify these qualities of grace and acceptance. As I was thinking I threw a little twig into the water and watched the water carry it away. It hadn’t gone even three feet before it came upon a mossy rock. The water hit the rock and gently glided past it, but the twig stayed stuck behind the rock, shaking with every wave of water, but never moving from behind this roadblock.
And then it hit me…too often we personify the stick. We let the obstacles in our path stop us from moving forward. We do not show grace under pressure and we choose false ‘security’ and ‘safety’ instead of letting our trials mold us into something better and push us forward.
The day was so beautiful that I came back a few hours later to sit on this very same bridge with a good book in hand. I began reading and then my eyes were drawn to the water below me….or rather, to the little twig that was still stuck there behind that same rock. How many times in life do we let ourselves stay stuck behind the same rock? How much life do we let ourselves miss out on because we have chosen to let our obstacles become roadblocks. Sometimes we even become so familiar with the same obstacles that we now see them as ‘comfort’ and choose to stay stuck for fear of letting ourselves explore the unknown.
The water that I had viewed just hours ago was now exploring some new adventure far away. It was finding and overcoming new obstacles and seeing parts of this beautiful earth that one can only see by moving forward. I am not a scientist, but as far as I know, you never see water in a stream moving backwards, at least not in the long term. It always seems to course forward so beautifully. Yet this tiny twig had not moved. It stayed stuck in the confines of its environment, powerless to the elements and unable to be set free. How many times do we CHOOSE to be the twig? We DO have the power to set ourselves free but we choose not to. Whether it be out of fear, security, or lack of effort, we choose to stay stuck. I have been guilty of this. Today I realized that I don’t want to be a twig. Life will always have roadblocks and obstacles, but life will always have wonder and beauty as well. I want to explore it all, and I can’t do that from behind a wall of fear, security or complacency. I want to be as agile as water when I come upon an obstacle, as graceful when things don’t go as I had hoped, and as adventurous as I follow my journey downstream, letting go of the past and heading fearlessly into the great unknown that is full of beauty, wonder and freedom.
I decided to give my body a rest today. I was blessed with gorgeous weather this week and 6 straight days of injury free running. I am trying to heed the lessons that God has taught me in the past, and the advice that my grandfather told me years ago, “Rest BEFORE you get tired”. So on this Easter morning I let my body restore itself before heading off to spend the day with family. The day started with a church service with my sister. I still struggle with being in church at times. I don’t find God within the walls of a concrete building, and often I find that my views differ from those that are being preached. My church has become the trails I run on. God’s message is delivered to me in every confident tree rising up from the rich soil and in every bird soaring freely through the sky. I know that God is in all things and on Easter I think it is important to reflect on the blessings and the HOPE that He has given to us. I think as adults we, at times, complicate life. We try to make sense of everything. We let our minds and our guilt interfere with love and truth. We let our narrow understanding of life and ourselves cause us to enter into a continuous cycle of questions, which only lead to more questions. Questions that can result in an overwhelming sense of confusion as we try to untangle the many strings of thought running through our human minds. Why can’t we be ok with not knowing and rather just TRUSTING in the unknown? To have faith in what we cannot see or ever truly know goes against what this world has tried to instill in us. We have been taught to find out the answers. We have been told that ‘seeing is believing’. But sometimes, there are no answers that will appease our human minds, and some things can’t be seen with our human eyes. This is where FAITH comes in. Faith frees us from our fear of the unknown. For faith and fear are really the same thing. Different sides of the same coin. As I once heard in church, faith and fear can BOTH be defined as follows: “Believing that the things you think will happen will come true”. You can choose to believe in faith or in fear. Neither will necessarily change the outcome, but it will change the peace you feel in the present. God’s gift of Jesus Christ has given us this freedom to choose between faith or fear. Why do we so often choose fear? Or, why do we NOT choose faith? Why are we so scared to believe? I have seen the blessings that come when we surrender ourselves to faith. It is a gift that we all have in front of us, but often choose to leave unopened.
Today was filled with many simple blessings. I was reminded of God’s humor in the innocence of my nephews. I wish that we could all simplify life and its lessons just as children do. To take things as they are and not try to make sense of them. Sometimes what we find in the simple story is all we really need. When we went to pick my nephews up from Sunday school they began telling us what they learned about Easter Sunday. They told us that there were bad guys that wanted to hurt Jesus. They told us that they were chasing Jesus. Then I asked them, “And what did the bad guys do to Jesus?” And they responded with the most innocent look on their face and pure conviction in their voice, “They cut off His butt!” Well, funny, I had never read THAT version of the story in my Bible, but I think that is the best interpretation of it that I’ve ever heard. It made me laugh and smile and reminded me that God does have a sense of humor. Is that not what life is about? Laughing and smiling and feeling joy? Too many people try to make Christianity to be about heaven and hell and guilt. That, in my mind, is the farthest thing from pure Christianity. Easter reminds us of God’s hope FOR us and IN us. It reminds us of His LOVE and His goodness. He can make ALL things work for good. Bad things WILL happen in this world. But just because bad things happen doesn’t mean God doesn’t care. He showed us He cared in giving us His Son. And whether you believe or not is not the question. God knows our doubts and our questions. But He wants us to come to Him despite them. I live my faith amidst the questions. I trust God through my doubts. He has walked with me through my pain and I praise Him for all of my blessings.
What has God blessed YOU with today?
Blessings I experienced today:
1. Time spent with my nephews. Hearing their laughter and seeing their smiles brought joy to my heart. Watching them stuff jelly beans into their mouths reminded me of all of the wonderful Easter memories me and my sister shared as kids.
2. Having a wonderful, fun, exciting Easter egg hunt. Watching my nephews dart from egg to egg with such excitement was enough to make my face hurt from smiling so much!
3. Having a wondering talk with my dad. As I grow older I find that the conversations we have move me towards a deeper knowledge and acceptance of myself. With him I feel no judgment and find comfort in his words as we grow together in our understanding of the world and our place in it.
4. Realizing that I already had most of my lesson plans done for school tomorrow! J
5. Feeling a sense of peace at where I am in my life and in my understanding of myself.
Today I headed back up to Six-Mile Run Park. I hadn’t planned on going back there so soon, but before going to bed two nights ago I realized that I had lost a very special necklace that I never took off. It was a cross given to me as a gift by the little girl I used to babysit for, and so it was very important to me. I know I had it on the morning I left for my run, but that night, it was no longer around my neck. I thought that maybe I had lost it on the trail and so I headed back up there hoping that luck would be on my side. I retraced my steps and kept my eyes on the trail. And while I didn’t find my necklace, I did enjoy the search.
I am learning that often my sadness in life comes from the importance I place on ‘things’. Our attachments are what cause us pain. Or rather the fear of losing them does. So while I was upset that I had lost that necklace, it was only a material possession and any meaning that I garnered from it was not lost just because I no longer had it. If it is on the trails I hope that someone else finds it and values it as much as I did. I can’t let what I don’t have affect what I do have, and that is the ability to be happy and embrace life. Sometimes when we lose something it opens us up to other possibilities that we wouldn’t have had access to before. Losing something can be a blessing, if we stop focusing on what we have lost and focus instead on what we have, or rather, what blessings we can now let into our life. Of course I am using this necklace as a metaphor, but losing this necklace did bring some new blessings into my life. It was the only necklace I ever wore. Now that I no longer have it, I was able to hang another special necklace around my neck, one given to me by my father, and one I had forgotten about (along with the rest of them) due to my attachment with the single necklace. Wearing my dad’s gift around my neck allows me to feel his loving presence even more so throughout the day.
Losing the necklace also allowed me to smile and realize the unimportance of ‘things’. It also allowed me another peaceful morning on the trails, which found me becoming an ‘expert’ to two newbie bikers. I was coming out of the forest when a biker sped past me and then stopped and yelled “Miss!”. I honestly thought that he was going to say “Is this your necklace?”, but instead he said, “This is my first time here. Which trail is better in your opinion: the orange or the red?” I was about to tell him that I was no expert either, this being only my second time here, but I figured that he didn’t need to know that. So instead I pretended like this was my regular stomping ground and said, “Well, the orange trail is better, in my opinion, for mountain bikers. It is more lush and has less mud.” I went on to tell him about the other trail and he thanked me for my ‘expertise’. As I continued on my run I couldn’t help but laugh thinking just how like my father I was. It was as if wearing this necklace around my neck breathed his spirit and his mannerisms into me. For, a few years back I remember asking him “Dad, how do you know so much?” I was in awe that anytime someone asked him a question he seemed to know the answer. I began to feel like I knew nothing. But he said to me, “Shan, I don’t always know all the answers….I sometimes make them up.” Now of course, my dad DOES know a lot, but sometimes, when he doesn’t he will just use what he does know to make up a logical, clever sounding guess that will satisfy the curious questioner. And sometimes, that is just as good as any true answer. Of course, you would not pretend to know something when someone’s life depends on it, but in certain circumstances, your not knowing doesn’t have to hinder the curious from finding what they are looking for. Today, while I wasn’t an expert on the trails at this park, I did know that the bikers would not decide to take the orange trail and ride off a cliff. Sometimes all someone needs is some reassurance that they are on the right path….but after that it is up to them to find their own way down it. So, my reassuring the bikers that there were indeed two trails, and telling them my opinion was just as good as being an ‘expert’ of the trails. For it allowed them to proceed with confidence instead of doubting if they were going the right way.
In the end, it is always up to us to find our own answers however. That is the only way that any experience can be truly personal and of value. Sometimes getting lost or losing something special is really just an answer to a question that you may or may not have posed. Sometimes we find the answers before we think of the questions. The key is to be OPEN to both the questions and the answers. Go searching for them, but don’t look so hard for a specific answer that you miss out on others that can be of even more value than the one you were searching for. I may not have found my necklace, but in the search for it I found many other blessings that made losing it a valuable lesson in the freedom of letting go.
Today’s run: 4 miles, easy, contemplative, wonderful, peaceful. I was hoping to beat the rain and snow and got in some early miles on the trail. Today I allowed myself to take side paths I had always ignored, or rather, refused to explore due to a rigid schedule of miles and times that I had pre-routed in my head. But today, I was on no such schedule. I was there to explore, not only the trails, but also what they could teach me about myself.
Coming back to running after an injury is always both amazing and scary. To feel, once again, the joy coursing through your body as your feet hit the earth and your arms swing back and forth as the rhythm of your breath propels you forward is both magical and humbling. But this joy brings with it the all too familiar and real possibility that it can all be taken away tomorrow by another injury. So, I realized that I have to find a new way to look at my running and really stop and think about what I use it for and what it is about it that brings me so much joy. As I sort through these questions (no doubt, leading to more questions and answers that may be revealed over the course of a lifetime) I realize that I need to find a way to embrace running in its most simplest form. I need to let go of the times, the miles, the races, the health benefits, and I need to rediscover the mind-body-spirit connection that it has the potential to reveal to me. I used to really enjoy coming home and plotting out my runs, inputting the miles and times and watching the numbers increase or decline, depending on what I was aiming for. Rarely did I come home and ask myself, “What did I LEARN on this run? How has it brought me one step closer to my goal of finding peace?” Today I realized that I need to, first and foremost, treat each run as a prayer. Not a prayer where I ask or speak my desires through audible words, but rather, a prayer where I let my feet and body speak in silent strides and let my breath be the whisper of my innermost questions. As I silently run, the only sounds being my breath and my feet hitting the earth, I must listen to what God/nature is trying to reveal to me in its perfect way. I must FEEL the answers with my heart and SEE them with my mind. I find them in the trickle of a stream caressing moss-covered rocks. I hear them in the wind rattling the barren branches. I see them in the ripples floating across a sun-pierced pond.
My runs have always been spiritual, but too often I let the lessons go too soon, replacing them with data and stats of miles, time and performance. Today I realized if I am ever going to find the peace I am searching for, I need to first revise how I view and treat my passion (running). For, even the best athletes will grow old. Records will be broken. Bodies will slow down. But as long as my feet can still hold me up and I can place one foot in front of the other, I can experience in a few small steps all the glory that even the longest run can fill me with. But I first must be willing to receive the answers according to my present circumstances, not ‘only’ when I feel my running merits revealing them to me. Every run is a chance to learn. Every run reveals truth. Today I begin to see my passion first and foremost as a constant prayer, a vessel through which truth, life, and peace will be revealed to me one single step at a time.
Run: 3.1 miles. A far cry from the 100 I had planned on running. Yet, those 3.1 miles were wonderful nonetheless. In coming back from injury I have been trying to live fully in the moment and embrace what is. I used to feel that a run could not be worthy of being ‘peaceful’ and ‘wonderful’ unless it stretched my limits and lasted a few hours. The longer, the better. It is true that those long runs bring me to a place of peace and reflection that shorter runs have not been able to, at least not in the past. But as I am seeing, God at times has plans that differ from our own and we need to be willing to adapt. That includes changing our mindset and looking at the things that bring us joy and finding pleasure in every moment. My impatience has always been my downfall, especially when coming back from an injury. My inability to ease back into running, believing that I can’t enjoy a run unless I go LONG, has often caused me to succumb to a string of injuries that have prolonged my return to the sport I love. I must learn from these mistakes and not be so eager to follow my ‘old’ ideas, but rather, allow my mistakes and trials to reshape how I look at things and how I live my life.
As I stepped out on the trail today I felt the presence of spring. This was nature’s gentle reminder that everything in life is cyclical, yet we must wait for the right season. We cannot rush nature, and we, our bodies, are part of nature. We must not rush our healing or our desires. We must learn first to find joy in the present, which will only heighten any joy we WILL receive in the near future, if we just learn to trust and be patient. I may have only run 3.1 miles today, but I carry the peace that I felt on that run with me still. Isn’t that what running is about? It isn’t really the distance or time that make a run ‘life-changing’, but rather the feelings that it evokes and the peace that it brings.
March 23rd, 2013. I thought this day would be the day I finally achieved my goal of completing the 100-miler at the NJ Ultra Fest. But after suffering a sacral stress fracture in January, I realized that it was too risky to try to attempt this goal at this point in my recovery. As I awoke to a crisp morning, the sun shining and the blue sky full of beauty, I felt a twinge of sadness. I had to keep myself from moving into the ‘should have’ territory that I knew would only cause more stress and unhappiness. This injury has forced me to see the uselessness of ‘should have’ and as a result has caused me to embrace ‘what is’. Because all we have is ‘what is’. “Should have” does not exist. If you ‘should have’ been doing something, you would be doing it now. Living in the ‘should’ is what creates much of our (my) stress and unhappiness. For in doing so we miss out on what is, or, at least we miss out on the valuable lessons that the ‘what is’ can teach us.
As I ran through the woods this morning at a pace that more so resembled walking, I embraced where I was and felt grateful for the ability to be out surrounded by nature and to be enjoying what I could. I did not think about the race I ‘should have’ been doing, for that was not a part of ‘what is’. I have learned some hard, but invaluable lessons through this latest injury. I am learning the value of trust, in myself, in God, and in doing what I believe to be right. I find that often my well-intentioned actions to keep myself healthy can backfire and cause more injury. Yet, this too, maybe, is just part of the learning process. It is what is called LIFE and it is what is. You can choose to accept it, or you can continually question ‘why’, never being satisfied with the intangible answers that cannot quiet your doubts or fear. Asking ‘why’ can be useful, if you are doing so willing to accept the hard answers that may arise. But if you are asking ‘why me?’, then you are only fueling your fear and your discouragement by living in the ‘should’ intead of the ‘what is’. Accepting our circumstances doesn’t mean that we have to ‘like’ them, but it means that we trust that there is value in whatever we are faced with and we choose to embrace the lessons instead of falling victim to what ‘should have been’ or the unanswerable questions that will destroy our will and our strength.
I am not perfect and I admit that sometimes I find myself saying, “This is not fair!” I find myself getting angry with God and feeling as if He is punishing me for some reason. This sheds light onto my humanity, the idea that i feel i am ‘entitled’ to exactly what i want when i want it. But i have seen time and time again that this attitude of anger and entitlement breaks me in more ways than one. It breaks me both physically and spiritually. Only when i begin to embrace the truth that i will not always get my way, and turn my trust over to God (or whatever your higher power is), do i experience peace. And in most cases, not getting my way, in the long run, leads to more blessings than if i had received what i wanted at the moment i wanted it.
I think it is important to admit your feelings and not deny what you are feeling. However, you must admit them and then move on. Learn the lessons and do your best to heed them. Trust that God can use your circumstances for good if you take some time to step out of the ‘should’ and embrace the ‘what is’. It isn’t always easy, I know, but you must never stop trusting that good things are in store and that this current trial you are going through will one day be just a memory. As my mom always said, “This too shall pass.” And as my dad tells me, “experience” must remind us that everything will be OK (that doesn’t mean it turns out as we hope, but it means that we get through it and we survive).
So, as I sit here right now, I embrace where I am, knowing that there will be many more races to run and many more sunny days to enjoy. And they will be that much richer because of the lessons I am learning right now through ‘what is’.
With two more days left of summer vacation, I wanted to spend at least one of them on the trails, soaking up every last moment of peace, storing it deep within to carry me through the school year. I had planned on checking out one of the trails on my ‘must-run’ list of NJ trails, but I didn’t feel like spending an hour in the car. So I decided to head out to my familiar stomping ground: Watchung Reservation. Since I am coming back from injury, I have had to reign myself in. I had planned on doing a conservative run, avoiding the more technical parts of the trail, reminding myself to just enjoy the feel of the earth beneath my feet.
I headed out on the reverse loop of the Sierra Trail and was running at a slow, smooth pace, enjoying the solitude and the silence. Suddenly I heard footsteps behind me. I turned around and saw two men practically floating towards me. As they were passing me they asked (with a thick Spanish accent), “How long is the trail?” I told them it was a little over 10 miles if they just followed the white blazes. “O.K. Thanks! This is our first time”, the man replied. As they went ahead I yelled “Enjoy!” But knowing it was their first time here at the Reservation, I did up my own pace a bit, just to keep an eye on them. I now know Watchung like the back of my hand, but I remember my first few runs here…they were full of wrong turns which saw me getting lost several times. As I figured, at the first turn, the men did not see the white blazes and continued straight and I had to guide them back on course…. At the second turn, the same thing happened. Now, I am always used to running on my own, so I never want to intrude on others, but I had a feeling that if I didn’t run with these men, they would be running in Watchung all day! So I ran up beside them and started to make casual conversation.
But, I also had another reason for running with them. I heard their accents and saw their tanned-skinned bodies and beautiful form and I secretly thought, “Maybe they are part of the Tarahumara Indians (also known as Raramuri) of Mexico!?” The Raramuri were featured in the book Born to Run which chronicled the Tarahumara and their astounding ability to run Ultra distances with seemingly no effort. So, when these two men passed me I got to thinking “Maybe I am running with the Raramuri!” And I suddenly got a burst of energy and excitement as I fantasized about running with these legends. I was so convinced that I was running with the Raramuri that I just had to find out for sure. So I asked them where they were from. At first they said “Passaic.” Well, I am almost positive there are no Raramuri born in Passaic, New Jersey so I asked the question more specifically. One said Bolivia (so, he was not a Raramuri) and the other said “Mexico”! Now he COULD be a Raramuri. So I mentioned that I read the book Born to Run and asked if he knew of the Copper Canyons. He laughed and said, “Yes”… But that is as far as that conversation went. Did that laugh mean that he was part of Tarahumara people, or was it a nervous laugh meaning “I-don’t-understand-your-question-so-I’ll-just-say-‘yes’”? I didn’t want to pry, so I just left it at that. But I also figured if I don’t know that he ISN’T a Raramuri, I can still pretend that he is!
If you read my last blog, you know that the past few months have been full of trial, self-reflection and a newfound peace. The fact that I was not at all upset by having my solitary run cut short and joining in a run with other runners is a huge step in my running journey. These two men were such lovely people. I even got to practice a little bit of my Spanish. At first when I heard them coming up behind me and saw them pass me, I figured they were out of my league, but as I began running with them (and thankfully I was, because they missed almost every turn!) I realized that it wasn’t that I was out of their league, it was just that I was not rising to it. Being injured for as long as I had put some fear in me. I do not want to get injured again, so I have been taking things easy. That is what my mind was telling me. But as I began running with them, something inside me, call it ‘fire’ or ‘spirit’, began to take over. And whether it was smart of me or not, I just ran with it (literally). I was floating over the rocks and practically flying over the tree roots. I felt freer than I have in a long while and I was loving every minute of it. I am not sure if it was the fact that I was running with some fast runners, or maybe it was the homemade energy bars I made, but whatever it was, it felt amazing! As we came to the road crossing at the halfway point, I had planned on turning off the trail and cutting my run short to avoid the more technical part of the loop. But part of me wanted to challenge myself, and the other part knew that if I didn’t stick with these men, they would certainly get lost. So I just kept on going. I surprised myself by navigating the usually treacherous terrain with much skill and grace. My legs began to feel the hills, but I kept on going. Around mile 8 or so, the conversation slowed, as we (or I) began to feel the affects of the hills (which I was not used to). But I kept my pace. And they followed.
As we neared the end of the trail I began to feel a strange feeling inside. It was a mix of pride, humbleness, and gratefulness, mixed with a sense of peace and innocence. I wanted to just turn around and hug these two men who allowed me to push myself and prove to myself that I still have ‘it’. I ran stronger than I have in a long time. I felt like I conquered this course that has brought many injuries upon me and caused me to lose my way more than once. I felt connected to not only nature, but to these other two beings that were so sincere and kind-hearted. This connection made me discover yet another gift of running that I don’t think I would have if I had not been forced to look at what type of role running was playing in my life. As we finished the loop I thanked them for helping me rediscover my strength and they thanked me for helping guide them.
Sometimes you have to listen to your head, other times, you have to listen to your heart, or rather, the fire inside that burns out of passion. Today I had to listen to the latter. The head often makes choices based on fear, and sometimes you need to listen, but today, my body felt good and my heart was saying, “Go for it!” So I did. Over the next few days my body will tell me what consequences, if any, my decision had, but even when making it, I was willing to push my body knowing that right now, I need to see what my body can do and stop using fear as an excuse to stay in the safety zone. It is a fine line, but one that I am willing to walk right now. As I begin to see the importance of living in the present, I see just how much joy life’s simple moments can bring. When you take away the fear caused by memories of the past or projections of the future, you are left with a purity of mind and spirit that allow you to fully embrace the NOW. For the ‘now’ is all we have.
Recipe for homemade energy bars (based on Brendan Brazier’s recipe):
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon dried coconut flakes
2 dried figs
sprinkling of pumpkin seeds
Put all ingredients in a food processor. Pulse until desired texture is achieved. Scoop paste onto aluminum foil. You can either make a bar or smaller cubes or balls. Put in the refrigerator or freezer. You can have fun with these adding in anything you want (almonds, walnuts, bananas, flax seeds, dried fruit, hemp hearts, greens, maca, etc…). Enjoy!
With passion and faith…
When I started this blog a few months ago, I did so with the intention of recounting the races and insights along my ultrarunning journey. As I pictured it in my mind, this journey would be flat and smooth, filled with wonderful scenery and many happy moments. Unfortunately, I didn’t take into account the reality of life. And just like any Ultra race I run, the path of my journey often has many bumps, trials and steep mountains to overcome. I didn’t expect to encounter such a huge road-block so early in my journey, but then again, life has a way of not always giving you what you want…but what you need. And sometimes, the only way we can see what we need is through trial. And as I found out, the only way I could see what I needed was to be stripped of the only thing I THOUGHT I needed: running.
It all started at the Watchung Winter Ultra when I slipped on some mud and did something to my fibular head and stretched a nerve. The pain would come and go and with the help of a great ART specialist I was able to attempt the 100-miler at the NJ UltraFest in March (yet ‘only’ finishing the 100k) as well as do a ‘mud’ run with my sister in April. After that run I felt almost pain free and was excited to get back to running full force. So I went out to Watchung the next day and ran the trails there. Halfway through I felt some pain in my fibular head as well as a sharp pain in my right foot. I played it safe and cut my run short (all the while cursing these Watchung trails which have been the cause of MANY of my major injuries). Little did I know that this would be the beginning of a string of seemingly never-ending injuries that threatened to not only sideline my running, but my life as well.
Sometimes in life, we don’t realize how important something is until it is taken away from us. With running however, I knew how important it was. It was my biggest passion and my greatest joy. I knew I loved running and I knew that it made me happy and was a way to relieve my stress. On the trails I felt a peace that I was not able to find in the ‘real’ world. So, I threw myself into my running and lost myself in the beauty of my surroundings and the pounding of my footsteps. Running made me feel whole, complete, beautiful and important. Running let me enjoy life; it freed me from my stressful nature. It freed me from my mind. Running was peace, running was pleasure, running was ME. And just as sometimes you don’t realize how important something is until it is taken away, on the flip side, sometimes you don’t realize how destructive something is until you take it away. Now, I will be the first to admit that running is WONDERFUL! It is a great stress reliever, a great way to be with nature, a great way to challenge and stretch your body. All of these benefits of running add joy and pleasure to your life, and that is good. However, when any one thing becomes the ONLY way you can gain joy and pleasure, that is NOT good. When I was forced to stop running, I suddenly became aware that while I could function great with it, I could NOT function without it. My world literally fell apart. I fell apart. I had to admit that I had become addicted to running, and not in a good way. Because without this drug of mine, I could not cope. And once the running was stripped from my life I was suddenly forced to look at all of the things I was running away from. I was faced with my biggest fears, and I could no longer run away from them (literally and figuratively). I came face to face with ME, and I didn’t know how to cope with all of the things I used running to mask. I felt stripped bare and yet, sometimes, when you have nothing else to grab onto, it is there that you start to really work on the problems that you tried so hard to mask or run away from. So, here I was, stripped bare, injured and depressed, and face to face with me and my own demons.
Would I let them defeat me or would I finally take them on? Without being able to turn to the one thing I used to mask them, running, I had no choice but to dig deep and face what I had run away from for so very long: myself. What was it that I was running away from? What did I not want to face? What fears were justified and which were lies, which after so many years, I had come to believe as truth? It was time that I stopped running from my demons and instead started fighting them, or at least, acknowledging them and choosing not to let them overtake me or scare me into believing lies about the world and myself. As I slowly began to accept my injuries and the fact that the only way I would ever truly ‘heal’ (mind-body-spirit) was to ‘be still’ and stop running, I began to discover (or rediscover) other facets of myself that I had long ignored, or forgotten about. I began to paint and draw and finally learn guitar. I began to realize that I needed more out of life and had to learn to live WITH myself and value myself for who I was at the core. But who was I? I had spent so many years ‘creating’ certain identities for myself that I even lost sight of the person that was, the ME without a label, the Shannon not followed by ‘the’…. As I let go of the running, I was forced to observe this person, to kindly get to know her again. To see her in an individual context separate from any other person or any other thing. I vowed to allow myself to live in the discomfort. To not give power to my fears by closing my eyes and refusing to uncover the layers of false being that had been draped on me over the years, mostly by my own doing. Most of all, I had to learn to speak words of kindness to myself and accept myself at the core of my being. I had to learn to let go of the past and not worry about the future. I tried to practice being present and ‘unattached’ – both in and out of the moment. I have seen that it is the attachments we have to things, people, thoughts and even ourselves that often lead us to pain. For, once we place an enormous value on something, whether it be tangible or intangible, we create a breeding ground for fear. For if you believe that your life is ‘complete’ or ‘worthwhile’ ONLY if you have the things you desire, the loss of those things, or even the fear of losing them, will bring about an overall feeling of unease and worry, as you place all your power in things outside of you or things that mask the real you.
For me, I realized that I had been holding on to certain ideas and habits that were no longer serving me. They were only creating a prison which I began to see as a golden cell. For familiarity often brings comfort, no matter how painful. I had come to accept the unhealthy thoughts and habits as a safety blanket that protected me from the truth of the unknown. I preferred a world of predictability rather than risk the discomfort of the unknown. And so in buying into these lies that I had created, I fashioned a lifestyle that kept me ‘safe’ and ‘happy’, as long as it went exactly according to plan. But when the links in the shackles that I had placed around my ankles began to break apart, so did my safe little world. Instead of embracing the new found freedom as a chance to discover something new about myself and about life, I tried and tried, in vain, to glue back the shackles that I had grown so accustomed to. The more I refused to accept the injuries that I was suffering, the more I gave power to the lies that my life was nothing without running. And so in order to hold on to the control, I tried to fight through the injuries, in turn, causing them to worsen and bringing on new injuries. After many tears I finally began to see that I no longer had control, or rather, I DID have control, but I needed to view it through a new lens. I spent many months praying to God to heal me, telling Him that if He would just heal me my life would be great and I would be happy. When He didn’t immediately answer my prayers, I began to get impatient and angry. I couldn’t see that my impatience was causing me to settle for second best, when God only wanted to give me what was best. We humans often want things when we want them and see any delay as unanswered prayer, or an unfair injustice to what we believe we ‘deserve’. I had to humbly admit that I expected to get what I wanted, when I wanted, as if I knew exactly what was best for me. I am not saying that we shouldn’t follow our hearts or that we don’t know what is good for us. What I am saying is that life will ALWAYS have storms, but those storms aren’t always there to do harm, most often, if we allow ourselves to get out of the ‘me, me, me’ mantra, we will see that the same storms we once cursed, were actually there to bless us.
After a constant string of injuries, mostly caused by my impatience to get back to running too fast, I had to stop and admit that God was trying to teach me something. And I was finally willing to stop fighting Him and listen and learn from the circumstances that were before me. No matter your view on God, you still have the knowledge to realize that every circumstance in life has the power to break you or make you stronger, the choice really is yours.
As I began to rediscover old passions and attempt to find new ones, I began doing so with a new found freedom. Gone was the pressure to do things ‘perfectly’ or try to figure out where it would fit in the ‘big picture’. Rather, I tried to live free from any constraint I, or others, put on me. I began to discover the joy in the process, not the outcome. Life is all about the process. If you really think about it, our whole life is one long process. One long journey. Even the ‘outcomes’ or ‘goals’ we achieve are transient and fleeting. They fade from our view as we continue on our path, and they fade from the view of others even quicker. This is not meant to minimize any achievement, however, it shows the importance of enjoying the journey, because that is the only changing constant. The victories are only moments. We can enjoy these moments, but we can’t place too much value on them, for in doing so we risk devaluing the journey it took us to get there and the journey that will continue after we arrive at this temporary destination.
As I spent more time exploring other facets of my being and other passions that I had ignored I began to see that life was more than running. I began to find joy and appreciation in the many imperfect talents and pleasures that I was letting myself enjoy. My focus began to change and so did my priorities.
At the end of July I left for Sri Lanka. I was feeling healthy and excited about getting back to running (with a new mindset). However during the 30-hour trip to the country my legs took a toll and when I arrived in Sri Lanka I knew that my body was saying, “don’t run”. I knew I had to listen. I had come here to build houses with Habitat for Humanity and that, and ONLY that, was my number one priority. I couldn’t let anything, not even running, put into question my ability to perform the task I was called here to do. And so began one of the most amazing trips ever. A trip full of fun, freedom and (until the last few days) no running. This trip was the culmination to a year full of trial and frustration. It was the perfect blessing written in a way that only God could compose. In life, often the only way we CAN learn things is by experiencing them ourselves. Call it ‘learning the hard way’, or whatever you want, but for me, ‘the hard way’ is not synonymous with ‘bad’. The hard way is what forges us and enlightens us. It is what makes us into more knowledgeable, understandable and happy beings…IF we let ourselves accept the lessons and embrace the trials. What I have learned from these many months of disappointment and confusion is something that I could never have learned had I not been forced to give up the one thing that I had fashioned into my one and only love. For I have learned that running in and of itself will NEVER make me happy. For so long I believed that only if I could run, then I would be happy again. But as I saw on my trip to Sri Lanka, where I did not run, I could be genuinely happy without running. It was then that I realized that in order to be truly happy with something, you have to first be happy without it. Running will always ADD to my happiness, as will other things, but no THING will ever MAKE me happy if I am first not happy within. As I continue on my ultrarunning journey, I do so with a new appreciation and respect for the sport and myself. I know that there will be more obstacles, but I also know that I have the strength to face them and overcome them. And BECAUSE of them I will blessed with knowledge and determination which, if I carefully foster, will lead to a clearer understanding of life and myself, and bring me one step closer to peace.
With Passion and Faith…