One of my favourite places to run is through woodland. To be surrounded by nature in all her exuberant, unapologetic beauty – whether that be silent trees reaching on tiptoes in reverence to the infinite sky above, the babble of a brook giddy with the journey ahead, incessant Spring birdsong, cushiony moss clad to trees and ancient stone walls, or the scent of earth after the rain – simply makes my heart swoon. I am most at home with traversing woodland trails.
I’m currently three weeks into training to run a half marathon in September. I mix my runs up between the hard-underfoot road, a dedicated running track, and my favourite: a trail run through the woods.
But it’s not just the beauty of my natural surroundings which draws me to the trail, but what it represents: uneven ground. Every second of the run requires split-second thinking, processing and action.
Although trail running may be seen primarily as a physical thing, it’s a heck of a work out for the brain. I suspect it does more for the neural pathways than doing a crossword!
A stone, a branch, a hole, a tree root, thick mud, a puddle…
Every step of the way there is something to navigate. And yet, even in amongst this constant brain fitness there are moments to really be absorbed in the beauty: the sight of a red squirrel scooting up a tree trunk, the scent of wild apples, the welcoming feel of a soft bed of pine needles underfoot cushioning each landing, the rustle of the wind through the leaves, the unexpected view of a valley through a break in the treeline. The world around calls out for me to feel enlivened.
I can’t help but correlate these trail runs with life.
How often do we become destabilised when our path – our days, weeks, months or, in some cases, years – become a changed or rocky terrain beneath us? How do we take one step forward? One person’s experience or, indeed, expertise in a chosen path may work for them, but our situation is unique to us. Always.
How come school was so busy teaching us arithmetic or who discovered what country or the way our government works that they didn’t focus on the fundamental need of all humans: how to navigate our lives?
The road to my nearest town is riddled with potholes. Not little holes, but gaping wounds in the bitumen that cause me to swerve in a never-ending car dance. And for the most part, it’s okay: I know where the holes are, and I can almost drive blindfolded. Except for one minor detail: oncoming traffic! And then it’s a completely different story involving brakes or the risk of damaging a spring in my car once again!
The truth is that life is uneven ground. We may have times when the road feels easy and smooth compared to other times, and boy is it fun to speed up somewhat and coast along. There isn’t a human alive though who should take the smooth road for granted. Nothing in this life is guaranteed: health and well-being, wealth or reliable income, relationships, our inherent belief system, friendships and community, or home. The very nature of the human experience is that we must travel. Whether it’s literal or metaphorical, the point is that we didn’t choose to incarnate to become stuck in one spot. Our spiritual purpose and destiny is to grow, to become more fully ourselves. But how do we do this if we don’t take risks? Sure, there are risks on the straight, flat, unobstructed path by the very nature of putting one foot in front of the other, but our inner gambling stretches into completely different territory when there are all manner of ruts and ruins before us. How shall we step forward? Do we hurdle, sidestep, plunge straight in? No one can make these decisions for us. They are ours, and ours alone, to choose. We are never guaranteed if our step-by-step choices will be the right ones, but what is certain is this: uneven ground invites us to learn to trust ourselves. To become confident in our sure-footedness. No one can walk in our shoes.
It’s easy to tell someone else what they should or shouldn’t do to move forward, but if we’re a companion on someone’s journey, just moving alongside them is the greatest gift we can give. That, and giving them the time and space to choose where and how to step.