Thursday, December 6, 2012

Joy: Beyond the Runner's High

Nestled in the middle of one of the larger suburbs of the Twin Cities is a true gem for trail runners, nature lovers, horseback riders, or anyone in search of some solitude, beauty, or fresh air. At times it is a compact, cozy place, and yet it spans a rather vast territory, crossing over two major roads each a mile or more apart, and when thinking of the neighborhoods at the farthest ends, you wouldn't be wrong in assuming that you're in a completely different city. It does, in fact, stretch into the neighboring suburb of Rosemount. I'm speaking of Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan, MN, one of my favorite places to run.

I've had the opportunity to train here for many years, and I've still never been on all the trails. That is to say that I'm often a creature of habit and have my favorite trails that get me as deep into the park as possible, away from all other humans, which is often a goal when I run. Lately, however, I've been running with teenagers everyday as a coach for a Nordic ski team.

In the last two weeks or so, something in the universe must have changed, because almost every run there has presented some unique factor to it that has brought me Joy, capital J intended. Runners often talk about the runner's high, the endorphins, and epic runs, but these runs seemed to have gone beyond that simple pleasure, and each run was joyful for a different reason. Thanksgiving week started with near-60 degree weather, allowing the guys on the team to run shirtless during progression intervals, but by the end of the week, Friday greeted us with only 24 degrees and snow on the ground - the first true cold run of the season. For me, the intervals on Monday were almost magical. I felt swift and relaxed, as if my feet weren't actually touching the ground but only mimicking a runner's stride so as not to disparage the kids. The grassy, rolling hills propelled me forward, awakening my senses and invigorating me. It is difficult to fully describe, but at the end of the workout I felt connected to the trail, the woods, the earth itself, and was ready for more. The kids, on the other hand, were spent.

Tuesday was a long, easy distance day. I took my usual group of the top cross-country guys and headed out. Along our 7.5-mile route on the innermost trail in the park, we meandered past lakes and ponds as the sun hung low in the November sky. Rounding a bend and coming upon one of the nameless lakes to my left, a warm, blanketing light draped the woods and water in a content stillness with a hues of gold and burnt umber, flooding my heart with equal warmth and stillness. Even in the forest on a calm day, such stillness is fleeting, and almost as quickly as it arrived, the calm was broken by the greeting of a Great Horned Owl's call from the opposite side of the trail, where the woods had already darkened and become almost brooding. Such somber sound and sight I considered more of a greeting, however, offering up my salutations as we passed.

After a Thanksgiving filled with binging on rich and succulent foods and doing absolutely nothing, I was ready for a run on Friday morning. Despite the cold weather and snow underfoot, everyone seemed chipper and ready to share their stories of how they ate too much. With the holiday warmth still fresh and the air crisp in our lungs, the run was effortless and the surroundings quiet once again. Although I usually dread the first cold run of the season, once I'm out there it's instantly therapeutic. All in all, it was a brilliant "recovery" from Thanksgiving, and also prepped me for Thanksgiving #2 with my wife's family later that day.

Fast forward to last Thursday. The weather was warmer again, and over-under intervals were on the docket. I was in charge of the varsity boys, and this would prove to be a difficult challenge for me, keeping up with them during two sets of 18 minutes of sustained hard running. Although they toasted me on the uphills (they had poles and I did not), the flats and the downs actually provided them with a challenge to keep up with me! It's not often that I can outrun the varsity boys, but this day proved that I'm clearly the fittest I've been in years. This accomplishment was not what brought me the most joy, however, but rather it was as we returned to the parking lot at the end of practice, where the trees faded away and the sky opened up to brilliant shades of imperial violet that caressed the sky as dusk fell, hushing the worries and chaos of the day. For those who don't get outside much in the colder season, this alone is the reason to venture outdoors at dusk. The sunsets are phenomenal, and completely different from anything in the summer. Combine that sight with a successful workout, and you have the perfect recipe for true Joy with a capital J.

After all of these stark moments, I have since felt more open and susceptible to Joy, aware of my surroundings and the privilege I have to run in such a place. Used as a form of meditation, of emptying one's mind of worry or obligation, a run in the woods provides a transparency of soul, allowing for better introspection and the intake of all things positive and inspirational. It is this opening up that, after spending too much time closed off in our own personal worlds of work and daily routine, makes running such a vital component in maintaining health and happiness in life, in a way that may not be as easily attained through other pursuits.

Do runner's experience more Joy than other people? It's hard to say, but I do believe that we are more susceptible to it, and I also believe that there is much more Joy to be found outside in a natural surrounding. Since runners spend a great deal of time outside, our chances are better, even more so for trail runners. This is also the reason why I love to camp, ski, rock climb, kayak, and do just about anything else in nature, and winter is no time to avoid it. When natural beauty and adventure intertwine, framed with an open mind and heart, happiness and contentment are unavoidable, but if you're seeking true Joy, get out and run on a trail somewhere. You might find that which has eluded you, but as LeVar Burton from Reading Rainbow says, "Don't take my word for it."