I used to be a runner. Then, I developed a stress fracture in my right tibia, and slowly fell out of love with running. Years went by, and I didn’t run more than a half hour every once in a great while. Most of my time in the outdoors was spent walking through the woods.
Then COVID came along this year, and I got into trail running. As someone who has loved hiking and walking for decades, it shocks me that I only now have managed to combine my old love for running with my lifetime love of the outdoors. Previously, I loved running on a treadmill at the gym. Now, I can’t imagine ever going back to that.
As I’ve slowly built up my fitness levels, I’ve been relishing this different type of contact with Nature. For years, I’d been an avid walker, navigating more slowly through the woods and down trails. I had gotten used to reaching my hands out to touch a tree, or stopping to rest alongside a tree, sitting with my back up against its trunk. This slower method of transport allows for lingering contact with the trees.
Now, I was moving quickly down paths, passing trees and plants as I went by. Yet I found myself craving the same connection to the trees that I have when I go for a walk in the woods. I started putting out my hands to touch the trees as I ran past, greeting them as I went by in the same way that I would on a walk. It helped me to feel more in touch with the green beings around me, rather than just racing past them.
I began to greet the trees I knew from my walks, as well as other trees that I passed on the trails. I might compliment a pretty holly on her bright red berries, or a beech on its autumn colors. While I always run alone in the woods, I started to realize that I didn’t feel alone at all—the trees were all around me.
It was like I was running with friends, albeit stationary ones—almost like when you’re running an urban marathon and hundreds of strangers have showed up to cheer you on from the sidelines. Except that now it was the trees cheering me on from the sidelines, or at least keeping me company.
When my energy started to flag on my longer runs, I began to ask the trees for energy, slowing down a bit to touch one tree trunk for a little bit longer than usual. I felt a bit guilty asking for help as I breezed by them, but I got the clear feeling that they were supportive of my requests, so I continued to do so. And I always felt a little bit stronger as I progressed down the trail.
On steep trails up woodland stairs, I began to pause briefly alongside a giant yew or beech to ask for help. It lifted my spirits and made the push to the top a little bit easier. Again, I felt like I had a team of supporters along the way.
Trail running—rather than walking or hiking—has been a fantastic new way for me to connect with Nature. I’m able to travel farther and to see new trails. I can spend the same amount of time in the outdoors, yet cover more ground.
But there’s no doubt in my mind that running (at least for me) is more challenging than walking. And that’s why getting help from the trees has become such an important part of my weekly trail runs. It makes me feel like the trees are helping me achieve my running goals, and it’s a new way of connecting with Nature.
While I’ve always had a special connection to trees, I’m aware that I could use my outdoor adventures to connect with other aspects of Nature, too. Lately, it’s occurred to me that I could use my runs to connect with the wind, the earth, the water. I could ask the wind to guide me on my journey, the earth to support me, and the raindrops to cleanse any frustrations I may experience along the way.
I often find myself getting frustrated when the wind is blowing in the “wrong” direction—but what if I embraced this, and thanked the air for the challenge? Sometimes, I get annoyed at sticky, slippery mud after several days of rain—but what if I thanked the earth for this opportunity to take this part of the trail a bit more slowly? The other day, I found myself grumbling as I pulled out my waterproof jacket when I hadn’t been expecting rain—but what if I thanked the water for this cleanse?
This change in attitude would allow for a very different connect with the elements. And I have no doubt that it would enrich my trail running and other outdoors adventures. It’s all too easy to classify our activities into different categories: time with the trees as a spiritual activity, a gentle walk as an exercise in mindfulness, or running as fitness. But in reality, we can get so many things out of each of these activities. A simple trail run can satisfy our need for spirituality, mindfulness, and exercise.
I’d like to invite you to think about how you can do the same. Have you ever reached out to Nature for help when you’re on your outdoors adventures? How can you deepen your connection with the elements when you’re exercising outside? How can you get help from Nature when you’re in the outdoors? And how can you give gratitude to the elements?