Night Running

I like running back roads at night.  

By day, I’d rather sit still and let my muscles slowly atrophy than be caught on a paved surface logging miles.  The constant drone of vehicles, sun beating down your neck over the sweltering, black sun-magnet, and lack of variety in the running surface all combine to make what is, in my opinion, the worst possible experience you could have on a run.

However, I don’t mind it so much by dark.  There is something altogether different about road running at night, particularly on back roads with no traffic nor lines.  Perhaps the cool air, lack of vision, and relative speed at which you can run makes the expedition infinitely more appealing than the same run during the day.  

To be even more specific, I like running through the pitch-black night without a headlamp, blind to the road ahead; the faster the better.  It is at these moments, sprinting cooly past fireflies and sleeping houses, when you can’t see a thing in front of you, that your other senses sharpen.  Unable to trust your eyesight, you notice the changing pitch of the road beneath your feet more through your ankles and legs themselves, physically rather than visually noting the curvatures and inclinations in the road.  You hear every rain drop or scurrying squirrel off the roadside much more clearly, and the metronome of your breath and heartbeat help you stay more in tune to your body and keep a healthier pace.  You smell the heat or cool of the night and can feel the freshness or the humidity running through your nostrils.

And perhaps most importantly, your brain plays tricks on you.

Running down a road that you know to be clear of branches, potholes, gates or other obstacles, you still flinch.  Or you want to flinch.  Your face draws back, ready to receive a branch or a spider web to the eyeball.  Every shadow becomes a root or a log to catch a toe on, every piece of moonlight cast upon the pavement an irregularity to trip you.  Even though you know this is not the case, your brain still falsely alerts you to these perceived dangers.

It is because of these false alarms and insecurities that night running presents the beautiful opportunity that turns it into such a pleasurable experience (for me.)  It presents the opportunity to confront the fictitious obstacles, to trust yourself in face of the unknown, to be confident that you will be safe in spite of these nervous tics.  

In life too, we often run blind to what lies around the bend, down the road, or perhaps even right in front of us.  Tomorrow.  In life, as in running, we must meet the unknown head-on, confidently and fearlessly.  If not, we would never move forward.

And you run.  Once the hurdle is lept, and you are running fearlessly through the night, no headlamp, you become free to look up at the stars and contemplate everything else that has muddied your mind in recent hours, days, or weeks.  Unconcerned with traffic, you run where you please.  In the lanes, on the curb, in zig-zags, or perhaps right down the center line.  Freed from preoccupation with the next three or four steps, you are granted the pleasure of considering the larger picture of your nocturnal surroundings.  It is at these moments that I can taste sweet liberty.

Nobody to tell you how or where or when to run.  No humans or vehicles or other noises that would lead you to suspect that there was anyone else with you in the universe, as far as you can tell.  Just you, the stars, and your thoughts.  

On nights like these, basking in the sensation of boundless liberty and heightened confidence, I feel that I could run forever.  


On Gratitude and Mountains

Gratitude is a sentiment that has often evaded me.

That may sound brash, and perhaps it is, but let me elaborate.  It’s not that I have nothing to be grateful for because I, like everyone else, most certainly do.  It’s not that I ever drew a blank at Thanksgiving dinner and froze with my fork in the air somewhere between the stuffing and the cranberry sauce when asked what I was thankful for that year.  I am not entirely unacquainted with the concept of gratitude.  

I will venture to draw a certain distinction, however, between the intellectual and sensual experiences of gratitude.  That is to say, it is possible to differentiate between what I’ll call understandings and sensations of gratitude.  I’ll call the mental acknowledgment that someone has helped you in some way, or that you have good fortune not available to everyone by some providence divorced from meritocratic sources an understanding of gratitude.  On the other hand, I’ll call the visceral sensation that evokes an emotional response to the same understanding a sensation of gratitude.  I’ll venture so far as to say you can have the understanding without the sensation, but rarely vice versa.   

There are many people to whom I am eternally grateful for innumerable reasons: to my mother for the values she instilled in me as a child, to my grandparents for the never-ending and unparalleled support they’ve given me throughout the years, and to the universe for dropping me into this particular plane of existence on Earth amongst the cosmos, for example, but amongst all these cases of gratitude it is rare when a distinct moment in which gratitude comes crashing over you like a tidal wave.  Instead, I tend to carry more steady, constant understandings of gratitude for these people every day without necessarily feeling overwhelmingly grateful in any particular moment.  

But today I want to cast some attention on those rare instances in which the overwhelming sensation of gratitude surges from the deep spiritual caverns within and overflows with as much warning as your average lightning strike.  I’ll speak to this situation in the context of the mountains.

I have experienced this wave of gratitude on mountain tops on two occasions.  Once on Mount Garfield for sunrise, and once on Mount Carrigain for sunset.  In each of these moments as I crested over the summit and basked in the immense expanse of contoured green, masses of tree and rock and moose and river before me, I experienced a sensation so powerful that the proper words to describe it escape me to this day.  Unknowing of what to do or how to interpret exactly what I was feeling, I simply burst into tears both times.  Resigned to the potency of the moment, I sat at the top of these mountains, by myself, sweat dripping and legs aching, and sobbed and whimpered like a baby.  

Yes.  I actually choked back tears.  In retrospect, I think the only explanation for the sentiment I felt in those moments was gratitude.  I was so immensely grateful.  Grateful that these mountains and forests existed, grateful that I grew up so close to them, grateful that I lived in them today, grateful to be alive, to be there in that place at that time, healthy and fit enough to actually stand at the top of these mountains.  I was grateful for the people who fought for the land, grateful for the people who maintained it, and grateful for its mere existence.  

These are the moments when the raw, unadulterated beauty of the moment are enough to fish understandings of gratitude out of the cavernous depths of the spirit and reel them to the surface with the power and poignancy to bring you to your knees in mercy of the puissant sensation of gratitude.  This is objectively beautiful.  

I think this striking phenomenon of the sensation of gratitude is especially interesting because it is part of the cohort of emotions that we all share as part of the uniquely human experience.  I encourage you to leave stories in the comments of such times when the sensation of gratitude overtook you in the mountains as it did to me on these particular occasions. In an age of division and of differences, intolerance and indignation, nationalism and neglect, racism, misunderstanding and misanthropy, disconnects and derision, war and hate, I think it is more important than ever that we focus on these distinctly human experiences that we ALL share as homo sapiens, each and every one of us.  These experiences make us very much the same, not different.

Indeed if we look closely enough we might find much more than we expected.  

Pemigewassett Wilderness from Carrigain 6.14.17