A few weeks ago, I discovered yet another new favorite outdoor activity that shapes my mind and body while keeping me healthy – trail running in the snow. It may sound silly to some of you who have been doing this for years, but for me just trying this new activity took overcoming lots of negative self talk. "It's too cold." "You can't see the trail." "You'll trip and fall on a rock you can't see." "It's too slippery – you will sprain your ankle again." "Your shoes are too old and don't have the right traction." "You'll slip off the trail and plummet down the side of the mountain." Enough already! While there is truth to many of those statements, after a few days of letting my mind and my fears keep me caged up inside, I told myself, "just try it one step at a time." If it gets too tough, you can always stop and walk or go back home.
So I set out. Slowly and timidly at first. Climbing up the first big hill, I had more traction than I expected, but my legs and lungs were protesting and I wanted to go sit back on the couch. I kept going, but allowing myself to walk a little on the steepest parts.
Eventually I get to a choice point. I can keep heading up the steep service road or I can take a trail off to the left or another off to the right. I originally thought I would go on the trail to the left, because it is one I have been on less, is a little less steep, and has great views. But nobody has been on it since it snowed and I didn't think I could find the trail and some of the same excuses as above came rushing back into my mind. The trail to the right I've been on dozens of times, and it had some footprints so I assume someone else has been there, I'll be able to find the trail, and it will be slightly packed down for me. I chose the trail to the right because it seemed safer and I told myself I'd just go a little ways and turn around before the steep parts.
Stepping off the service road, the snow is deeper and more slippery now, but still doable. I'm having fun with the twists and turns and my footing is sure enough. I'm not on the trail more than an eighth of a mile or so when I come upon an older couple who are hiking with trekking poles. We exchange a few words about the beauty of the snowy hills and I pass them, quickly realizing they were the ones breaking trail for me. I make a joke about it, thank them, then quickly realize I'm right back where I started on the unbroken trail that I avoided the first time.
Now my ego kicks in – well, don't turn around now, you'll look like a fool and a wuss to that couple. But my mind is also replaying all of my original fears for the third time. So my ego and my fears are wrestling while my higher, calmer, more centered self says, just keep going, one step at a time. You can turn around if you need to later. And I plod on.
I can't really tell where the trail is, but I keep going choose the best possible places to put my feet. Sometimes I step and sink deeply, sometimes my steps are shallow, sometimes my foot slides out from underneath me activating all the other parts of my body to move quickly and compensate to recover my balance and keep from face planting in the snow. Slightly scary, but fun!
Before I know it, I've gone much farther than I planned and I'm at the first steep technical hill. I continue with my mantra, just try it, one step at a time. And my feet find enough traction. They find roots and rocks hidden under the snow providing me with enough support to keep heading up. Those same obstacles I was afraid would trip me up end up helping me. I make it up the hill, lungs screaming, adrenaline pumping, and a smile on my face.
I continue on running the entire trail. Never knowing exactly where the trail is or if I'm on it, but just choosing the best possible next step. Lifting my feet up high and splashing them back down in the fluffy powder. Enjoying the simultaneous excitement and fear of breaking trail, negotiating the unknown with every step.
Eventually I get to the intersection with another trail where I turn to start heading back down the mountain. The same fears come up yet a fourth time - now I'm heading down and surely gravity will cause me to go too fast and slip and fall. But I'm practiced now with appeasing these thoughts. Actually what I find is the deep fluffy powder makes a nice cushion and catches my foot and I am going just about as fast as I do on a dry day. And of course, some sections that are too steep I do have to slow down and walk carefully. But the snow adds greatly to the beauty in addition to the challenge.
I notice how many animal tracks there are around. I laugh as my tracks seem so big and clumsy compared to theirs. Sometimes they share the human created trail with me, sometimes they take a much more efficient and graceful route down the mountain that we can't. But I smile noticing how our tracks keep weaving in and out of each others feeling like I'm playing with them in some sort of chase outside of time.
When I finally make it down the mountain and rejoin the trails in the valley, I notice the low trails are well traveled. The snow is packed down like a concrete sidewalk. There are bike tracks, ski tracks, boot tracks, and dog tracks all scrambled together. At first I felt relieved that I wouldn't need to worry so much about breaking trail and constantly not knowing how my next step will land, but actually I noticed it wasn't as enjoyable. The packed snow is more jarring on my body. The run becomes more monotonous. There are no decisions to make. Everyone has been here. There is less risk, but much less reward.
I challenge myself to look deeper. Not having to focus so much on every step, I have more time to look up and enjoy my surroundings. The beauty of it all. The luxury of having my path laid out before me. The comfort I feel with knowing where the trail goes. The lower well traveled trails have their benefits too.
As I finish out the run and make my way back home, I reflect on how scared I was to even get off the couch. How scared I was not knowing what each step would be like. How my mind wanted to keep me afraid with the same tired arguments even as my comfort grew with experience. But even though I was scared to the point of not even trying at first, once I got the experience of breaking trail, the routine safer route was less satisfying. However bringing more mindful attention to even the routine well traveled sections showed me the infinite gifts that lay there too.
I've been back and run the same route a few times since this first journey and it certainly continues to teach me. How each section is different than the time before depending on my mental state. How it is easier to lose attention now that the trail has been broken. I may not have to decide on every step, but I also slipped even more when I let my attention wander. The choices may not be as obvious, but I still have choices to make every step of the way. And finally one of the most remarkable things I noticed was that every person who was on that trail after me followed in my footsteps exactly. Even when looking back there were different routes to take that might have been better.
So what does it all mean? I'll leave that for you to discover. But like me, you do have to overcome the initial fears to get off the couch and have your own experience to learn from. My simple wish for you is that you find your own trail to break, your own ways of overcoming that voice in your head that tries to hold you back, and your own way of bringing mindful attention to the routine. May you harvest the gifts that lay in all of your journey, every step of the way.
What do you think? Better yet, what do you feel? What do you experience? Let's continue the conversation! You can find me at www.innerlifeadventures.com or email email@example.com. Want to meet? Here's how.
Chuck Hancock, M.Ed, LPC is a National Certified Counselor, Licensed Professional Counselor, and a Registered Psychotherapist in the state of CO. He has completed comprehensive training in the Hakomi Method of Experiential Psychotherapy, a mindfulness mind-body centered approach. Chuck guides individuals and groups in self-exploration providing them with insight and tools for change. He also incorporates nature as a therapy tool to help shift perspective and inspire new patterns.