4 Lessons from the Forest: Trail Running, Writing, and Life

I discovered trail running about a year and half into my running journey, joining my sister-in-law, an ultrarunner, at dawn on Black Friday morning in 2018 at Jefferson Memorial Forest (JMF), which many describe as “beautifully brutal.” 

Between grueling climbs, valleys with fairy tale vegetation, and breathtaking views from ridges, I definitely didn’t start with an easy trail. But its majesty and expansiveness drew me in as I watched the sun rise on the top of the Red Trail for the first time, emerging over the tops of the trees and ridges like a waking, glowing giant. The forest is peaceful, challenging, ever changing, and requires me to be mentally present in a way that road running isn’t for me. In short, it sucked me in.

Fast forward to now, several trail races later including one trail marathon, and I will take a single track over the road any day of the week. I’m lucky enough to live within a couple of miles of several excellent trail systems and about 20 minutes from JMF, which has about 35 miles of trails. While the forest has humbled me in very physical ways with trips and stumbles resulting in scrapes and some pretty gnarly bruises (my left forearm finds any rock in the vicinity if I fall it seems), it’s humbled me in other ways, teaching and reminding me of lessons I needed and still need. 

I’m not the only one drawn to the forest in recent years, participation in trail running grows each year, especially among women, as more and more are retreating to the forest, away from bustle of everyday life. I want to share with you four lessons from trail running I’ve learned so far and how they apply to writing as well. 

1.   Enjoy the Process 

The forest can quickly pop your ego as you see your hard earned pace slow with the switch from roads. The exact same trail can be fast one day and slow the next depending on weather. And surprise obstacles after storms can definitely slow you down. If you’re just in it for the PRs or race results, you’re going to be disappointed. 

Coach and ultrarunner David Roche has built his whole coaching and running philosophy about truly enjoying the process, often pointing out it takes years to achieve your ultra/trail running potential. For me, I saw progress very quickly as a new runner on roads, and that progress seems to take a lot longer on trails, but I enjoy every minute.   

Of course, participation in any activity shouldn’t be done for the result, but for the enjoyment of the overall process. I’ve ridden horses for decades, and the time at the barn still means more to me than the classes at horse shows. If I was just riding for the ribbons, I’d be sorely disappointed. 

Instead, embrace the process, the “trial of miles,” whatever that looks like for you: just run. Similarly, make the writing time and schedule, even if you feel you don’t produce anything worthy. Put in the time at your desk, in your comfy chair, wherever you write best, but put in the time. Don’t pressure yourself to write your best piece ever. If all you can think of are titles or lists, jot that down: just write. For me, this blog is a way to fall back in love with that writing process.

As Denise Levertov states in her talk “Work and Inspiration: Inviting the Muse,” “For the artist—every kind of artist, and, I feel sure, not only the artist but everyone engaged in any kind of creative activity—is as enamored of the process of making as of the thing made.” Just as we runners should be as into the training process as the races. After all, the training process takes much longer than the race, just like life is more than any one moment or event.

2.   Be Prepared  

Being prepared for a road run usually just means grabbing your water, reflective gear if needed, and picking a direction. Being prepared for a trail run is a whole other task. Bug spray, sunscreen, first aid kit, water, nutrition, toilet paper, trail maps, oh my! And don’t forget a fully charged cell phone in case of emergencies. For more basics, check out this excellent intro to trail running guide from Trail Sister Maddie Giegold.  

That said, if there’s one thing you absolutely need to do before hitting a trail, it’s ideally to print out a trail map ahead of time to study or pick one up from the park’s Welcome Center. You can use a website or app like All Trails to familiarize yourself with a new trail as well, but I find having a hard copy map to look at makes it easier to see how trails connect. 

Make sure you are aware of any large elevation changes, expected weather, length of trail, etc. Especially when you have a large trail system or several interconnecting trails, you can end up a lot farther out than you meant to, turning a 5 or 6 mile intended run into 10 or more. If you’re running later in the day, give yourself plenty of time before sunset, so you’re not stuck in the dark. 

Being prepared for a writing task can look very similar, from making sure you’re aware of your audience and purposeto having the resources and tools you need by your workspace, whatever it takes to find your way “in” and stay focused. It may be as simple as sitting at your desk and closing the door or something more elaborate and personal. In “Poetry and the Mind of Concentration,” poet Jane Hirshfield states 

Writers, too, must find a path into concentration. Some keep a fixed time of day for writing, or engage in small rituals of preparation and invitation. One may lay out exactly six freshly sharpened pencils, another may darken the room, a third may develop as add a routine as Flaubert, who began each workday by sniffing a drawer of aging apples.

There may not be any aging fruit involved, but it’s just as important to not have to get up to find a book you want to reference or fix a coffee when you’re finally getting in the groove. Any task that you need to accomplish can be approached in this manner. 

3.   Chunk

Any runner has had the feeling of hitting “the wall,” that point where you feel you can’t or don’t want to go on. The mental challenge always seems the hardest.  With trail runners, this can be even harder when you’re out in the forest by yourself, knowing you have some killer climbs left and more miles than you’d like. While chunking has its roots in psychology and learning theory, the idea of breaking down of activity or larger goal into several smaller segments or goals, aka “chunks,” gives you an attainable goal to focus on.  

Chunking the distance or race or even elevation can be a useful mental trick to break it up. For example, for runs and races at Jefferson Memorial, I like to break it up into number of climbs, so I’ll tell myself “it’s just 4 more climbs to the end.” Of course, with those climbs being just under to just over a half mile each with some sudden grade changes, that’s only so reassuring! 

In less hilly places, I’ll break it up by distance into whatever seems manageable at the time. For me, it’s more useful to think of a 25K as three 5 milers plus a little rather than as five 5Ks. It’s whatever motivates you, whether it’s from one trail marker to another or something longer. 

Writing tasks can seem just as daunting as that 300 foot climb. We all know that blank page stares back at you and will never blink first! Break it down into tasks or chunks to help make it less scary. You have to get it on the page to be able to work with it. Don’t get too caught up in perfecting it, just get the tasks done the first time so you can rewrite. 

4.   Flow

We can’t control everything, and need to give in to the flow of the trail, hiking climbs when needed, cruising rollers and flats, and jamming the descents, letting gravity, trust, and quick feet guide you downhill. Listen to your body, walk when needed (or even better, before you need), and give yourself up to the trail. 

Firm pace expectations or goals? Pitch them before you hit the trailhead. There are just too many variables involved to guarantee you’re going to hit a narrow pace range on most trails.

Expectations of exact mileage in a trail race? Pitch them and note your trail races will likely be a bit longer than advertised. This is due to how difficult it is to measure them and race day course changes can happen due to flooding among other things. 

Certainly, we can’t all be 2018 Ultrarunner of the Year and all around badass Courtney Dauwalter, but we can all channel a little of her cool, relaxed demeanor. Famous for her “intuitive training,” she listens to her body, doesn’t keep a strict training schedule or diet, and strongly believes in letting go of the things you don’t have control over. This attitude keeps her stress levels low, so she can focus on being her best, wherever that falls in the race. 

Dauwalter embodies the sense of poetic flow former U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Wright describes in Halflife: Improvisations and Interviews 1977-87: “You have to have ‘stride’ in your lines: you have to hit the right notes hard, and you have to be underway when you do it. Keep it in motion; and hit the right notes hard.” 

We all need to strive for movement in running and writing. With writing, some days it will flow well, and other days all you’ll come up with are lists, but keep showing up! Above all, keep showing up and keep it in motion. 

Closing

When approaching trail running, writing, or life, remember to enjoy the forest and immediate moment. Be open to what the world has to show and teach you. Trails are humbling and inspiring. They give you perspective and help develop perseverance through running, writing, and life.

The best advice, perhaps, comes from my favorite poem by my favorite poet, “For the Children” by Gary Snyder: 

To climb these coming crests 

one word to you, to

you and your children: 

 

stay together 

learn the flowers 

go light

What has the forest or running in general taught you? How does nature humble you? What do you still need to be reminded of? 

Published by Sarah White-Thielmeier

Writer and college writing teacher who runs, a lot, offering writing services via blogging, copywriting, and content strategy.

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